Arundhati Roy in 2013
|Born||Suzanna Arundhati Roy
24 November 1961
Shillong, Assam (present-day Meghalaya), India
|Occupation||Writer, essayist, activist|
|Notable works||The God of Small Things|
Suzanna Arundhati Roy (born 24 November 1961) is an Indian author who is best known for the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction-winning novel The God of Small Things (1997), which became the biggest-selling book by a nonexpatriate Indian author. She is also known as a political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes.
Arundhati Roy was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India, to Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta and Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women's rights activist from Kerala. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother and brother to Kerala. For a time, the family lived with Roy's maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was 5, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.
Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, where she met architect Gerard da Cunha. The two lived together in Delhi, and then Goa, before they broke up.
Roy returned to Delhi, where she obtained a position with the National Institute of Urban Affairs. In 1984 she met independent filmmaker Pradip Krishen, who offered her a role as a goatherd in his award-winning movie Massey Sahib. The two later married. They collaborated on a television series on India's independence movement and on two films, Annie and Electric Moon. Disenchanted with the film world, Roy worked various jobs, including running aerobics classes. Roy and Krishen eventually split up. She became financially secure by the success of her novel The God of Small Things, published in 1997.
Early in her career, Roy worked for television and movies. She wrote the screenplays for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), a movie based on her experiences as a student of architecture, in which she also appeared as a performer, and Electric Moon (1992), both directed by her then husband Pradip Krishen. Roy won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1988 for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones. She attracted attention in 1994, when she criticised Shekhar Kapur's film Bandit Queen, based on the life of Phoolan Devi. In her film review entitled, "The Great Indian Rape Trick", she questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission", and charged Kapur with exploiting Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.
The publication of The God of Small Things catapulted Roy to international fame. It received the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction and was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year for 1997. It reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction. From the beginning, the book was also a commercial success: Roy received half a million pounds as an advance; It was published in May, and the book had been sold to eighteen countries by the end of June.
The God of Small Things received stellar reviews in major American newspapers such as The New York Times (a "dazzling first novel," "extraordinary", "at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple") and the Los Angeles Times ("a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep"), and in Canadian publications such as the Toronto Star ("a lush, magical novel"). By the end of the year, it had become one of the five best books of 1997 by TIME. Critical response in the United Kingdom was less positive, and that the novel was awarded the Booker Prize caused controversy; Carmen Callil, a 1996 Booker Prize judge, called the novel "execrable", and The Guardian called the contest "profoundly depressing". In India, the book was criticised especially for its unrestrained description of sexuality by E. K. Nayanar, then Chief Minister of Roy's home state Kerala, where she had to answer charges of obscenity.
Since the success of her novel, Roy has written a television serial, The Banyan Tree, and the documentary DAM/AGE: A Film with Arundhati Roy (2002).
She contributed to We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, a book released in 2009 that explores the culture of peoples around the world, portraying their diversity and the threats to their existence. The royalties from the sale of this book go to the indigenous rights organisation Survival International.
She has written numerous essays on contemporary politics and culture. They have been collected by Penguin India in a five-volume set.
Since publishing The God of Small Things in 1997, Roy has spent most of her time on political activism and nonfiction (like collections of essays about her social causes). She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy. She opposes India's policies towards nuclear weapons as well as industrialisation and economic growth (which she describes as "encrypted with genocidal potential" in Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy), including the Sardar Sarovar Dam project and the activities of the power company Enron.
In an August 2008 interview with the Times of India, Arundhati Roy expressed her support for the independence of Kashmir from India after the massive demonstrations in 2008 in favour of independence took place—some 500,000 separatists rallied in Srinagar in the Kashmir part of Jammu and Kashmir state of India for independence on 18 August 2008, following the Amarnath land transfer controversy. According to her, the rallies were a sign that Kashmiris desire secession from India, and not union with India. She was criticised by the Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for her remarks.
"It would do better to brush up her knowledge of history and know that the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had acceded to the Union of India after its erstwhile ruler Maharaja Hari Singh duly signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947. And the state, consequently has become as much an integral part of India as all the other erstwhile princely states have."
Roy has campaigned along with activist Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam project, saying that the dam will displace half a million people, with little or no compensation, and will not provide the projected irrigation, drinking water, and other benefits. Roy donated her Booker prize money as well as royalties from her books on the project to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Roy also appears in Franny Armstrong's Drowned Out, a 2002 documentary about the project. Roy's opposition to the Narmada Dam project was criticised as "maligning Gujarat" by Congress and BJP leaders in Gujarat.
In 2002, Roy responded to a contempt notice issued against her by the Indian Supreme Court with an affidavit saying the court's decision to initiate the contempt proceedings based on an unsubstantiated and flawed petition, while refusing to inquire into allegations of corruption in military contracting deals pleading an overload of cases, indicated a "disquieting inclination" by the court to silence criticism and dissent using the power of contempt. The court found Roy's statement, which she refused to disavow or apologise for, constituted criminal contempt and sentenced her to a "symbolic" one day's imprisonment and fined Roy Rs. 2500. Roy served the jail sentence for a single day and opted to pay the fine rather than serve an additional three months' imprisonment for default.
Environmental historian Ramachandra Guha has been critical of Roy's Narmada dam activism. While acknowledging her "courage and commitment" to the cause, Guha writes that her advocacy is hyperbolic and self-indulgent, "Ms. Roy's tendency to exaggerate and simplify, her Manichaean view of the world, and her shrill hectoring tone, have given a bad name to environmental analysis". He faulted Roy's criticism of Supreme Court judges who were hearing a petition brought by the Narmada Bachao Andolan as careless and irresponsible.
Roy counters that her writing is intentional in its passionate, hysterical tone: "I am hysterical. I'm screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he and his smug little club are going 'Shhhh... you'll wake the neighbours!' I want to wake the neighbours, that's my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes".
Gail Omvedt and Roy have had fierce yet constructive discussions, in open letters, on Roy's strategy for the Narmada Dam movement. The activists disagree on whether to demand stopping the dam building altogether (Roy) or searching for intermediate alternatives (Omvedt).
In a 2001 opinion piece in the British newspaper The Guardian, Arundhati Roy responded to the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, finding fault with the argument that this war would be a retaliation for the September 11 attacks: "The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world." According to her, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were guilty of a Big Brother kind of doublethink: "When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said: 'We're a peaceful nation.' America's favourite ambassador, Tony Blair, (who also holds the portfolio of prime minister of the UK), echoed him: 'We're a peaceful people.' So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is peace."
She disputes U.S. claims of being a peaceful and freedom-loving nation, listing China and nineteen 3rd World "countries that America has been at war with—and bombed—since the second world war", as well as previous U.S. support for the Taliban movement and support for the Northern Alliance (whose "track record is not very different from the Taliban's"). She does not spare the Taliban: "Now, as adults and rulers, the Taliban beat, stone, rape and brutalise women, they don't seem to know what else to do with them."
In the final analysis, Roy sees American-style capitalism as the culprit: "In America, the arms industry, the oil industry, the major media networks, and, indeed, U.S. foreign policy, are all controlled by the same business combines". She puts the attacks on the World Trade Center and on Afghanistan on the same moral level, that of terrorism, and mourns the impossibility of imagining beauty after 2001: "Will it be possible ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a newborn gecko in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered in your ear—without thinking of the World Trade Centre and Afghanistan?"
In May 2003 she delivered a speech entitled "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)" at the Riverside Church in New York City, in which she described the United States as a global empire that reserves the right to bomb any of its subjects at any time, deriving its legitimacy directly from God. The speech was an indictment of the U.S. actions relating to the Iraq War. In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq, and in March 2006, Roy criticised U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to India, calling him a "war criminal".
In response to India's testing of nuclear weapons in Pokhran, Rajasthan, Roy wrote The End of Imagination (1998), a critique of the Indian government's nuclear policies. It was published in her collection The Cost of Living (1999), in which she also crusaded against India's massive hydroelectric dam projects in the central and western states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat.
In August 2006, Roy, along with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others, signed a letter in The Guardian called the 2006 Lebanon War a "war crime" and accused Israel of "state terror". In 2007, Roy was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed an open letter initiated by Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism and the South West Asian, North African Bay Area Queers and calling on the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival "to honor calls for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions, by discontinuing Israeli consulate sponsorship of the LGBT film festival and not cosponsoring events with the Israeli consulate".
Roy has raised questions about the investigation into the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the trial of the accused. She had called for the death sentence of Mohammad Afzal to be stayed while a parliamentary enquiry into these questions are conducted and denounced press coverage of the trial. The BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar criticised Roy for calling convicted terrorist Mohammad Afzal a "prisoner-of-war" and called Arundhati a "prisoner of her own dogma".
He further said,
"No country has ever witnessed such kind of defense of a terrorist. They have gone beyond an academic discussion on capital punishment."
Afzal was hanged in 2013.
In 2003, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a social movement for Adivasi land rights in Kerala, organised a major land occupation of a piece of land of a former Eucalyptus plantation in the Muthanga Wildlife Reserve, on the border of Kerala and Karnataka. After 48 days, a police force was sent into the area to evict the occupants—one participant of the movement and a policeman were killed, and the leaders of the movement were arrested. Arundhati Roy travelled to the area, visited the movement's leaders in jail, and wrote an open letter to the then Chief Minister of Kerala, A. K. Antony, saying "You have blood on your hands."
In an opinion piece for The Guardian (13 December 2008), Roy argued that the November 2008 Mumbai attacks cannot be seen in isolation, but must be understood in the context of wider issues in the region's history and society such as widespread poverty, the Partition of India ("Britain's final, parting kick to us"), the atrocities committed during the 2002 Gujarat violence, and the ongoing Kashmir conflict. Despite this call for context, Roy states clearly in the article that she believes "nothing can justify terrorism" and calls terrorism "a heartless ideology". Roy warns against war with Pakistan, arguing that it is hard to "pin down the provenance of a terrorist strike and isolate it within the borders of a single nation state", and that war could lead to the "descent of the whole region into chaos". Her remarks were strongly criticised by Salman Rushdie and others, who condemned her for linking the Mumbai attacks with Kashmir and economic injustice against Muslims in India; Rushdie specifically criticised Roy for attacking the iconic status of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. Indian writer Tavleen Singh called Roy's comments "the latest of her series of hysterical diatribes against India and all things Indian".
In an opinion piece, once again in The Guardian (1 April 2009), Roy made a plea for international attention to what she called a possible government-sponsored genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. She cited reports of camps into which Tamils were being herded as part of what she described as "a brazen, openly racist war". She also mentioned that the "Government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide" and described the Sri Lankan IDP camps where Tamil civilians are being held as concentration camps. Ruvani Freeman, a Sri Lankan writer called Roy's remarks "ill-informed and hypocritical" and criticised her for "whitewashing the atrocities of the LTTE". Roy has said of such accusations: "I cannot admire those whose vision can only accommodate justice for their own and not for everybody. However I do believe that the LTTE and its fetish for violence was cultured in the crucible of monstrous, racist, injustice that the Sri Lankan government and to a great extent Sinhala society visited on the Tamil people for decades".
Roy has criticised the Indian government's armed actions against the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India, calling it "war on the poorest people in the country". According to her, the Government has "abdicated its responsibility to the people" and launched the offensive against Naxals to aid the corporations with whom it has signed Memoranda of Understanding. While she has received support from various quarters for her views, Roy's description of the Maoists as "Gandhians" raised a controversy. In other statements, she has described Naxalites as "patriot of a kind" who are "fighting to implement the Constitution, (while) the government is vandalising it".
In November 2010, Roy, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and five others were brought up on charges of sedition by the Delhi Police. The filing of the First Information Report came following a directive from a local court on a petition filed by Sushil Pandit who alleged that Geelani and Roy made anti-India speeches at a conference on "Azadi-the Only Way" on 21 October 2010. In the words of Arundhati Roy "Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this". A Delhi city court directed the police to respond to the demand for a criminal case after the central government declined to charge Roy, saying that the charges were inappropriate.
On 21 August 2011, at the height of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, Arundhati Roy criticised Hazare and his movement in an opinion piece published in The Hindu. In the course of the article, she questioned Hazare's secular credentials, pointing out the campaign's corporate backing, its suspicious timing, Hazare's silence on private-sector corruption and on other critical issues of the day, expressing her fear that the Lokpal will only end up creating "two oligarchies, instead of just one". She states that while "his means maybe Gandhian, his demands are certainly not", and alleges that by "demonising only the Government they" are preparing to call for "more privatisation, more access to public infrastructure and India's natural resources", satirically adding that it "may not be long before Corporate Corruption is made legal and renamed a Lobbying Fee". Roy also accuses the electronic media of blowing the campaign out of proportion. In an interview with Kindle Magazine, Roy pointed out the role of media hype and target audience in determining how well hunger strikes “work as a tool of political mobilization” by noting the disparity in the attention Hazare’s fast has received in contrast to the decade-long fast of Irom Sharmila “to demand the repealing of a law that allows non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion—a law that has led to so much suffering.” Roy's comparison of the Jan Lokpal Bill with the Maoists: claiming both sought "the overthrow of the Indian State" met with resentment from members of Team Anna. Medha Patkar reacted sharply calling Roy's comments "highly misplaced" and chose to emphasise the "peaceful, non-violent" nature of the movement. Roy has also stated that “an ‘Anti-corruption’ campaign is a catch-all campaign. It includes everybody from the extreme left to the extreme right and also the extremely corrupt. No one’s going to say they are for corruption after all…I’m not against a strong anti-corruption bill, but corruption is just a manifestation of a problem, not the problem itself.”
Roy has recently described Narendra Modi's nomination for the prime ministerial candidate as a "tragedy". She further said that the business houses are also supporting his candidature because he is the "most militaristic and aggressive" candidate.
Arundhati Roy was awarded the 1997 Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things. The award carried a prize of about US$30,000 and a citation that noted, "The book keeps all the promises that it makes". Prior to this, she won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1989, for the screenplay of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, in which she captured the anguish among the students prevailing in professional institutions.
In 2002, she won the Lannan Foundation's Cultural Freedom Award for her work "about civil societies that are adversely affected by the world's most powerful governments and corporations", in order "to celebrate her life and her ongoing work in the struggle for freedom, justice and cultural diversity".
In January 2006, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, a national award from India's Academy of Letters, for her collection of essays on contemporary issues, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, but she declined to accept it "in protest against the Indian Government toeing the US line by 'violently and ruthlessly pursuing policies of brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarisation and economic neo-liberalisation'".
In November 2011, she was awarded the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing.