"I Wish I Had
the Guts to Shut Up"
An interview with Booker Prize-winning writer Arundhati
The Ecologist, September 2000
Arundhati Roy is tired. Tired of being who she is
expected to be. Tired of being lauded and condemned
in equal measure and at the same time. Tired of having
to explain herself.
Maybe this isn't surprising. For the Indian writer
and, more recently, activist (not a word she likes to
use about herself, but an accurate one nonetheless)
is three years into a journey which began back in 1997
with the publication of her debut novel The God of Small
Things, and which has since sent her in directions she
probably never expected to travel, for reasons she is
still trying to make clear.
"It has," she wrote recently in the Indian
magazine Frontline, "a sort of cloying Reader's
Digest ring to it - an unknown writer who spent secret
years writing her first novel, which was subsequently
published in 40 languages, sold several million copies
and went on to win the Booker Prize." Cloying,
maybe, but also, as she says herself, fascinating, exciting
- and, in a strange way, unsurprising. This, after all,
is the sort of thing that happens to writers. Not many
of them, true, but famous writers are like film stars;
they're always with us, and they do what's expected.
They go to award ceremonies. They get crabby in the
pages of obscure literary reviews about the talent of
their rivals. They appear on late-night TV arts programmes.
They do the literary thing. They know their place.
But this is where Arundhati Roy's story diverges from
the rest. She has done what few other novelists, in
these louche, post-modern times, have dared, or even
been inclined, to do. She has nailed her colours to
the mast. Arundhati Roy is that most unusual, and welcome,
of animals: a writer who takes sides.
Now she sits, small, slight, quiet and cross-legged,
on the floor of her New Delhi flat, and dares anyone
to tell her how a novelist should behave.
"People ask me all the time, am I a writer or
an activist," she says, "and it's such a sad
comment on our times that you can even be asked that
question. Because I thought that's what writers do,
you know - they write about the society that they live
in. And I want to say 'do you think it's my job just
to be some cheap entertainer or something? Why should
you even ask me that question?'"
"The air is thick with ugliness"
The unexpected capture of the 1997 Booker Prize by The
God of Small Things, a complex, lyrical and tragic tale
of the interlocking generations of an Indian family,
loosely based on Roy's own childhood, sent the reputation
of this previously unknown 36-year-old trained architect
and former screenwriter into the stratosphere. The novel's
success took Roy from her quiet life in Delhi on a year-long
world tour - book signings, lectures, prize ceremonies
and everything else that comes with sudden celebrity.
She was fêted wherever she went. Indian politicians
went out of their way to be associated with this new
'Pride of India'.
Then, after a year, she returned to a country that
had changed forever. What had happened in her absence
was to change Roy too, and change the way people saw
her. In May 1998, the Indian Government conducted a
series of nuclear tests in the Thar desert, and officially
announced itself a nuclear power. Roy returned to a
country that had thrown itself into the nuclear arms
race with gusto. She hated it. In July 1998 she published
an essay, The End of Imagination, in two national magazines
simultaneously. The End of Imagination was a coruscating
blast of wit, fact and fury against India's BJP Government
for spending its time, money and energy while its people
starved and its land decayed. "The air is thick
with ugliness," she wrote, "and there's the
unmistakable smell of fascism on the breeze... India's
nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling
class that has failed its people."
In India, you don't write that sort of thing if you
don't want to make powerful enemies. And Roy did. The
same politicians who had praised her only months before,
now condemned her for betraying her motherland. In a
fever of nationalistic pride, Roy was savaged for saying
the wrong thing at the wrong time. As it turned out,
she was just warming up.
Arundhati Roy's real 'cause', the one she has become
associated with all over the world, was to take another
year to materialise. In February 1999, the Indian Supreme
Court lifted a four-year-long legal stay on the construction
of the vast Sardar Sarovar dam, one of a complex of
3,200 dams being built on a single stretch of river
- the Narmada which flows through the states of Madhya
Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, in north-western India.
Work on the most controversial dam project in Indian
history was to begin again. The Narmada dams have been
fought over viciously for decades. Politicians of all
parties say they are needed. They are necessary for
irrigation, for power and drought-relief. Dams are development.
Dams are progress.
Opponents, spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan
(NBA), the local movement against the Narmada Valley
Development Plan, as the grandiose dam project is known,
say these claims are lies. The dams will flood vast
amounts of land, will make hundreds of thousands of
people homeless, will provide minimum power for at most
a few decades, and will cost billions of rupees that
the Indian Government doesn't have.
A miserably familiar story, in other words, of dams
versus people; development versus democracy. But a story
which Roy the novelist was about to help rewrite.
"It's such a scam"
Roy began to follow the story, to read up on the facts,
to talk to the campaigners. In March, she visited the
Narmada valley and returned 'numbed' by what she had
seen. In June, she published another, longer, essay
which was to eclipse the controversy of anti-nuclear
polemic. The Greater Common Good was a passionate dissection
of the scandal that has unfolded in the Narmada valley
over the last two decades. It ranged across the politics,
ecology, economics and, most significantly for Roy the
novelist, the personal and emotional stories behind
the Development Plan and the damage it is doing - not
only to the locality, but, according to Roy, to her
country. "The story of the Narmada valley,"
she famously wrote, "is nothing less than the story
of modern India. Like the tiger in the Belgrade Zoo
during the NATO bombing, we've begun to eat our own
Talking about it now, the fire still flashes in her
eyes. "You know, it's such a scam - it's such a
scam," she says. Outside, in the muggy, smoggy
streets of Delhi, the monsoon has arrived. But it has
come too late for many of the people of Gujarat, who
this year suffered the effects of one of the worst droughts
in decades. People, cattle, crops have been dying for
months. It has been a political gift for the dam's proponents.
"It's so shocking, what they're doing," says
Roy. Of course they immediately use it [the drought]
to say 'look, you guys, if you'd allowed this dam to
be built there would not have been this drought'. And
you look at their own maps of the command area where
the dam's water is supposed to go and where the drought
is - there's no overlap. And you know, they [the state
Government] used 85 per cent of Gujarat's irrigation
budget for the project
Figures like this are common in the battle of words
over the Narmada. The NBA and its allies have amassed
a formidable array of facts and statistics which highlight
just how fragile the case for the dam has become. Activists
say the dams will displace more than 320,000 people
and affect the lives of at least a million. They will
submerge more than 4,000 square kilometres of forest.
Ten thousand fisher families who depend on the Narmada
estuary for a living are likely to lose their livelihood
when the dams are raised (though, remarkably, the Government,
over the entire 20 years of the dams' progression, has
never conducted a study to determine what the effects
of the dams will be on the environment downstream).
The Sardar Sarovar dam alone will cost at least $450
million to construct - a sum which was originally to
be provided by the World Bank but is now (following
the Bank's withdrawal, as a direct result of the NBA's
campaign) to be provided by the Gujarat Government.
The legion of facts and figures, and the complexity
of the arguments for and against the dams can be numbing.
But Roy is insistent that this is not an issue that
can be left to the experts. That, she says, was one
of the reasons she got involved in the first place.
She came back from her first visit to the Narmada valley
last year "convinced that the valley needed a writer".
"A writer," she says, by way of explanation
- meaning a novelist, a creator of fiction, rather than
a journalist - "has licence to write things differently...
As a writer, I have the licence, and the ability I guess,
to move between feelings and numbers and technical stuff
and, you know, to tell the whole story in a way which
an expert doesn't seem to have the right to do. And
in this case I think that's crucial." Roy sees
the connections between the economics, the politics,
the ecology and the human story of the Narmada as the
key to the problem. "When I went to the valley,"
she says, "I realised that what has happened is
that all these experts had come in and hijacked various
aspects of it, and taken it off to their lairs. They
didn't want people to understand." Roy, on the
other hand, wanted to tell the whole story. She wanted
to make people understand.
"It's like giving them a bomb"
And she did. She perhaps told the story of the Narmada
valley too well for her own comfort. For The Greater
Common Good (later published, along with The End of
Imagination, as a small book, entitled The Cost of Living)
became more than just an essay; it became the latest
phase in the anti-Narmada dams campaign, and Roy's support
was a huge shot in the arm for the NBA and its allies.
"I've given them a book," she says now, with
a quiet pride in her voice. "It's like giving them
a bomb or something, you know?" And it was. It
exploded across the world with varying degrees of damage.
Roy undertook a speaking tour last year, visiting various
countries to talk about the damage the dams were doing.
She gave the annual Nehru memorial lecture at Cambridge
University, and attended the World Water Forum in The
Hague to counter the presence and arguments of the Gujarat
Government ("I'd never been to a conference before,
and I'll never go again," she says, wrinkling her
nose. "I don't like these dead people.").
Her visits to the Narmada valley itself invariably ended
in media scrums and, once, her own arrest, as she struggled
to highlight the plight of the villagers and activists
who, even as you read this, are promising to drown themselves
in the rising waters of the reservoirs above the half-completed
dam walls. Meanwhile, in Gujarat, BJP activists and
'patriotic' citizens burnt copies of The God of Small
Things in fury at her anti-Indian insolence.
It's easy to understand, then, why Arundhati Roy is
tired. But what really exhausts her, it seems, is people's
expectations. When she first took up the cause of the
Narmada Bachao Andolan, other writers, critics, even
readers, seemed surprised. Roy wrote fiction. What did
she think she was doing playing around with fact? Some
of this attitude still persists, but she doesn't care.
"There's no division on my bookshelf between fiction
and non-fiction," she insists. "As far as
I'm concerned, fiction is about the truth."
More recently, though, these expectations have been
flipped around. Roy is now seen as a 'campaigning novelist',
and this infuriates her too. All she is doing, she insists,
is what any good novelist should - making the connections
between fiction and reality. Instead, she finds that
people put her into a box. She tells a story about a
phone call she received after The Greater Common Good
was first published. "This society editor rang
me up and she said, 'oh darling, that was such a lovely
essay. Now I want you to do a piece for me on child
abuse.' So I said, 'Sure. For or against?' She put down
The point, she says, is that her views have never been
as easy to categorise as both her supporters and her
enemies would sometimes like to make out. Yes, she opposes
the dam and she opposes the bomb, but she is "not
an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the
eternal upholding of custom and tradition". She
believes that the growing urban-rural divide is killing
India, and that the country's newly trained legion of
urban-minded 'experts' are more of a danger to the future
than an illiterate peasantry could ever be. ("As
soon as you see a river," she says of their mindset,
"your mind wants to pour concrete into it.")
Yet she refuses, too, to buy into the sometimes romantic
ideal of Village India. "I grew up in a village,"
she says, "and I spent my entire childhood thinking
about how to escape - how to not marry someone there
and how not to produce their goddam children. I'm not
"You need to think politically"
Arundhati Roy did not set out to be a 'political writer'.
And if people now see her as one, that perhaps reflects
on the rest of the literary world rather than her. "People
say to me, 'oh, it's so wonderful that you're writing
about real things,' and that it's a political thing
to do, and I say, look... to be in my position and not
to say anything is a hell of a political thing. You
need to think politically, otherwise you'll be one of
these people who says 'oh, this person's saying this
and that person's saying that, and I'm confused'. And
I say, yeah, because you want to be confused. No one
in the valley's confused... If you have the luxury of
being confused, be confused... it's a political intelligence
you need to understand."
It is just such a political intelligence that informed
and spurred both of Roy's essays, and which, if you
look hard enough, can be found weaving through the pages
of The God of Small Things - a book which could never,
in the conventional sense, be called a 'political' novel.
"The first time I met one of the activists from
the NBA," she says, "I told her that I'd written
The God of Small Things", and she said, 'I knew
you'd be anti-dam and anti-World Bank.'" The link
might not be immediately obvious, but to Roy, making
just this sort of connection is crucial for any real
understanding of where things are going wrong.
The novel, she says, is "not just about small
things, it's about how the smallest things connect to
the biggest things - that's the important thing. And
that's what writing will always be about for me
I'm not a crusader in any sense." Her opponents
might dispute this but Roy is clear - has always been
clear, right from the outset - about where she fits
in to the Narmada struggle. As a writer, and, ultimately,
as an outsider. "I can't fight their fight,"
she says quietly. "I can fight as a writer to prevent
it, but my house isn't drowning, my land isn't being
submerged, and my anger shall never be more than theirs.
They have to fight. I don't."
"There has to be some balance"
But maybe she does. Maybe, now that she has started,
she won't be able to stop. Maybe now that has begun
to make, and articulate, the connections between the
big and the small, between beauty and destruction, between
fact and fiction, she will never be able to keep quiet.
There's a fascinating paragraph in The Greater Common
Good which explores the link between Roy's two chosen
emblems of national disaster - the big bomb and the
big dam. "They're both weapons of mass destruction,"
she writes. "They're both weapons governments use
to control their own people... they represent the severing
of the link, not just the link - the understanding -
between human beings and the planet they live on. They
scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens,
milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air
to life and the earth to human existence."
Again, the message is about connections. And the failure
to make these connections, she says, is what is leading
India - and the West, upon which it increasingly models
itself - astray. Ask her about this and she takes a
deep breath. "I have to believe," she says,
"that what is being done - the dams and the nuclear
bombs; the whole development model - they're the symptoms
of a terrible malaise, and that lies inside people's
heads. I don't know how you address that... but the
idea that you just accept it all makes me angry."
This anger is clear, and the anger is directed, often,
at what her country has become. Her prescription, too,
if it can be called that, is interesting. "I'm
not an economist," she says (which, considering
the damage economists have done to the Narmada valley
could be considered a positive plus), "so I can't
really give you an alternative that works." Nevertheless,
in following through the implications of what she has
seen, she is clear, at least in principle, about one
thing: "The only alternative can be local".
This, she believes, has to be the future for India -
decentralised economics, decentralised control; handing
some measure of power back to the people it affects.
"Unless that happens," she believes, "however
far into the information age three per cent of the population
goes, they're always going to be pulled back by what
they're doing to everybody else."
Connections, again. Connections, and smallness and
the need to listen, watch and understand. These are
the instincts that won Roy the Booker Prize; and these
are the same instincts which led her into conflict with
her own Government and which will more than likely,
whatever she says now, lead her to keep searching for
a direction in which, in her mind, India can go and
still retain what makes it India.
Whatever direction that is, Arundhati Roy is convinced
of one thing: it must be one which India's people choose
for themselves, and which reflects the realities with
which people have always lived - realities fashioned
by everyday existence, by community life and by the
patterns of nature. The alternative is there for all
to see, in the increasingly atomised, mechanised and
disconnected West. "When you go to Europe or America
for the first time," she says, "you arrive
in a city where you don't see any mud, and everything
looks really nice, all the cars and the steel and the
glass. But I look at a car and I think, 'somehow this
came from earth and water and forest'. How? I don't
know. But you need to know - you need to know what the
connection is; who paid the price of what. If you at
least know that, there'll be some balance." She
smiles slightly, as if the point was almost too obvious
to be worth making.
"There has to be some balance."