Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize–winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, helped transform her into an overnight literary celebrity and something of a poster author for the boom in Indian writing. (Billboards across the country trumpeted her Booker victory.) She followed up the novel, however, with a stinging essay condemning India and Pakistan’s nuclear showdown, entitled “The End of Imagination,” and set off, as she’s said, “on a political journey which I never expected to embark on.” She was soon taking up the pen on a range of issues—big dam projects that were displacing communities, India’s occupation of Kashmir, political corruption, and Hindu extremism. Suddenly, she was seen in a very different light at home: a voice of conscience, perhaps, but also a shrill and uncomfortable reminder of what lurked behind India’s democracy.
But perhaps nothing quite prepared her for the virulent response to her March 2010 cover story for the Indian newsweekly Outlook, an inside report from the jungle camps where Maoist insurgents (and tribal villagers) were locked in a deadly and drawn-out battle with government forces over mineral-rich land. “Here in the forests of Dantewada [in central India],” she writes, “a battle rages for the soul of India.” That article forms the centerpiece of her new collection, Walking with the Comrades, from Penguin Books; while Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, out now from Verso, also includes pieces by Roy as well as Tariq Ali, Pankaj Mishra, and others. She’ll be making two rare appearances in New York next month, at the CUNY Graduate Center on November 9 and the Asia Society on November 11. I recently spoke with her by phone in Delhi.
Tell me about the reaction in India to your article “Walking with the Comrades.” I know it caused quite a stir and, as you say, landed in the flight path of a whole slew of debates, on both the left and the right.
Whenever my essays are collected into a book what is missing is the atmosphere in the country at the time when the original pieces were published. These essays came at a time when the government had announced Operation Green Hunt, calling on paramilitary forces to go into the jungle and very openly branding all resistance—not just the guerrillas, but really all across the board—as Maoist. They were picking up people by using laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Special Securities Act, in which thinking an antigovernment thought is a almost a criminal offense. So when I went into the forest, my idea was that nobody really knew what was going on in there. These places were choked off; there was a siege on reporting. But what was real and what was not? I wanted to go in and deepen the story, to make it more human.
But, of course, the idea that there are masses of people taking up arms caused a lot of anxiety among the right wing. Among the people on the left—and India has a very long, complicated, and strong legacy of political and intellectual left-wing activity—many were absolutely outraged for a lot of reasons, mostly to do with old debates about whether organizing indigenous people qualified as Maoism, whether they are truly a revolutionary class, about the ideas of armed action versus entering the mainstream and standing for elections.
You make a point to contrast the guerrillas’ situation with that of Gandhi, for example. You even jokingly consider writing a play for their cultural wing called Gandhi Get Your Gun.
[Laughs] Well, I got into trouble for saying that, too! But it’s true that when intellectuals and academics debate the different kind of resistance movements, they don’t take into account the landscapes of these struggles. When I went into the forest, one of the things that struck me was that Gandhian nonviolence can be a very effective form of political theater but it can’t succeed without an audience. So whether it’s the occupation of Wall Street or somewhere in India, it has to have an audience. Deep inside these forests there was no one to bear witness.
You describe how you were personally invited by the Maoists to join them on their march through the forest and to see for yourself what was happening. As a writer, it was certainly a rare opportunity, though dangerous and even grueling. Tell me about what you discovered, what surprised you.
Perhaps what surprised me most was that I found that almost half of the guerrilla army was made up of women. It was a very interesting story, how the Maoists had first approached the tribal women when they went into these areas more than thirty years ago. I spoke to the women and they told me about why they had joined—most had witnessed the most horrible crimes against women by either paramilitary or vigilante organizations, while others had joined to escape patriarchal traditional societies. What was really interesting to me was how much, over many years, Maoism had influenced the indigenous people and indigenous culture had influenced the Maoists.
I want to ask you about your “political journey” of the past decade or more. Among Indian writers, you’ve come to occupy a unique place—not only have you remained in India, you’ve been extremely vocal and critical on a variety of national subjects. Is this a role you’ve embraced?
Yes, I have, but only reluctantly. You see, when you live here, inside of all of this, you end up writing to refuse to be humiliated.
In “Trickledown Revolution,” the book’s final essay, you describe a street protest in Delhi by pavement dwellers whom you call “shadow people” and “refugees of India Shining.” You are one of the few writers, it seems, who speaks up for them.
Well, I personally find it very embarrassing when people say things like, “She’s the voice of the voiceless.” We all know there’s no such thing as the voiceless. Everybody is quite capable of telling you what is happening to them in this country. The dilemma for the writer, I think, is how to spend your life honing your individual voice and then, at times like this, to declare it from the heart of a crowd. That tension, that balance, is something I think about quite often.
This book, like much of your work, can be seen as act of imagination, a vision of other possibilities. You write: “If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.”
I always find it interesting that when you’re with people who are really at the receiving end of oppression, you find a lot less despair than you do in middle-class drawing rooms. In these situations, despair is not an option. I wonder if the amount of information that is hammered into our heads day and night leads people to think that the world’s problems are so huge they’re insurmountable. Whereas people who are fighting against something in a more or less localized way are far clearer about what they have to do and how they have to do it.
You’ve said before that it is a struggle to find the time and space to write fiction and that you feel you need to invent a language to bridge your political and creative concerns.
Yes, what is most difficult for me is that just as certain and as real as these battles are right now, writing fiction is proportionately uncertain. Fiction is such an amorphous thing, you can’t be sure that you’re doing something important or wonderful until you’ve done it. So, because of the position I am in now, to work on fiction I have to create some sort of steel barriers around it. Fiction is something that involves so much gentleness, so much tenderness, that it keeps getting crushed under the weight of everything else! I still haven’t figured it out entirely—but I will, I will.