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Arundhati Roy: Writing is activism

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As she celebrates her birthday on November 24, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and prolific essayist has proven that politics and fiction go hand in hand.

There is some ambiguity around Arundhati Roy’s birthday. While the internet and Wikipedia suggest the author will be turning 60 this year, her German publisher, S.Fischer lists her date of birth as November 24, 1959.

Regardless, there is at least no doubt about the fact that the writer of 60-odd years has been prolific in her production of essays and novels that expertly combine her political convictions with an ingenious play of words.

The early years

Roy shot to international fame with her 1997 novel, “The God of Small Things,” which won her that year the Man Booker Prize (now shortened to Booker Prize).

The novel is a family drama that tells the story of fraternal twins who navigate through the complexities of cultural mores in different Indian communities, religions, regions and caste. Set in Kerala and Calcutta, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it reflects different aspects of Roy’s life.

Roy herself was born in Shillong, in northeastern India, to a Christian mother from Kerala and a Bengali Hindu father who managed a tea plantation. Roy moved to Kerala after her parents split, and subsequently came back to Delhi to study architecture. 

But writing remained her true calling. In her early years as a writer, she wrote a story called “In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones” (1989), which was made into an arthouse movie, and a film called “Electric Moon” (1992).

  • Indian Writer Arundhati Roy in 1997

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Arundhati Roy – ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997)

    Arundhati Roy took the literary world by storm in 1997 with her story of fraternal twins Rahel and Estha coming of age amid political turbulence in Kerala in Southern India. Against the backdrop of their struggling blind grandmother’s factory, the story set in the late 1960s dwells on India’s entrenched caste society, its religious diversity and complex social hierarchies.

  • Michael Ondaatje speaks after winning the The Golden Man Booker in London

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Michael Ondaatje – ‘The English Patient’ (1992)

    Michael Ondaatje’s celebrated 1992 Booker-winning novel explores four lives that intersect in an Italian villa as World War II draws to an end and bombs fall on Hiroshima. An exhausted nurse, a maimed thief and a wary military engineer are haunted by the English patient upstairs, who is burned beyond recognition. The novel was adapted into a 1996 film that won nine Oscars.

  • Margaret Atwood poses to promote her novel, The Heart Goes Last in Toronto

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Margaret Atwood – ‘Blind Assassin’ (2000)

    The Canadian author might be best known for “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), but “The Blind Assassin” won her the Booker prize in 2000. “A multilayered drama that weaves its narrative threads across past and present, fiction and reality,” said the jury of this iconic story about an aging woman who reflects on her sister’s mysterious early death and the resulting scandal.

  • Authors Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker Prize for Fiction

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Hilary Mantel – ‘Bring up the Bodies’ (2012)

    The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor England historical novel “Wolf Hall” (also a Booker winner, making her the first woman and British author to win twice), “Bring Up the Bodies” sees Anne Boleyn, for whom Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, fail to bear a son to secure the Tudor line. The king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, must now find a solution to secure his own future.

  • Book cover: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Richard Flanagan – ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ (2014)

    Set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the Australian author’s historical novel was a brutal depiction of the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway during World War II. It centers on an Australian surgeon in the camp who remains haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife as he struggles to save men from starvation, cholera and torture.

  • Novelist George Saunders holds up a book

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    George Saunders – ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ (2017)

    American short story writer George Saunders’ first full-length novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” was an experimental work that was praised by the judging chair for “its innovation … the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost-dead souls.” It sees President Abraham Lincoln visit the body of his 11-year-old son, whose soul still lives on, in a Washington cemetery in 1862.

  • Bernardine Evaristo portrait

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Bernardine Evaristo – ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ (2019)

    “With vivid originality, irrepressible wit and sly wisdom, Bernardine Evaristo presents a gloriously new kind of history for this old country,” wrote the Booker Prize jury of the first Black writer to win the prize (shared with Margaret Atwood for “The Testaments”). The novel traces the lives of 12 mostly women and Black people coming of age in the UK across diverse generations and social classes.

  • A boy and and a women lie in bed

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Douglas Stuart – ‘Shuggie Bain’ (2020)

    It took 10 years to write and was rejected 32 times before it was finally published. Yet the 2020 Booker Prize jury needed just an hour to pick Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” as the winner from six shortlisted works. “I am absolutely stunned,” said Stuart. The debut novel draws on his own life growing up gay in impoverished Glasgow in the 1980s while struggling with his mother’s alcoholism.

  • Damon Galgut at the 2021 Booker Prize ceremony in London

    The Booker Prize: The winners who changed literature

    Damon Galgut – ‘The Promise’ (2021)

    It was third time lucky for South African author Damon Galgut. Shortlisted in 2003 and 2010, he won in 2021 for “The Promise,” beating out one other previously shortlisted author, Richard Powers. The novel tells the story of a white South African farming family across four decades and the failure to fulfill the matriarch’s dying wish — to gift a house on the property to a Black woman worker.

    Author: Stuart Braun

Political writing

In the years following her Booker Prize victory, Roy dedicated herself to social causes and writing her opinion about the political and social state, not only of India but also of the world.

In 1999, she published a landmark essay called “The Greater Common Good” about the resistance movement that had shaped around the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, a river in Western India.

In the essay, Roy highlighted the plight of tribal communities whose villages would submerge once the dam was constructed. The essay generated global interest, not the least because Roy was pulled into legal proceedings for her “vituperative” writing, the Indian Supreme Court said.

In 2001, Roy wrote on the 9/11 attacks. Her essay, titled “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” was later published in a compendium of other political essays by the author.

Written before the US war on terror started, Roy’s essay proved prophetic: “The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one. If it doesn’t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one.” 

She also correctly predicted that the “war on terrorism” would lead to the persecution of some communities, tighter rules and limit personal freedoms.

Charged with sedition

Roy’s literary-political activism continued in 2010, when she faced arrest on charges of sedition for making remarks in support of Kashmir’s independence from India.

A year later, she released a book called “Walking with the Comrades,” which narrates the time she spent with communist guerrillas in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Called Maoists for their adherence to Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong’s revolutionary ideas, the insurgents have been fighting the Indian state for decades and claim to represent what the government classifies as “backward” classes, castes and tribal communities.

Two decades after her first novel, “The God of Small Things,” Roy published her second fictional work, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” in 2017. It tells the story of Anjum, a trans woman, and a woman called Tilo, an architect-turned-activist. Although the novel opened to mixed reviews, including being called a “fantastic mess” by The Atlantic, it too combined the strains of fiction and present-day politics, to become a statement on present-day India.

The political ‘conscience’

Meanwhile, Roy seems to have claimed the genre of political essay-writing as her own. Her 2020 collection of essays, called “Azadi,” or freedom in Urdu, discusses a range of issues, including India’s right-wing, “fascist,” government and the ongoing pandemic.

In an essay in the volume, called “The Pandemic is a Portal,” which was also published by The Financial Times earlier this year, she discusses how the spread of the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in social systems and infrastructure worldwide.

In India, lack of health facilities has deepened the divide between the rich and poor, and the upper and the lower castes and classes. In the US, for example, the poor have been left without enough support, she writes.

Roy’s political writings have often been termed as being too biased and vitriolic, but the fact remains that, as a writer, she holds a mirror to the society she lives in. In her case, this includes all of India and the world. But she goes a step further than just expressing her opinion — she urges readers to find a solution.

The pandemic, she argues, has changed the world and given us a chance to introspect on the world we have built for ourselves; it is a “portal” to walk into a different one. “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice or hatred… Or we can walk through it lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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