As a firebrand essayist, Arundhati Roy tells stories born of the grime and grit of reality to hold a mirror to the nation; she is a truth-teller, and a voice of the voiceless, and the marginalised

There are writers and there are writers. Few writers writing in English in India today are as politically engaged and outspoken as Arundhati Roy, who is likely to be prosecuted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act; the sanction for the same has been granted by Delhi Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena, a close aide of PM Narendra Modi who ran the counter movement against Narmada Bachao Andolan during his years in Gujarat. The development is steeped in irony.

Roy had arrived in Delhi at the age of 16 to study at the School of Architecture, leaving her single mother in Kerala behind. The city that shaped her identity as a writer and activist is now the very place seeking to silence her. There is another irony. Roy (62), who became the first Indian citizen to win the Booker Prize for her lush, lyrical and layered debut novel, The God of Small Things, in 1997, is ‘one of the greatest writers of our time’ (Naomi Klein), and has become a de facto ambassador for India — albeit an unofficial and often controversial one. Instead of paying heed to her voice, and taking note of her warnings, the world’s largest democracy has chosen to employ its might to muffle a writer.

There is a third irony. Saxena himself has a criminal trial pending against him; the Gujarat High Court granted an interim stay on the proceedings in the 2002 Medha Patkar assault case (Saxena faces charges of unlawful assembly, rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, wrongful restraint, intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace, and criminal intimidation, along with three others) in May 2023, a year after he took over as the 22nd L-G of Delhi, apparently the first corporate man selected for such a gubernatorial post.

Writing as a political act

Unlike many writers who shy away from taking a public stand on controversial issues, Roy actively participates in protests, delivers impassioned speeches, and engages in public debates. She has been a vocal critic of the Indian government’s policies on various fronts, including the Kashmir conflict, nuclear weapons, large-scale development projects, the rise of Hindu nationalism, global capitalism, imperialism, and the environmental devastation caused by unchecked development. Her novels, essays, and speeches are infused with a profound political consciousness.

Roy has taught us that the act of writing itself can be a robust form of resistance. That writing can be a powerful tool for activism, advocacy, and social change. She has shown us that to write is to take a stance, to engage with the world around us, and to participate in the conversation about who we are and what kind of society we want to build. She has spoken truth to power fearlessly, which has made her a target of criticism and even threats. She has faced backlash for her scathing critiques of state-sponsored violence, corporate greed, and the adverse impacts of globalisation.

Roy burst on the literary scene as a fiction writer, but very soon switched to being a firebrand essayist to dissect, deconstruct, and lay bare the bones of power and privilege. To use the power of language to tell stories born of the grime and grit of reality, to hold a mirror to the society, a magnifying glass focused on the festering sores of the nation. She became a polemicist, a truth-teller, a muckraker, if you will. A chronicler of the forgotten, and the voice of the voiceless. And, simultaneously, the thorn in the side of the powerful, and the pebble in the shoe of the oppressor. If we are silent in the face of injustice, we are complicit in its perpetuation. As things fell apart in the country, Roy steered clear of this complicity. She began to write to provoke, to shake us from our slumber of indifference. Writing, to her, became an act of defiance, an act of hope, an act of love, an act of dissent.

For her first novel, she had received the much-talked about substantial advance (half a million pounds). Its success not only made her financially independent, it also established her as a ‘publishing sensation’ who was taken seriously by the literary establishment, with people hanging on to her every word. At the School of Architecture, she wrote two screenplays. One of them was for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), directed by Pradip Krishen, an environmental activist. The film, set in a crumbling architecture school, is a commentary on the education system; it foreshadows the disillusionment of architecture students, who find themselves adrift, uncertain about their chosen discipline. Its characters speak a patois of Hindi, English and Punjabi.

Writing screenplays taught Roy to write “sparsely and economically”. “But then I began to yearn for excess. I longed to write about the landscape of my childhood, about the people in Ayemenem, about the river that flowed through it, the trees that bent into it, the moon, the sky, the fish, the songs, the History House, and the unnamed terrors that lurked around. I could not bear the idea of writing something that began with Scene 1. Ext. Day. River. I wanted to write a stubbornly visual but unfilmable book,” she writes in Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction (2020); she received the 45th European Essay Prize for lifetime achievement for the French translation of this compilation of essays in 2023.

With The God of Small Things, she moved beyond this patios and found a language — egalitarian and inclusive — whose sprawling expanse she came to inhabit; it became her playground. “I wrote it in English, but imagined it in English as well as Malayalam, the landscapes and languages colliding in the heads of seven- year-old twins Esthappen and Rahel, turning into a thing of its own. So, for example, when their mother, Ammu, scolds the twins and tells them that if they ever disobey her in public she will send them somewhere where they learn to ‘jolly well behave’—it’s the “well” that jumps out at them. The deep, moss-lined well that you find in the compounds of many homes in Kerala, with a pulley and a bucket and a rope, the well children are sternly warned to stay away from until they are big enough to draw water. What could a Jolly Well possibly be? A well with happy people in it. But people in a well? They’d have to be dead, of course. So, in Estha’s and Rahel’s imagination, a Jolly Well becomes a well full of laughing dead people, into which children are sent to learn to behave. The whole novel is constructed around people, young and old, English-knowing and Malayalam-knowing, all grappling, wrestling, dancing, and rejoicing in language,” she writes.

“For me, or for most contemporary writers working in these parts, language can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow- cooked. It was only after writing The God of Small Things that I felt the blood in my veins flow more freely. It was an unimaginable relief to have finally found a language that tasted like mine. A language in which I could write the way I think. A language that freed me. The relief didn’t last long. As Estha always knew, ‘things can change in a day,’’ adds Roy.

‘The End of Imagination’

The God of Small Things, set in Ameneyem in Kerala, modelled on the village where Roy spent most of her childhood, is a deeply personal story of love, loss, and childhood. But it is also inherently political in its exploration of various social and political issues prevalent in India. Set against the backdrop of the rigid caste system, the forbidden love between Ammu, a Syrian Christian woman, and Velutha, an Untouchable, exposes the realities of caste discrimination and its devastating consequences. The novel also foregrounds the political climate of Kerala in the 1960s, marked by the rise of the Communist Party and its clashes with the established social order. The political ideologies and power struggles in the community contribute to the tragic events that unfold in the novel. Although the British Raj has ended, the novel subtly hints at the lingering effects of colonialism. The novel also exposes the patriarchal structures that control women’s lives and limit their choices, the larger systemic issues that shape people’s lives and destinies.

As Roy basked in her newfound glory after the novel, there was something insidious taking place in India. In March 1998, less than a year after The God of Small Things was published, a Hindu nationalist government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power. “The first thing it did was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Something convulsed. Something changed. It was about language again. Not a writer’s private language, but a country’s public language, its public imagination of itself. Suddenly, things that would have been unthinkable to say in public became acceptable. Officially acceptable. Virile national pride, which had more to do with hate than love, flowed like noxious lava on the streets,” writes Roy, who wrote her first political essay, ‘The End of Imagination — in which her language, the poetic language of her first novel, changed, too — as her response to the nuke tests. “It wasn’t slow-cooked. It wasn’t secret, novel-writing language. It was quick, urgent, and public. And it was straight-up English,” she writes. The essay grapples with the terrifying reality of nuclear weapons and their potential to destroy our planet. Her words are a powerful indictment of the governments that continue to invest in these weapons of mass destruction, despite the overwhelming evidence of their catastrophic effects.

“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests,” we were repeatedly told. This has been hammered home, over and over again. The bomb is India. India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu. (Of course, in Pakistan the bomb is Islamic. Other than that, politically, the same physics applies.) This is one of the unexpected perks of having a nuclear bomb. Not only can the government use it to threaten the Enemy, it can use it to declare war on its own people. Us . . . Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films—scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no soundtrack? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right?” she wrote in the poignant, well-argued, and hauntingly titled essay.

It was the beginning of over two decades of essay writing for a writer who made her mark with fiction, but found the form inadequate to capture the messiness and murk of a country’s descent into madnesses of all kinds. All of her essays have been translated into a medley of languages: Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu, and Punjabi, often without her knowledge. “As we watched mesmerized, religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism, which had been unleashed in the early 1990s, waltzed arm in arm, like lovers, changing the landscape around us at a speed that was exhilarating for some, devastating for others,” writes Roy, whose conscience as a writer and citizen would be shaken yet again in 2001. Three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the BJP removed its elected CM Keshubhai Patel, and appointed Narendra Modi, the darling of the RSS, in his place in Gujarat. Months later, in February 2002, the gruesome Godhra episode and the subsequent communal conflagration left the state in flames. “It wasn’t by any means the first massacre of members of a minority community in post-independence India, but it was the first that was telecast live into our homes. And the first, that was, in some senses, proudly “owned.” I was wrong about there being no soundtrack,” writes Roy, who would go on to write many other essays in the two decades that followed.

In her essay, “The Greater Common Good,” she draws our attention to India's massive dam-building projects, especially over the Narmada river in Gujarat, the plight of displaced communities and the corruption and injustice that often accompany such projects. In “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy takes us deep into the heart of India’s Maoist insurgency, offering a nuanced and empathetic perspective on the rebels and their struggle against the state. Her writing humanizes the conflict, revealing the underlying socio-economic inequalities that fuel the rebellion.

‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’

All these years, Roy’s home in Delhi became a repository of several real stories of people — oddballs and misfits and outcasts — from across India, including Kashmir. “My home became a commune and a confederacy of languages. Over time all of us housemates learned to talk to each other, translate each other. The new slow-cooking recipe involved considerable risk. I had to throw the language of The God of Small Things off a very tall building. And then go down (using the stairs) to gather up the shattered pieces,” she writes about the birth of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 20 years after the publication of The God of Small Things. The novel is centered on Anjum, a transgender woman who creates a home for herself and other outcasts in a graveyard in Old Delhi, and Tilo, a rebellious architect who becomes entangled in the lives of three men; their stories intersect with the conflict in Kashmir. “The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the pre-lingual into words). Regardless of in which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry… was written, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe had to be imagined in several languages,” writes Roy.

She underlines that the novel tells a story that “emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures — official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish — swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous.” She adds: “But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other. For them, translation is not a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folk’s survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author but also the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.”

To Roy, her writing/her art is her politics; the personal has always been political. As George Orwell writes in Why I Write, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” As for the decision to prosecute her, the best counterpoint comes from Roy herself: “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds.”

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