x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Roy against the machine

The success of this year's Sharjah International Book Fair has had much to do with a talk given by Arundhati Roy - India's most fierce writer against social injustice and the author of the famous book The God of Small Things.

The Indian author Arundhati Roy speaks at the Sharjah International Book Fair. Duncan Chard for the National.
The Indian author Arundhati Roy speaks at the Sharjah International Book Fair. Duncan Chard for the National.

Normally, arriving 30 minutes early for a Sharjah book fair event at the Sharjah Expo Centre's huge conference hall would guarantee you a seat, but not this time. Every chair except for two rows of reserved seating was taken; the walls of the auditorium were lined with people. A few minutes and about a hundred people later, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, the president of the Emirates Publishing Association, presented Arundhati Roy to a standing ovation.

Earlier that day, when I spoke to Roy, we talked about her work as a writer, her books and her experiences as an activist, championing human rights, environment issues and the anti-globalisation movement.

Her activities have not been without controversy. Vocal in her opposition to her country's nuclear policy, its ambitions of becoming a free market and the issue of Kashmir (she supports its independence) have incurred the wrath of Indian nationalists, and after she spent two months visiting the Maoist rebels in the Indian forests in 2010, highlighting the plight of India's tribal people, the Adivasis, she was accused of being a national traitor.

However, she dismisses the idea that she's any kind of activist.

"I don't even know what an activist is," she says. "I don't know why people keep saying that I am an activist as if I'm walking around, carrying a banner all the time. I write because I have a space in which I can be heard and that is what I do. I write about my society and its issues."

Prior to meeting her, I expected the 50-year-old writer to be a fierce woman, full of angst and anger, but instead I found that she possesses both the infinite tenderness of a mother and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber, to paraphrase from The God of Small Things. Wearing a burnt orange cotton sari with an olive green blouse and long, white beads, she is a gracious woman who seems so instantly familiar that you want to greet her with a kiss on the cheek. And while her countenance may make you stop in your tracks, watch out: she carries a pen filled with the ink of ire.

In her work, she is known for focusing on the uneven tug of war between global capitalism and those under its feet. When The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize and sent Roy's international profile skyrocketing, she used the clout to unleash a blaze of dissent against India's nuclear ambitions, political corruption and the marginalisation of its poor and powerless.

The God of Small Things, which centres on the lives of twins, a boy and a girl, growing up in Aymanam Kerala - where Roy herself grew up - is a book that gives you butterflies in your stomach; it's filled with tastes, smells and sounds. It brings coolness to your skin and a twinge of pain to your heart. Remarkably, I can still conjure up these images after having read the book only once, 14 years ago, in 1998.

Roy is the daughter of a Syrian Christian mother and a Bengali Hindu. Her mother moved her family to Aymanam after divorcing Roy's father. It was an experience, Roy says, that strongly influenced her writing of The God of Small Things.

"In the Syrian Christian community, I grew up as an outsider," she recalls. "People would say: 'Why don't you go back to your father?' Then, there was the caste system, albeit a hidden one, but nonetheless very rigid. In retrospect, it was the battle to understand who you are."

The caste system is an issue that's obviously close to Roy's heart. But is there anything that can be done to change the national consciousness?

"The debate about changing the society's mindset began with Bhimrao Ramaji Ambedkar [the architect of the Indian constitution] and [Mahatma] Gandhi. The constitution was a compromise where caste was institutionalised. People like to think of Gandhi as someone that was against the caste system, but this is a lie. Gandhi himself believed in the caste system. He said that the untouchables should remain scavengers and Brahmins should take care of the spiritual needs of society - that every caste should remain where it is, but we should respect them.

"There is such intellectual dishonesty going around in India concerning him and his history. He is a fascinating figure, but he should not be someone that we cannot question or talk about - this is wrong."

Another cause Roy is associated with is anti-globalisation, a topic which she has written about extensively. Does she think her work, together with that of others such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn are collectively making a chink in the globalisation machine's armour?

"I think it's hard to say," she says. "There is a chink in the machine, but I don't know if it is because of our work. The machine is creating such enormous disparity, such enormous violence, that there is bound to be a blowback. How can I take credit for that? I don't know."

The God of Small Things has yet to be followed by a second novel but, after 14 years, she confirms that another is on its way. An attempt to squeeze out some details is met with a sly chuckle.

"I am writing a new novel, but when I finish it, it will be as much as a surprise to me as it is to you."

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