(On the subject of Arundhati Roy, I’m happy to be a mugwump–defined years ago by a pal as someone who has her mug on one side of the fence and her wump on the other. I don’t belong to the bunch of faithful acolytes who treat every word she writes with religious awe, nor do I belong to the tribe who have a knee-jerk reaction to her and can’t get past their dislike long enough to see what she’s accomplished. So I loved doing this piece for Time Out, because it allowed me to assume my favourite position: right there, straddling the fence.)
The Greek word for “idiot” refers to a person who takes no interest in what is happening around her, who cannot engage with the world. The Greeks never met Arundhati Roy, unfortunately, or they would have come up with a word that signified the exact opposite. Even her worst critics, the ones who call her the Verbal Terrorist, or the Greater Common Shrill, or eye the halo of Saint Arundhati sceptically, must concede that there is no questioning her passion, her engagement with the world.
After the Booker-winning success of God of Small Things , she was supposed to go off and write another novel, to follow the usual trajectory of prizewinning authors. Instead, she wrote The Greater Common Good , an impassioned essay that argued vehemently against building the Narmada dam at the cost of hundreds of villages. It became a hugely controversial piece—but it also brought a debate that had been confined to activists and NGOwallas into the drawing rooms of middle India.
The seeds of the wrath that led her to add her voice to the growing chorus of condemnation against the Narmada dam (and the ruthlessness of the Big Dam movement) had been sown ages ago. The God of Small Things can also be read as a fiery critique of caste politics, of the Love Laws that dictate who we can and cannot admit into our lives, of political systems that cut women down to size, of places where repositories of the past like the History House are rendered derelict, where rivers can no longer breathe because they’re so stifled by pollution. The seeds of what would become a finely honed, trademark anger are there in the character Roy plays in the cult movie In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones . Training to be an architect, she protests a world which will build fanciful constructions on the backs of labourers whose children grow up on silla heaps. It’s there in the essay she wrote on The Bandit Queen , where she questioned a filmmaker’s right to appropriate the life of an already oppressed woman.
And, oh, how that anger has bloomed in her most recent compilation of work– The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire . Here are the connections she began drawing when her exploration of the politics behind the Narmada Dam led her to question capitalism, free markets, new imperialisms, the sarkar and what she calls the new colonialism. In a diatribe against the chequebook and the cruise missile, the twin instruments of what she sees as the new imperialism, she says:
“Mass resistance movements, individual activists, journalists, artists, and film makers have come together to strip Empire of its sheen. They have connected the dots, turned cash-flow charts and boardroom speeches into real stories about real people and real despair. They have shown how the neo-liberal project has cost people their homes, their land, their jobs, their liberty, their dignity….This is a huge victory. It was forged by the coming together of disparate political groups, with a variety of strategies. But they all recognized that the target of their anger, their activism, and their doggedness is the same. This was the beginning of real globalization. The globalization of dissent.”
But with Arundhati Roy’s work, the debate never seems to centre over what she says, but how she says it. She employs the skills of a demagogue, gives her essays catchy titles, speaks to auditoriums packed to standing-room-only capacity, is one of the brightest, shiniest stars in the firmament at the World Social Forum. More than any of today’s liberal icons, she polarises opinion. And myths grow up around her.
“You’ll be ushered into the Presence,” a cynical journalist friend who’d met her several times before told me before I interviewed Roy a few years ago. “Remember to kiss the hand.” But the woman who opened the door was almost shy, hospitable, curious—and open to questioning, to argument, to discussion. When she spoke of her writing and her life, there was no separation between the two; her early essays and her relatively iconoclastic lifestyle, the fiction and the current series of attacks on Empire—these are inextricably linked. On the few other occasions we crossed paths, I saw neither the Saint nor the Martyr, though the demagogue put in a refreshing appearance every so often.
She has good friends—Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein are among her warmest supporters. And good enemies—it takes a lot of argument to get under the skin of In Defense of Globalisation author and economist Jagdish Bhagwati, for instance. What gets on the nerves of Roy’s detractors—and supporters, if truth be told—is the peculiar combination of self-indulgence and paranoia that occasionally makes an appearance in her writing.
“I speak as a slave to her king”, she writes in her essay on US imperialism; “I’m not used to doing as I’m told”, she begins the speech on Empire; “Bring on the brickbats”, she urges her critics in a sudden, asymmetric footnote to an essay on a drowned village; she congratulates the Sydney Peace Foundation on being brave enough to offer her, of all people, an award. The thing about Arundhati Roy, though, is that you can’t tell her what not to write, any more than you can tell her what to write. Just as writing, for her, is a question of getting it right the first time so that she never has to rewrite extensively, “breathe the same breath twice”, so is she always confirmed in her opinion that nothing she writes is ever extraneous.
But as you go through the essays in An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire , the myths fall away, leaving behind just the writer and the thinker. I know, I’ve heard the economists argue against her anti-globalisation logic or attempt to take her rants against imperialism apart. But this is the woman who stood up and spoke out against the violence in Godhra, who trenchantly criticized POTA and the sanctioned terrorism of the Indian state. She can take her fans in the US aback when she trained her guns on George Bush, demanding that we “become the global resistance”, that we do not support the project for The New American Century. She can stir up a storm in Australia when she raises the issue of aboriginal rights on the eve of receiving a prize for peace. She wants people, the general junta, the public, to be seen as more than subjects—or potential markets. She wants, to use one of the few slogans she didn’t coin herself, power to the people.
And if you think she’s going to stop putting the World Bank or words like democracy under scrutiny, if you think she’s going to stop calling states and countries to account when they run rampant, you’re mistaken. All Arundhati really needs is a podium and an audience. The crowds will queue around the block, and trust me, she’ll bring her own soapbox if she has to.