From literary darling to polarizing activist: Arundhati Roy returns to fiction after 20 years of rabble rousing

The Booker Prize-winning author has been lauded for her opposition to India's caste system – and derided as a privileged celebrity interloper

ARUNDHATI ROY reading from The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor West), June 22, 7:30 pm. $8. Advance tickets sold out, rush seats available at the door.

It’s been a 15-year-long quest for Anjula Gogia to get Arundhati Roy to speak in Toronto.

Earlier this year, when the events coordinator for Another Story Bookshop heard murmurs about the Indian author and activist releasing a new novel after 20 years, she fired off emails to Roy’s agent and to publisher Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Canada).

To her delight, Roy scheduled a Toronto stop as part of a book tour to launch The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, her second novel, published two decades after she won the Man Booker prize for The God Of Small Things.

“My nine-year-old daughter had to hear me screaming all day long when I got the letter of confirmation,” says Gogia. “This is like a dream come true for me as a South Asian feminist activist bookseller.”

While the literary world has been waiting with bated breath to crack the spine of a new novel by Roy, she’s been busy making headlines and penning essays.

In 2015, for example, she met with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton at the invitation of actor John Cusack.

Roy sees no great distinction between fiction and non-fiction, preferring to keep her “aching eyes open.”

She has published beautifully crafted, blistering essays denouncing India’s nuclear tests, a controversial mega-dam project that displaced farmers and Indigenous people, the Indian army’s occupation of Kashmir, America’s role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and India’s caste system.

In doing so, she went from literary darling in India to polarizing figure. Indian authorities have denounced her as an anti-national rabble rouser, while anti-caste activists have criticized her as a naive dilettante far removed from the Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) caste she often writes about.

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness elaborates on some matters she’s explored in non-fiction, with scenes that shift from Old Delhi to New Delhi, from Kashmir to Kabul, even meandering for the briefest of spells to Canada.

It starts with the story of Anjum, who used to be Aftab, and who may be called a transperson but instead refers to herself and her community as “hijra,” an Indian term often translated as “eunuch.” Many characters enter the story: a young man who, impressed by the Iraqi dictator’s defiance in the face of death, adopts the name Saddam Hussein S. Tilottama, a young architecture student who (as Roy did) works as a draftsman in architects’ offices to pay college fees and lives in a slum Musa, a Kashmiri idealist turned militant.

The God Of Small Things dealt with caste, class and religious divisions in a small town in Kerala. Following its success, Roy went on to pen critiques on a range of issues, including a 2002 pogrom against Muslims in the Indian province of Gujarat and a proposal to mine bauxite on Indigenous land in the Indian province of Odisha that led to a faceoff between government officials and Maoist Naxalites, a revolutionary guerrilla force.

In 2010, Delhi police threatened Roy with charges of sedition after she wondered whether “the disputed territory of Kashmir was not an integral part of India.”

For South Asian leftists and feminists like Gogia, such statements have made Roy an inspirational figure.

“She has an incredibly powerful voice,” says Gogia, noting that Roy’s 2003 speech at the World Social Forum in Brazil alongside Noam Chomsky launched her profile on the left.

“As a writer and activist in India, she was talking about things that were being overlooked in all the conversations around its economic rise and how wonderful it all was, things that weren’t so wonderful. The rise of the middle class – whose backs was that on?”

Toronto-based activist/journalist Judy Rebick was present when Roy spoke in Brazil. The event ended with a peace rally in a soccer stadium where 10,000 activists sang John Lennon’s Imagine.

“Nobody knew who Arundhati was,” says Rebick. “Noam is a great hero, and when he was introduced, the place went wild – lots of cheering, dancing, clapping. But Noam is a boring speaker.”

As his speech finished, after some polite claps, people started to leave. Then Arundhati started speaking.

“People just stopped in the aisles,” recalls Rebick. “She commanded so much attention. She said that line in the end: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her [breathing].’ The place just erupted.

“The thing about Arundhati is that she does not speak in rhetoric, she speaks in poetry.”

Turns of phrases has always been Roy’s speciality. Critics praised The God Of Small Things for breathing new life into the English language, much as Salman Rushdie did with his 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children.

Before her literary debut, she penned The Great Indian Rape Trick, an essay criticizing filmmaker Shekhar Kapur for his depiction of a gang rape in Bandit Queen, a 1994 biopic of gang member turned politician Phoolan Devi.

“Kapur was getting a lot of international attention for Bandit Queen, but Roy rightly pointed out that he had made the film into a voyeuristic act,” explains Arun Mukherjee, a professor emeritus of English at York University. “There’s more written about these things now, but at that time [Roy’s article] was groundbreaking.”

Before The God Of Small Things came out, the Indian media focused on Roy’s six-figure book contract that publishers flew to Delhi to sign.

“It’s kind of like the story today about her new novel, when you hear that she texted a single word to her agent: ‘done,’” says Mukherjee. “And he immediately gets on the first plane to Delhi. There’s a kind of mythology being woven around the book.”

Having taught The God Of Small Things in York’s undergraduate South Asian literature and graduate South Asian women writers courses, Mukherjee had many occasions to revisit the work. She graded papers on themes including patriarchy, division of property, trauma and environmental degradation.

However, she’s critical of the book’s portrayal of the Dalit character Velutha.

“It’s a sort of double-edged sword. Most upper-caste writers in English in India don’t have any low-caste characters,” says Mukherjee, who translated Dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki’s book Joothan into English. “On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that [Roy’s] is an outsider’s perspective that creates certain distortions.”

While Roy’s use of a Dalit character does not fit into the cultural appropriation debate going on in Canada about who can/not write from an Indigenous perspective, her depiction of the romance between a Dalit and an upper-caste woman is difficult to believe, Mukherjee says.

In her class, she compared this plot line with Jim Crow-era United States history: a romance between a Dalit man and a high-caste woman was as unthinkable as a dalliance between a Black man and a white woman in the southern states.

Roy’s The Doctor And The Saint, a recent essay about to Annihilation Of Caste, a seminal text by Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, got her into trouble with some Dalit activists.

Initially delivered as a speech, Annihilation Of Caste is a treatise advocating the abolition of caste. Roy’s book is set up as a debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi, who adhered to the caste system even as he sought to reform it.

Dalit activists argue that public intellectuals like Roy take up space without knowing about the ground realities of the Dalit people.

“It’s not the same thing as the Joseph Boyden controversy, but she seems far removed from the social realities she’s writing about,” says Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, a dean and political science prof at York.

There’s no doubt that Roy writes to create awareness of injustice, but some argue she is out of her depth when it comes to portraying the complexities faced by the poor in India.

“All of the injustices she takes on have long historical trajectories of development and resistance,” says Mukherjee-Reed. “But that’s not evident from her work.

“That’s not her style. Her style is ‘This is Arundhati Roy telling you the truth.’ But none of us can begin speaking first truths,” she adds. “There’s a long scholarship that came before her, and that needs to be fully acknowledged.”

On the flip side of that debate, Chinnaiah Jangam, an assistant professor of history at Carleton University, believes that not being a Dalit doesn’t preclude Roy from writing about Dalit issues. His research focuses on the intellectual history of Dalits, especially their engagement with colonialism, nationalism and Christianity. While Jangam has reservations about The Doctor And The Saint, his criticism is limited to her framing the book as a debate.

“She displaced the importance of [Annihilation Of Caste],” he says. “It’s not about Gandhi, and so the actual theoretical work is undermined.”

Jangam believes debate about injustice should not privilege those facing it, but engage both sides.

“She is an important voice for the dispossessed and displaced in the present juncture, in India and in context of the world,” he says. “In Canada, she brings an critical perspective to debates around multiculturalism, diversity and an inclusive society.”

He cites Roy’s 2009 book Listening To The Grasshoppers: Field Notes On Democracy as relevant to Canadian Indigenous communities’ struggles to reclaim land and protect the environment.

For her part, Gogia is hoping for a lively but civilized debate at the Toronto book launch. She believes criticisms painting Roy as little more than a celebrity interloper are the media’s doing.

“Is she taking up space? Sure. Is she doing important political work? Very much so. And what’s wrong with a South Asian woman taking up space?” she says. “Do I agree with everything she says? Likely not. Can she be more open? Likely yes. Then come to her event, discuss these things, do the work she’s doing.”

This article was produced in partnership with Penguin Random House. | @aparita

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