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Arundhati Roy: 'India is colonizing itself'

Sabine Peschel cmk
September 11, 2017

Described as the "conscience of India" in Time's 2014 list of 100 most influential people, author Arundhati Roy has a voice that counts. Speaking in Berlin, she introduced her long-awaited second work of fiction.

Arundhati Roy (Picture alliance/AP Photo/G. Onorati/Ansa)
Image: picture-alliance/ANSA/G. Onorati

Despite arriving 20 minutes late for her appearance at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Arundhati Roy was welcomed with enthusiasm by the thousand spectators. It wasn't quite clear, though, who they were cheering: the writer, the activist or the anti-globalization demonstrator.

On stage, the 55-year-old Indian author appeared particularly small and delicate next to actress Eva Matthes, who read passages from the German translation of Roy's latest prize-nominated novel, "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness," and the rather tall German writer Gabriele von Arnim, on hand to interview her.

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Twenty years after the overwhelming success of her first book, "The God of Small Things," the crowd at Berlin's International Literature Festival was eager to hear why Roy took so long to write her follow-up.

Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, left, participates in a demonstration by the activists of National Alliance of People's Movement in 2006
In 2006, Roy (left) took part in a protest against a controversial land decision by the state of West BengalImage: AP

Two decades of activism

"Soon after I wrote 'The God of Small Things' and it became a success, a very fundamental right-wing Hindu-chauvinist government came to power in India. And the first thing it did was a series of nuclear tests, which was celebrated greatly in India," said Roy.

"At that time I was on the cover of every magazine, I was marketed as the face of the new superpower. It was repulsive to me," she said, adding that her response wasn't well received by those in charge.

"I was also very, very uncomfortable with the celebration of me as a writer in a country where terrible things were happening, where most people couldn't read and didn't have enough food to eat. I wanted to be a writer in this country, and not be this person who lived between best-seller lists and literature festivals."

When Roy speaks, she has a powerful presence. It's clear that this is someone who stands for what she believes in. She has fought against the construction of dams which would have displaced millions, and spoken out against the destructive consequences of globalization, global politics and multinationals, Hindu nationalism and the independence of Kashmir.

Berlin's International Literature Festival opens

Is she, then, more of an activist than a writer? When asked, Roy said she doesn't like the term, considering it a label created by the market.

"People seem to have reduced the definition of what a writer is," she said. "It's almost as if when you write politically, then you're not a writer, you're an activist, which I find very sad. What is being done to the place of literature?

"We have to be really careful how we are used as writers," she said, adding that writing is invariably political. "Politics kicks the door down."

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'A novel has to be about everything'

In her new book, Roy has chronicled all that has taken place in India over the past 20 years, including her personal causes. "How to tell a story?" she asked. "By slowly becoming everybody? No. By slowly becoming everything."

Book cover: "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" by Arundhati Roy
'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' hit bookshelves in JuneImage: Hamish Hamilton

Over nearly 500 pages, Roy writes about schemes, massacres, war and murder, about the brutality of the human species — and she's not afraid to call things by name. But, as moderator Gabriele von Arnim pointed out, she hasn't written an "Indian novel, she wants more than that."

"Roy does not sugarcoat but still writes beautifully, beguiling her readers and disturbing them," she said.

"This book is about the air we breathe," said Roy. "And that air has love, and intimacy, and caste, and gender, and childhood, and Kashmir, and politics, and corporations, and media — and everything. A novel should not be about funding headings, like in some NGO application. A novel has to be about everything."

Some readers have interpreted parts of "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" as magical realism. But the central figure in the novel is one of India's "third sex," a hijra as they're locally known, transgender people of whom there are millions in India. There is nothing magical about this way of life, said Roy.

And, she stressed, the story of India and Kashmir can only be told truthfully through fiction. "The only way to try to tell the truth is through fiction. Fiction is truth."

Read more: Booker Prize laureate Arundhati Roy returns Indian national award

Fake news and internet trolls

Roy's novel portrays many atrocities, and some reviewers were repelled by that. But a tragic event just days before her appearance in Berlin drove home the fine line between fiction and reality in India. Roy recalled with grief how her friend Gauri Lankesh, a newspaper editor and outspoken critic of the ruling Hindu nationalist party — a writer with similar views to Roy — was shot dead in Bangalore by unknown assailants.

"People are being lynched every day," Roy said. A person can be accused of having consumed beef, for example, and suddenly be surrounded by a dangerous mob. "If these things are not pushed back, we lose everything," she said.

Gabriele von Arnim (left), Eva Matthes (right) and Arundhati Roy (center) on stage
Onstage with Gabriele von Arnim (left) and Eva Matthes (right), Roy explained the influence of politics on writingImage: DW/S. Peschel

Roy believes boundless hate is dividing the country under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, with emotions being stirred up by fake news and internet trolls. "The situation for me and other intellectuals is so dangerous now."

She thinks India is experiencing a kind of civil war, all the while presenting itself on the world stage as an economic superpower. "But India is colonizing itself. The army and paramilitary organizations are waging war against the poorest," she said.

At the end of the evening, the audience looked a bit shocked. The violence and divisions in present-day India don't seem to have been on the radar for many. But the mood lightens when an excerpt about love was read from Roy's new book. It is a novel, after all.