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Arundhati Roy: Writing is activism

As she celebrates her birthday on November 24, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and prolific essayist has proven that politics and fiction go hand in hand.

Arundhati Roy

Award-winning author Arundhati Roy is a prolific essayist and polemicist

There is some ambiguity around Arundhati Roy's birthday. While the internet and Wikipedia suggest the author will be turning 60 this year, her German publisher, S.Fischer lists her date of birth as November 24, 1959.

Regardless, there is at least no doubt about the fact that the writer of 60-odd years has been prolific in her production of essays and novels that expertly combine her political convictions with an ingenious play of words.

The early years

Roy shot to international fame with her 1997 novel, "The God of Small Things," which won her that year the Man Booker Prize (now shortened to Booker Prize).

The novel is a family drama that tells the story of fraternal twins who navigate through the complexities of cultural mores in different Indian communities, religions, regions and caste. Set in Kerala and Calcutta, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it reflects different aspects of Roy's life.

Roy herself was born in Shillong, in northeastern India, to a Christian mother from Kerala and a Bengali Hindu father who managed a tea plantation. Roy moved to Kerala after her parents split, and subsequently came back to Delhi to study architecture. 

But writing remained her true calling. In her early years as a writer, she wrote a story called "In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones" (1989), which was made into an arthouse movie, and a film called "Electric Moon" (1992).

Political writing

In the years following her Booker Prize victory, Roy dedicated herself to social causes and writing her opinion about the political and social state, not only of India but also of the world.

In 1999, she published a landmark essay called "The Greater Common Good" about the resistance movement that had shaped around the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, a river in Western India.

In the essay, Roy highlighted the plight of tribal communities whose villages would submerge once the dam was constructed. The essay generated global interest, not the least because Roy was pulled into legal proceedings for her "vituperative" writing, the Indian Supreme Court said.

In 2001, Roy wrote on the 9/11 attacks. Her essay, titled "The Algebra of Infinite Justice," was later published in a compendium of other political essays by the author.

Written before the US war on terror started, Roy's essay proved prophetic: "The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can't very well return without having fought one. If it doesn't find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one." 

She also correctly predicted that the "war on terrorism" would lead to the persecution of some communities, tighter rules and limit personal freedoms.

Charged with sedition

Roy's literary-political activism continued in 2010, when she faced arrest on charges of sedition for making remarks in support of Kashmir's independence from India.

A year later, she released a book called "Walking with the Comrades," which narrates the time she spent with communist guerrillas in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Called Maoists for their adherence to Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong's revolutionary ideas, the insurgents have been fighting the Indian state for decades and claim to represent what the government classifies as "backward" classes, castes and tribal communities.

Two decades after her first novel, "The God of Small Things," Roy published her second fictional work, "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness," in 2017. It tells the story of Anjum, a trans woman, and a woman called Tilo, an architect-turned-activist. Although the novel opened to mixed reviews, including being called a "fantastic mess" by The Atlantic, it too combined the strains of fiction and present-day politics, to become a statement on present-day India.

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The political 'conscience'

Meanwhile, Roy seems to have claimed the genre of political essay-writing as her own. Her 2020 collection of essays, called "Azadi," or freedom in Urdu, discusses a range of issues, including India's right-wing, "fascist," government and the ongoing pandemic.

In an essay in the volume, called "The Pandemic is a Portal," which was also published by The Financial Times earlier this year, she discusses how the spread of the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in social systems and infrastructure worldwide.

In India, lack of health facilities has deepened the divide between the rich and poor, and the upper and the lower castes and classes. In the US, for example, the poor have been left without enough support, she writes.

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Roy's political writings have often been termed as being too biased and vitriolic, but the fact remains that, as a writer, she holds a mirror to the society she lives in. In her case, this includes all of India and the world. But she goes a step further than just expressing her opinion — she urges readers to find a solution.

The pandemic, she argues, has changed the world and given us a chance to introspect on the world we have built for ourselves; it is a "portal" to walk into a different one. "We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice or hatred… Or we can walk through it lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world."


Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier