Since winning the Booker prize in 1997, Arundhati Roy has put fiction on hold to become a global dissenter against repression, economic ‘progress’ – and dams. Tim Adams discovers the roots of her political passion
The Observer, By Tim Adams, July 12
Arundhati Roy has two voices. The first, dramatically personal and playful, was the one in which she wrote her extraordinary debut novel, The God of Small Things, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in rural Kerala. The second voice is flatter and angrier, more urban and distrustful of the quirks of the individual. She describes it as “writing from the heart of the crowd”. It is this voice that she has used exclusively in the 12 years since her novel was published, in four collections of non-fiction – the latest of which, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, was published last week.
Roy, now 47, describes the difference between the two voices as the difference between “dancing and walking”. It is a long while since Roy’s writing has danced. She says she pedestrianised her imagination not out of choice, not at all, but because there seemed nothing else to do. “If I could,” she says, “I would love to spend all my time writing fiction. With the non-fiction I wrote one book that I wanted to write and three more that I didn’t.”
This compulsion – towards reporting and polemic – Roy blames in part on the success of The God of Small Things. She wrote her novel for four and a half years entirely in secret; even her husband, the film-maker Pradip Krishen, did not know of its existence until it was finished. And she wrote it for herself. She had written a couple of film scripts before that and had come to despise the collaborative creative process. The book was an exercise in downshifting. She imagined when it was published that it would sell “maybe 500 copies in Delhi.” In fact, it sold 6m copies worldwide and won her the Booker Prize.
“The prize,” she says now, “was actually responsible in many ways for my political activism. I won this thing and I was suddenly the darling of the new emerging Indian middle class – they needed a princess. They had the wrong woman. I had this light shining on me at the time, and I knew that I had the stage to say something about what was happening in my country. What is exciting about what I have done since is that writing has become a weapon, some kind of ammunition.”