Saturday, March 10, 2007

An activist returns to the novel

The Sydney Morning Herald

"MANY HAD WRITTEN off the chances that Arundhati Roy would return to the world of fiction. Her astounding first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker in 1997. Ten years and 6 million copies later there was still no repeat of the lyrical, whirling debut. Instead Roy turned to lobbing literary Molotov cocktails at Enron, George Bush's war on terror and the World Trade Organisation in the form of incendiary polemics. No one could accuse her of having writers' block: she churned out six books, collections of her essays with titles such as Power Politics and An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire.

Dispensing with story-writing, she pursued a career in social activism, appearing at anti-war rallies and using her celebrity to raise the profiles of unfashionable causes - Kashmiris on death row, the rights of tribal communities in India, hardscrabble suicides in the country's farming belt.......

Roy says India today, like pre-revolutionary France, is poised "on the edge of violence". As she sees it, the country of her birth is not coming together but coming apart - convulsed by "corporate globalisation" at an unprecedented, unacceptable velocity. "The inequalities become untenable."......

Roy's dire predictions about India have left her isolated when mainstream opinion seems convinced that the country, with its nuclear bombs and slick Bollywood movies, is the next superpower-in-waiting. Roy says some parts of the country, such as the western state of Gujarat - the scene of a bloody pogrom against Muslims five years ago - are off limits to her because of her campaigning.

A few years ago she was briefly imprisoned for contempt of court while protesting against the country's controversial Narmada Dam project. The God of Small Things produced obscenity charges and a court case that ran for a decade, only to be dismissed last month.

She first shot to prominence in 1994 with a scathing film review entitled The Great Indian Rape Trick, about the movie Bandit Queen, in which she questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission".......

Unlike other Indian-born writers who have relocated to the US and Europe, Roy is determined to remain a thorn in the side of the establishment in India. "Here you see what's happening. People are driven out of villages, driven out of the cities, there's a kind of insanity in the air and all of it held down by our mesmeric, pelvic-thrusting Bollywood movies. The Indian middle class has just embarked on this orgy of consumerism."

But she admits that the kinds of non-violent protests she has taken part in for a decade have failed in India, a republic founded on the Gandhi-ite principles of peaceful resistance. "I am not such an uninhibited fan of Gandhi. After all, Gandhi was a superstar. When he went on a hunger strike he was a superstar on a hunger strike. But I don't believe in superstar politics. If people in a slum are on a hunger strike, no one gives a shit."

Roy says activists have been "exhausted" by their attempts to influence the courts and the press and now says she does not "condemn people taking up arms" in the face of state repression.

"It would be immoral for me to preach violence unless I were prepared to resort to it myself. But equally, it is immoral for me to advocate feelgood marches and hunger strikes when I'm not bearing the brunt of unspeakable violence. I certainly do not volunteer to tell Iraqis or Kashmiris or Palestinians that if they went on a mass hunger strike they would get rid of the military occupation. Civil disobedience doesn't seem to be paying dividends."

Instead of the Indian state caving in to the moral righteousness of the numerous causes Roy supports, she says it merely moved to co-opt its adversaries. The power of argument, even in the world's biggest democracy, has been shrunk by the argument of power.

Roy says she was aghast to learn that a fellow Indian environmental campaigner accepted a million-dollar award from the transnational metals firm Alcan, which has been accused of grabbing tribal land in eastern India. The tentacles of big business have learned to embrace non-government organisations. The result, she claims, is that the charitable trusts of Tata, India's largest private company, fund "half the activists in the country".

She feels frustrated by the state's ability to brush aside non-violent resistance movements. "This has sapped the energy from people's movements. The very Gandhian Narmada movement [the grassroots group which campaigned against big dams in India] knocked on the door of every democratic institution for years and has been humiliated. It has not managed to stop a single dam from going ahead. In fact the dam industry has a new spring in its step."

Roy says she had given ideological opponents a handy hate figure. "In India I'm portrayed more as a hysterical, lying, anti-national harridan....."

No comments: