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A Life Without Rules

For Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, the personal is political



Perhaps it is surprising that in this age of the reveal-all autobiography and the million-dollar fiction advance that Arundhati Roy, the best-selling author of The God of Small Things, has turned her keen eye and lyrical tongue to politics.

From an American point of view, it feels wholly unnatural or at least incongruent with the laws of market economics and the writerly ego, that Roy, whose first novel was translated into 33 languages and spent 49 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, would produce a book of activist essays rather than a second novel depicting her native India.

But this is exactly what she has done. Roy's second book, The Cost of Living (Modern Library), is a fierce polemic against two initiatives the Indian government has undertaken in the name of modern development: its massive dam projects, which have displaced 50 million poor people, and its emergence as a nuclear-weapons state. In both essays, "The Greater Common Good" and "The End of Imagination," Roy applies a novelist's sensibility for human hubris and folly to what she sees as the illusions of India's progress -- and the surety of her tone is just as mesmerizing, just as heart-stinging, as the descriptiveness that won her the Booker Prize.

"Big dams are to a nation's 'development' what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal," writes Roy in "The Greater Common Good." "They're both weapons of mass destruction. They're both weapons governments use to control their own people. Both twentieth-century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival ... . They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens, milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life, and the earth to human existence."

At a recent lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, which she will repeat at the New School for Social Research, Harvard and Cambridge, Roy said that what propelled her to write essays on the Sardar Sarovar dam and the "Hindu nuclear bomb" was a longtime discomfort with privilege topped off by the "obscene commercial success of The God of Small Things."

"The private story of this kind of success is not a happy one because I live in India," Roy intoned. "Before me, the cars are getting sleeker, the gates higher and the poor shit in the street. I just found it impossible to live with this. I felt as if I had punctured a veil in the world."

Roy is unusual among today's internationally recognized Indian writers in that she actually lives in India. Unlike fellow Booker Prize-winners Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipul and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, who are of Indian origin but reside abroad, Roy, now 39, grew up in Kerala, a Marxist state known for its religious heterogeneity, and makes her home in New Delhi. To some degree, with this recent book, she is following in the footsteps of her activist mother, Mary Roy, who won a landmark Supreme Court verdict that granted Christian women in Kerala the right to their parents' property.

But Roy is very much her own woman. She left home at 16 and lived in a squatters' camp in Delhi, ostensibly to make sense of her country, where more than 400 million people are illiterate and live in extreme poverty. Roy's 20s and 30s were promiscuously peripatetic: She studied architecture, quit to become a beachcombing bohemian, appeared in a movie as a tribal bimbo, married the film's director, Pradeep Krishen, and went on to become a screenwriter. During the four-and-a-half years she wrote The God of Small Things, she worked as an aerobics instructor.

"My secret was to live my life refusing to be a victim," she has said. "Failure -- no, I shouldn't say 'failure,' rather, the 'lack of success' never frightened me. I don't believe in rules."

In The Cost of Living, Roy does her utmost to disassociate herself from India's city elite (of which she admits she is very much a part) whose "eyes glaze over" when talk turns to the injustices of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam project. Her essay on the subject is a painstakingly detailed and impassioned account of the economic impetus behind the dam, which is now more than halfway completed, and its environmental and social effects. Roy contextualizes the Sardar Sarovar project in the wider history of India's massive dam building -- with its attendant "Iron Triangle" of "compromising politicians, bureaucrats, dam-construction companies," environmental "racketeers" and "friendly neighborhood World Bank officials" -- but as you can tell from the language she uses, she has no interest in sympathizing with their motives. They are guilty as judged by Nature and the largely silenced population she represents.

Unless you are a World Bank official or have a stake in the international dam-construction industry, it is almost impossible not to be persuaded by Roy's argument that the Sardar Sarovar dam and big dams in India or China or anywhere else are destructive, inhumane projects that border on the insane and the demonic. In piercingly poetic sentence after piercingly poetic sentence, Roy recounts how India's 3,600 dams have drowned thousands of villages, uprooted millions of people and caused irreversible environmental damage, while the government has stood by documenting no record of the displacement and offering almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation.

"Build a dam to take water away from 40 million people. Build a dam to pretend to bring water to 40 million people. Who are these gods that govern us?" Roy writes in a style reminiscent of Richard Wright. "Is there no limit to their power?"

Or: "The millions of displaced people don't exist anymore. When history is rewritten they won't be in it. Not even as statistics. Some of them have subsequently been displaced three or four times -- a dam, an artillery proof range, another dam, a uranium mine, a power project. Once they start rolling there's no resting place. The great majority is eventually absorbed into slums on the periphery of our great cities, where it coalesces into an immense pool of cheap construction labor (that builds more projects that displaces more people). True, they're not being annihilated or taken to gas chambers, but I can warrant that the quality of their accommodation is worse than in any concentration camp of the Third Reich. They're not captive, but they redefine the meaning of liberty."

Roy's achievement in The Cost of Living is to merge her uncannily natural ability for verbal power with a human-rights agenda, something that will set her apart from the great majority of talented contemporary novelists but link her to writers like George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, who did not separate the fictional from the political.

Her second essay, "The End of Imagination," on India's newly achieved nuclear capacity, limns as easily from the specific reactions to and rationales for India's bomb to wider questions of power, democracy and the social good. Roy mocks the theory of deterrence as a foreign-policy concept that is fundamentally at odds with human nature. Like the scores of writers and peace activists who have preceded her, she argues that deterrence "presumes a complete, sophisticated understanding of the psychology of your enemy," when, of course, this kind of understanding is impossible, and refuses to abide by the idea that the devastation a nuclear war would wrought deters war and secures peace. In a typical Roy sentence, she pronounces: "It is not some inherent, mystical attribute of nuclear bombs that they automatically inspire thoughts of peace."

Unequivocally and with unfailing polemical ire, Roy calls India's creation of a nuclear bomb "the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people," arguing that it is easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people. In the end, for her, the nuclear bomb is "the most antidemocratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made."

"If you are religious," she rails, "then remember that this bomb is Man's challenge to God."

Such proclamations, as one can imagine, have not won Roy the approval of the Indian government. She has been attacked by government officials and nationalist citizens as an impractical neo-Luddite with anti-development dreams. And her essay on the Sardar Sarovar dam, which scathingly critiques the India Supreme Court's decision to lift a four-year stay on further dam construction, earned her a court hearing in response to a Gujarat (the state in which the Sardar Sarovar dam is located) state petition claiming there should be a ban on any publications that address the matter while it is still in court. Although Roy has not been penalized, the Supreme Court did judge that her essay was "an attempt to undermine the dignity of the court and influence the course of justice."

Such rebuke, however, has only fueled Roy's activist fire. Last year, she donated 1.5 million rupees, equivalent to her Booker Prize money, to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the grass-roots environmental group that has been working since 1986 to stop the dam project and with whom Roy has been collaborating. And in July, she led a contingent of 250 artists, writers and journalists on a weeklong rally against the completion of the Sardar Sarovar project that brought the NBA considerable press. The publicity and tour surrounding The Cost of Living should bring the NBA's cause further attention, and, in the most ideal circumstances, the international pressure it needs to stop construction. And for Roy, it may very well elevate her status to a poetical Mother Theresa.

Although the press will certainly make much of Roy's new role as an activist, she refuses to see her transition from writing fiction to political polemic as in the least unnatural. "I don't find it to be a transition," she said. "I don't recognize the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; they're artificial boundaries. I don't see myself as an activist. My hope is that The Cost of Living will give people a deeper understanding of complex issues. I am a writer, and what I am pleading for as a writer is a worldview, a wider worldview."

Given Roy's biography -- and her moral qualms about fame -- such an argument makes sense, but still rings odd in our age of IPO madness, mass consumption and radical self-interest and greed. Roy, like her novel The God of Small Things, seems to come from a markedly different world where bigger is not better, and the local, the small and the seemingly insignificant hold qualities that spin the notion of monolithic power on its head.

"I think you have to look for art and beauty in dissent," said Roy in yet another attempt to explain the inspiration behind her second book. "Writers must lift our eyes from the page and look at the world around us from time to time."

With a smile, she adds: "Just as much as the valley needed a writer, this writer needed a valley."

Tamara Straus writes for Alternet, the syndicated news service for the alternative press.

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