Arundhati Roy: 'The next novel will just have to wait...'

Ahead of the Booker Prize tomorrow, Arundhati Roy tells Peter Popham how the award led her to a new life, and away from fiction

Arundhati Roy, winner of the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, is not in the frame this year. Again. In fact, she has yet to follow up on that first book, what John Updike described as her “Tiger Woodsian debut.”

It’s not for want of trying: it is no secret that she has a second one on the stocks. “Everybody has known that for many years!” she laughs. Few people have had a glimpse of it, however, one exception being her friend John Berger, the octogenarian novelist and art critic. He was so impressed that he urged her to drop everything and finish it. “About a year and a half ago I was with John at his home,” she recalls “and he said, ‘You open your computer now and you read to me whatever fiction you are writing.’ He is perhaps the only person in the world that could have the guts to say that to me. And I read a bit to him and he said, ‘You just go back to Delhi and you finish that book.’ So I said ‘okay...’”

But her good intentions were derailed. “I went back to Delhi,” she says, “and in a few weeks this note was pushed under my door: just an anonymous typewritten note asking me to visit the Maoists in the jungles of central India...”

It was a tough invitation, to enter the dark heart of India’s secret war zone. But not one that Arundhati Roy could refuse.

Today India is going down the same path travelled centuries back by the European colonial powers: identifying sources of strategic minerals, driving off the people living on top of them, extracting the iron ore, the bauxite and so on, and using it to industrialise and grow rich. The difference is that India has no Australia or Latin America it can plunder. Instead, as Roy says, “It is colonising itself, turning upon its own poor to extract raw materials.”

Centuries after the plunder of mineral resources began, some people living in countries like ours began to understand the horrors that had been committed along the way: the indigenous peoples massacred, their traditions erased, the survivors reduced to penury. But by then, remorse came cheap: the damage had been done, the great fortunes made.

But in India all this is happening now, in real time. As a result, remorse is far more expensive: if sincerely meant, it could really throw a spanner in the happiness machine.

When Arundhati Roy accepted the Maoists’ invitation, she was aware that what is being done to millions of adivasis, India’s tribal people, in their villages in the forests of central India was an uncomfortable subject for the Indian middle class.

India’s so-called Naxalite rebellion started back in the 1960s, in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, and through innumerable splits and spats, eruptions and retreats has been sputtering on ever since. But in 2005 the new prime minister Manmohan Singh raised its profile dramatically when he described it as “the greatest internal security threat” the country faced.

Roy believes the timing was significant. “It coincided with the government signing hundreds of secret Memorandums of Understanding with several mining companies and infrastructure corporations,” she says. “They basically sold the rivers, the mountains, the forests, they signed them over to private companies. And they needed to wage war against these indigenous people to get them out of their villages, so the mining companies could move in.”

Hundreds of thousands of paramilitaries were deployed in the forests to do the job; there followed the burning of hundreds of villages “infested” by Maoists, the setting up of roadside camps for villagers flushed out of them, and a great deal of bloodshed on both sides.

Yet by walking through the forest and listening to the Maoists’ stories, Roy exposed a reality that the Indian media had worked overtime to conceal. Forty-five per cent of the rebels, she says, are women; 99 per cent are tribal villagers, the traditional inhabitants of these forests who have taken up the gun in a last, desperate attempt to protect their homes and their land.

“The people [in the forest] are under siege,” she says, “they can’t come out to the market because the markets are full of informers and police, they can’t get medicines, they can’t get rations.” After Singh’s announcement, an anti-Maoist militia called Salwa Judum was set up. “ From 2005, Salwa Judum burned down something like 600 villages and 360,000 people were on the run, 50,000 moved into the camps, many others fled out of the state, many are living in the forest but are afraid to come to their villages.” Well out of sight, a great humanitarian tragedy is under way. Citing the definition in the UN Convention, Roy calls it genocide.

“From being stigmatised as criminals” – squatters on state-owned land – “now [the adivasis] have become terrorists,” she says, “just for staying in their villages and planting their crops. This is terrorist activity because they are with the Maoists. Anybody who is in the forest is with the Maoists.”

When her essay about the trip, Walking with the Comrades, first appeared in India last year, Roy was fiercely criticised for humanising these rebels. For the Indian middle class, wedded to Gandhian ideas about non-violence, their adherence to the gun put them beyond the pale. But, says Roy, what other option did they have?

“I believe that Gandhian resistance is an extremely effective and moral form of political theatre, provided you have a sympathetic audience,” she says. “But what happens when you are a tribal village in the heart of the forest, miles away from anywhere? When the police surround your village, are you going to sit on a hunger strike? Can the hungry go on hunger strike?”

In the years since the triumph of her novel, Roy has become expert at touching the nerve of the Indian middle class. It’s a gift that reflects her own hyper-sensitivity. “I feel sometimes that I live without a skin,” she says. “I live without a protection. And when you live without a skin you actually are all the time living in an ocean of things that ask to be told.

“The country that I live in is becoming more and more repressive, more and more of a police state.... India is hardening as a state. It has to continue to give the impression of being a messy, cuddly democracy but actually what’s going on outside the arc lights is really desperate.”

But at the same time it remains an open society, and the arguments are there to be won. In 2009 the government announced Operation Greenhunt, a new, even tougher attempt to kill off the Maoist insurgency, but it sparked fierce resistance, both inside the forest and beyond. “Among the Indian elite it was okay just to call them Maoist terrorists: they had been de-humanised. So when I, who am not a Maoist, went in and wrote about who they were, it made them human beings, fighting for something very, very serious. And that makes a big difference.

“This is a very interesting time where I think the debates are being cracked open. Real intervention at a real moment can change the paradigm of the debate, even if it doesn’t instantly cause a revolution.”

The novel will just have to wait: her political writing, she says, “Gives people a bit of space to breathe. What I love most about this work is that the minute it’s written it’s translated into [the Indian regional languages] Oriya and Kannada and Telugu...People ask me if I feel isolated: I can’t tell you how un-isolated I feel! If somebody said, how do you get feedback from your writing I’d say I just have to stand at a traffic light! It’s like a dynamic exchange of love and anger and argument, unfolding every minute of the day.”

A Life In Brief

Born: 24 November, 1961, in Shillon, India, near border with Bangladesh.

Education: Aged 16, she moved to New Delhi to study architecture. She still lives in the city.

Family: In 1984 she married second husband, the filmmaker Pradip Krishen, spending the next few years working in a series of odd-jobs while writing screenplays for Indian films.

Career: Her semi-autobiographical debut novel from 1997, The God of Small Things, earned a £500,000 advance and won the Booker Prize. Has since used profile to campaign on environmental issues and against the caste system. This year's Broken Republic: Three Essays, attracted controversy for its defence of tribal Maoist rebels.

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