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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor