The year before its second nuclear tests, the world's largest democracy hurled a bomb onto the international stage. At first, people didn't realise it was a bomb. It was tiny, looked harmless and took a while to explode. But explode it did and the world's largest democracy is still reeling. Or perhaps we should say "democracy". Perhaps, in fact, we should say "heavily sponsored, TV-friendly spectator sport".
The bomb, of course, was Arundhati Roy, the fragile-looking beauty from Kerala whose whimsical tale of two-egg twins and pickles, literal and metaphorical, bagged the Booker and set the world on fire. For India, this was confirmation that theirs was a land rich in saleable exports: photogenic, charming and home-grown. No hooded eyes or fatwas here; no unseemly flight to London or New York. Here was glamour, here was grace, here was huge-eyed modesty in a sari. This was the face of the new India: sophisticated, educated, funny and – did we mention this? – drop-dead gorgeous.
"I have truly known," wrote Roy the year after her Booker win, "what it means for a writer to feel loved." She was, she added, "one of the items being paraded in the media's end-of-the-year National Pride Parade". I don't think she would be now. Her comments were made in an essay, "The End of Imagination", written in August 1998, three months after those nuclear tests. She had dreamed, she wrote, after her "five minutes" of fame, of growing "old and irresponsible", eating "mangoes in the moonlight" and maybe writing a couple of "worstsellers" to "see what it felt like". All this was blown apart. "There can be nothing more humiliating," she wrote, "for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has already been made." She did it anyway. She had, she felt, to write about the apocalyptic folly of a government that found displays of nuclear-fuelled nationalism more of a priority than educating its 400 million illiterate inhabitants.
And so the new Arundhati Roy was born, the Arundhati Roy described, often with an air of bemusement, as a "writer-activist" (a label she said made her think of a sofa-bed), the Arundhati Roy who hacked off her flowing locks and hacked off India's ruling classes. After that first blistering denunciation of India's attempt to "be admitted into the club of Superpowers", she found she couldn't stop. The following year she started campaigning on behalf of the one million- odd people whose homes, and livelihoods, were threatened by the massive Narmada dam project. Since then, she has written about the American response to 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and now, in Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, the dark heart of the world's largest democracy, its corruption, double-speak and neo-fascism. "You know how it is," she writes in the introduction, "the Chinese do Sport, so they had the Olympics; India does Democracy, so we had an election." Which gives you a taste of the tone.
What you don't get in the writing – passionate, searing and often witty – is the anarchic spirit that bubbles below the surface, the sudden bursts of laughter, the sometimes wicked smile. Her peculiar outfit – flowery turquoise jacket coupled with voluminous grey harem pants made by a local tailor who's an alcoholic – might have Trinny and Susannah screeching in horror, but it can't hide her beauty. Neither can her slightly wild, scraped-back-with-a-hairband-and-now-streaked-with-grey hair. "I had my photo taken on this chair yesterday," she says, as I gasp at the fluorescent green colour scheme in Penguin's meeting room. She's probably the only writer who could carry it off.
She is also one of the only writers to have hit international stardom with fiction that won plaudits for its winsome playfulness and to have eschewed it, for more than a decade, for deadly serious polemic. "I worry," she says in the introduction to Listening to Grasshoppers "that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry." Actually, Roy's non-fiction is something like a "feral howl". It's something like poetry, too. It's clear, ruthless, blazing, as compelling as fiction, and as precise (at least at moments) as poetry. Did she have any models when she started?
"No," she says. "I was just this fairy princess of the rising Indian middle class and then the nuclear tests happened and it was obvious to me that keeping quiet was as political as saying something. It was the first act of stepping into a space where I was willing to come in for media attack." You can say that again. If the media went mad, the authorities went ballistic. Following a court case (on charges so surreal that they would, in other circumstances, be funny) that lasted a year, she was sent to jail. The sentence was three months, but she was released, after paying a fine, after a day. It was, in fact, her third court case. The first arose from a critique she wrote about Shekhar Kapur's film The Bandit Queen and the second from that enchanting (and, you'd have thought, harmless) Booker bestseller. Was it a shock to discover how powerful a writer could be?
"When I decided to write The God of Small Things, I had been working in cinema," she explains. "It was almost a decision to downshift from there. I thought that 300 people would read it. But it created a platform of trust. This," she says, pointing at the new book, "is about saying 'let's distribute this piece of writing as a weapon so that everybody can understand it'... Years of imprisoning and beheading writers never succeeded in shutting them out. However, placing them in the heart of a market and rewarding them with a lot of commercial success, has."
Certainly, there's nothing like a bit of material success to blunt the hunger of many an artist for the end of capitalism, and Roy, as a successful writer who is also (let's not beat about the bush) extremely rich, has attracted attacks for letting the side down. She has learnt how to deal with it. "You're not," she says, "some innocent who goes out thinking everybody's going to stand up and clap and say 'oh, how wonderful'. It's not about reviews and ratings. This political writing, in India, is translated into so many languages and published in little pamphlets. It has an informal and radical life of its own which I value more than anything else in the world."
The value, it's clear, comes from the knowledge that she speaks for the silent, powerless (and often illiterate) majority in a country where "creating a good investment climate" is the new euphemism for "third world repression". And she knows about poverty, too. When her alcoholic, Bengali Hindu father left the family home when she was two, her Keralite Syrian Christian mother struggled to provide for her family. Eventually, she started a school, where Roy was her chief helper. At 16, she left Kerala for Delhi, living in a small hut with a tin roof and earning her living by selling empty beer bottles. Later, she studied architecture, met her film-maker husband, Pradip Krishen and moved into films and fiction. But the taste of poverty, and its impotence, has never left her.
It must be thrilling, of course, to speak on behalf of so many millions, but it must be a dizzying responsibility, too. Does it ever feel like a burden? For a moment, Roy's dainty features look stricken. "I walk a very thin line between retaining my space as a writer," she says, "and people expecting me to be some 'leader', which I simply am not. As a writer, I want to reserve the right not to fulfil people's expectations... I spent the early part of my life unhitching myself from the traditions of my community and wanting to be in a city and smoke dope. The middle class thinks that an activist should wear a hand-loomed sari and behave well. What if I don't want to behave well?"
Oh good. Here's the spiky, abrasive, tricky Arundhati Roy, the one who can do girlish charm, but prefers to speak her mind, the one who has, in the past, fiercely resisted the label "nice". Why does she resist it so strongly? Her answer, like all her answers, is a perfectly crafted mini essay. The gist of it is that non-violent movements in India have been marginalised and are now turning into armed struggles, and that while she is "not about to" condone them, neither is she about to condemn them. Well, sure, but isn't it partly just the deep-seated rebelliousness that has, clearly, been there from childhood?
Roy smiles. "I think that there are people who are comfortable with power and there are people who automatically start arguing again," she says. "There's so much bile and yet I've become very cool about it. I just laugh and think 'what's dissent without a few good insults?'. In fact, after the Mumbai attacks, before I wrote about it, there was already a letter in Outlook saying 'oh God, I'm dreading what she's going to write'. But frankly," she adds, "it's not important what type of person I am."
Well, I plead, it is for me. "If I were talking to you having written a novel," she concedes, "I might have been more comfortable talking about myself, but now it's almost like I hesitate to claim authorship of this because it's about so many people." Yes, yes, the silent millions etc, but Arundhati Roy is not silent, and the reason TV cameras follow her from one protest to the next is because of her – sorry, but we have to use the word – celebrity. "But celebrity for what?" she says. "As a writer, it's not for anything else." Er, no. And your point is?
And so our (well-mannered) fight goes on. When I ask if we're doomed, she talks to me about bauxite. When I say that the non-violent resistance in relation to the dams failed, she tells me that "there have been victories and some defeats". When I ask about Obama, she says that America is "not negotiating with the world because of Obama but because its economy has collapsed". And when I ask her what she does with her money, she tells me, but won't let me write it down. Suffice it to say, it does not go on bling.
And then, in case I think she's some kind of saint, fighting for the poor and living like Mother Theresa, she tells me that she lives in "a nice place" (apart from her husband, with whom she has a "happy, anarchic" relationship) and that she spends a lot of her time just "hanging out with friends". "For me," she says, "that means everything. I really worry about these political people that have no personal life. If there's nothing that's lovely, and if there's nothing that's just ephemeral, that you can just lie on the floor and bust a gut laughing at, then what's the point?"
What's the point indeed? Oh, and did I mention that Arundhati Roy is writing another novel? "It's about what goes on," she says, as if every other novel wasn't, "in our hearts and minds." Clearly, we'll just have to wait.
'Listening to Grasshoppers' is published by Hamish HamiltonReuse content