'I know I must finish my novel – one day'

Arundhati Roy has put fiction aside for 14 years to focus on social justice. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online

Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for The God Of Small Things, is not in the frame for this year's award. Again. In fact, she has yet to follow up her first book – which John Updike described as her "Tiger Woodsian debut".

It's not for want of trying: it is no secret that she has a second novel in the pipeline. "Everybody has known that for many years!" she laughs.

Few have had a glimpse of it, however. One exception is her friend John Berger, the octogenarian novelist and art critic. He was so impressed that he urged her to drop everything and finish it. "A year-and-a-half ago I was in John's home," she recalls. "He said, 'Open your computer and read me whatever fiction you are writing'. He is, perhaps, the only person with the guts to say that to me. I read a bit to him, and he said, 'You go back to Delhi and finish that book'. So I said 'ok ...' "

But her attempt to obey was derailed. "I went back to Delhi," she says, "and in a few weeks a note was pushed under my door: an anonymous typewritten note asking me to visit the Maoists in the jungles of central India."

It was a tough ask – to enter the dark heart of India's secret warzone. But not one Roy could refuse. Since her stunning Booker success, her real passion has been politics, not fiction.

Today, India is going down the same path travelled centuries ago by European colonialists: identifying sources of minerals, driving off the people living on top of them and using them to grow rich. The difference is that India has no Australia or Latin America to plunder. Instead, Roy says, "it is colonising itself, turning upon its own poor to extract raw materials".

Centuries after the plunder of resources began, people living in countries such as Britain began to understand the horrors that had been committed along the way: the indigenous peoples massacred, the traditions erased. But, by then, remorse came cheap: the fortunes had been made.

In India, however, all this is happening now, so remorse is far more expensive: if sincerely meant, it could throw a spanner in the happiness machine.

When Roy accepted the Maoists' invitation, she was aware that what was being done to millions of adivasis – the tribal people in the central Indian forests – was a touchy subject.

India's Naxalite rebellion started in the 1960s, in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, and has sputtered on ever since. But in 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised the communist movement's profile dramatically, when he described it as "India's greatest internal security threat".

Roy believes the timing was significant. "It coincided with the government signing hundreds of secret agreements with 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 indigenous people to get them out of their villages so the mining companies could move in."

Hundreds of thousands of paramilitaries were deployed to do the job. There followed the burning of hundreds of villages "infested" by Maoists, much bloodshed, and the setting up of roadside camps for displaced villagers.

But when her essay about the trip, Walking With The Comrades, appeared last year, 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 who have taken up guns in a last, desperate attempt to protect their homes and land.

Roy was criticised for humanising the rebels. For the Indian middle class – wedded to Gandhian ideas of non-violence – the rebels' adherence to the gun puts them beyond the pale. But what option did they have, asks Roy?

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

Roy has become expert at touching the nerve of the Indian elite. 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, so [I am living], all the time, in an ocean of things that ask to be told.

"The country I live in is becoming more and more repressive, more and more of a police state. India is hardening. It has to continues to give the impression of being a messy, cuddly democracy, but what's going on outside the arc lights is desperate."

But India remains an open society, so the argument is there to be won. "I think the debates are being cracked open," she says. "Real intervention at can change the paradigm of the debate, even if it doesn't instantly cause a revolution."

The novel will have to wait: her political writing, she says, "gives people space to breathe".

"What I love most is that the minute it's written, it's translated into [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 somebodyasked, how I get feedback from my writing, I'd say I just have to stand at a traffic light! It's like a dynamic exchange of love, anger and argument, unfolding every day."

Born 24 November 1961, in Shillong in eastern India, near border with Bangladesh.

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

Family In 1984 she married second husband, the filmmaker Pradip Krishen, and spent the next few years doing odd-jobs and writing screenplays for films.

Career Her semi-autobiographical debut novel in 1997, The God of Small Things, earned a £500,000 advance and won the Booker Prize. Roy has since used her high profile to campaign on environmental issues and against the caste system. This year she published three essays under the title Broken Republic, which attracted controversy for their defence of tribal Maoist rebels.