As the Booker Prize-winning author of the best-selling novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy is one of India's most celebrated literary exports. She has been feted around the world since the book was published eight years ago, but she has frustrated the literary establishment by refusing to write any more fiction and turning to political campaigning.
So when Roy brought out a collection of essays last year entitled The Algebra of Infinite Justice, the Indian academy of letters jumped to attention and rushed to honour her with their most prestigious literary award. The problem for the Sahitya Akademi is that Roy refuses to accept it. As a vehement anti-government campaigner, she says, she cannot accept commendation from a body with such strong ties to the Indian authorities. The problem for Roy (pictured) is that the Akademi is going to honour her anyway.
While Roy says she is flattered by the prize, her objection is that the Akademi receives money from the government she abhors. The Sahitya Akademi, the Indian National Academy of Letters, was founded by the government in 1954 to foster literary activities in all the Indian languages, and thereby to promote the cultural unity of India. Although intellectually and culturally independent (as it is now vigorously reaffirming), it depends on the government for funds. As a result Roy is refusing to accept the 2005 Literary Award, which consists of a plaque and the equivalent of about £570.
A staunch critic of past and present Indian governments' policies on Iraq, nuclear testing and the construction of dams, Roy has long campaigned against them in person and in print. In a letter sent to the chairman of the Akademi, and seen by The Independent on Sunday, Roy explains the essaysare "deeply critical of some of the major policies of the Indian state... on big dams, increasing militarisation and economic neo-liberalism." Today's government remains committed to these policies, she writes, and "is clearly prepared to implement them ruthlessly and violently, whatever the cost".
But the Akademi members are unabashed. "We are an independent and autonomous body, culturally and intellectually, and the prize is from the people's money," said its secretary, Professor K Satchidanandan.
In any case, he added, there is no provision for withdrawing the award or replacing Roy with any other writer. Despite her protests, it looks as if Arundhati Roy will be honoured, whether she likes it or not.