Friday, September 2, 2011

Discovering Arundhati Roy: An Exceptional Indian Novelist, Essayist and Activist

Arundhati Roy speaking at
Harvard University in April 2010

While browsing the weekend edition of the Financial Times back in June, I came across the lead article in the Life and Arts section that intrigued me. It was about an Indian writer who had won the Booker Prize for the best fiction in 1997, The God of Small Things. (More on this linguistic poetic/prose masterpiece in  a later blog.)

What amazed me was that Arundhati Roy, far from following up her sudden success (and financial fortune) with another piece of fiction, has spent the last 14 years of her life fighting the abuse of those with power over the powerless.  This is evidenced by the abuses of the touchables against the untouchables (in part as a result of the lingering caste system), a corrupt government awarding wireless licences through bribery and a rampant, voracious bunch of capitalists and industrialists eager to exploit the millions of poor underprivileged farmers for their own private financial gains.

She has recently spent weeks living among the Maoists soldiers in central India who are fighting the Indian government troops and the mining companies; the latter are bent on dispossessing millions of natives from their ancestral tribal lands in the Indian state of Chattisgarh to mine bauxite for aluminum.

She has been most vocal in her fighting for the rights of millions of dispossessed (aboriginal) farmers along the Narmada River where the government is building hundreds of dams and flooding the lands of peoples who have been living there longer than the Hindus have lived in India. Her experiences are documented in her latest book, Broken Republic.

In the DAM/AGE video, an excellent and moving documentary, she details the arithmetic. Over 3600 dams have been built in modern India resulting in 56 million people being displaced by them since 1947. 60% are Adavasi and Dalit, indigenous people and untouchables.

These figures become more significant and 'chilling', she claims, when you consider that Adavasi account for only 8 percent and the Dalits another 15 percent of the country's population; this "opens up a whole other dimension to the story. This is the algebra of infinite justice. The ethnic otherness of their victims takes some pressure off the nation builders. It's like having an expense account. Someone else pays the bills--people from another country another world. India's poorest peoples are subsidizing the lifestyles of their richest." (Roy reading from her book The Greater Common Good.)

These displaced people have no place to settle but in slum areas of big cities living in makeshift huts and are often forced to beg to make a living.

The big cities are becoming squalid and filthy, overrun by millions of displaced farmers and their families kicked off their hereditary lands from which they have for hundreds of years sustained their lives.

The above depressing scenario is the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) we have seen recently in the recent blockbuster movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

The above scenario is the Calcutta depicted in the movie City of Joy (1992)- starring Patrick Swayze.

For her outspokenness and participating in marches in  Delhi, Roy was accused of criminal contempt of court- accused of  "lowering the dignity of the Supreme Court -scandalizing it and lowering its authority and that's a criminal offense."

She had to wait months for the outcome of the hearings.

She was convicted of criminal contempt and sentenced to one day's imprisonment. She then opted to pay a fine of 2,000 rupees (30 Pounds) rather than be incarcerated for 3 months.

Her life is truly amazing and perhaps her next novel will deal with her decade long experiences of swimming in the 'river of life.'
Image source (1)

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