Arundhati Roy (born 24 November 1961) is an Indian writer who writes in English and an activist who focuses on issues related to social justice and economic inequality. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, and has also written two screenplays and several collections of essays.
For her work as an activist she received the Cultural Freedom Prize awarded by the Lannan Foundation in 2002.
Early life and background
She spent her childhood in Aymanam in Kerala, and went to school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, where she met her first husband, architect Gerard da Cunha.
Roy met her second husband, filmmaker Pradip Krishen, in 1984, and played a village girl in his award-winning movie Massey Sahib. Until made financially stable by the success of her novel The God of Small Things, she worked various jobs, including running aerobics classes at five-star hotels in New Delhi. Roy is a cousin of prominent media personality Prannoy Roy, the head of the leading Indian TV media group NDTV,. She lives in New Delhi.
Early career: screenplays
Early in her career, Roy worked for television and movies. She wrote the screenplays for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), a movie based on her experiences as a student of architecture, directed by her current husband, and Electric Moon (1992); in both she also appeared as a performer. Roy attracted attention in 1994, when she criticised Shekhar Kapur's film Bandit Queen, based on the life of Phoolan Devi. In her film review titled, 'The Great Indian Rape Trick', she questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission," and charged Kapur with exploiting Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.
The God of Small Things
The publication of The God of Small Things catapulted Roy to instant international fame. It received the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction and was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year for 1997. It reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction. From the beginning, the book was also a commercial success: Roy received half a million pounds as an advance; It was published in May, and the book had been sold to eighteen countries by the end of June.
The God of Small Things received stellar reviews in major American newspapers such as The New York Times (a "dazzling first novel," "extraordinary," "at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple") and the Los Angeles Times ("a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep"), and in Canadian publications such as the Toronto Star ("a lush, magical novel"). By the end of the year, it had become one of the five best books of 1997 by TIME. Critical response in the United Kingdom was less positive, and that the novel was awarded the Booker Prize caused controversy; Carmen Callil, a 1996 Booker Prize judge, called the novel "execrable," and The Guardian called the contest "profoundly depressing." In India, the book was criticized especially for its unrestrained description of sexuality by E. K. Nayanar, then Chief Minister of Roy's homestate Kerala, where she had to answer charges of obscenity.
Since the success of her novel, Roy has been working as a screenplay writer again, writing a television serial, The Banyan Tree, and the documentary DAM/AGE: A Film with Arundhati Roy (2002).
Arundhati Roy was one of the contributors on the book We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, released in October 2009. The book explores the culture of peoples around the world, portraying their diversity and the threats to their existence. The royalties from the sale of this book go to the indigenous rights organization Survival International.
Advocacy and controversy
Since The God of Small Things Roy has devoted herself mainly to nonfiction and politics, publishing two more collections of essays, as well as working for social causes. She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and of the global policies of the United States. She also criticizes India's nuclear weapons policies and the approach to industrialization and rapid development as currently being practiced in India, including the Narmada Dam project and the power company Enron's activities in India.
Support for Kashmiri separatism
In an interview with Times of India published in August 2008, Arundhati Roy expressed her support for the independence of Kashmir from India after massive demonstrations in favor of independence took place–some 500,000 separatists rallied in Srinagar in the Kashmir part of Jammu and Kashmir state of India for independence on 18 August 2008, according to Time magazine. She took the rallies as a clear sign that Kashmiris desire independence from India, and not union with India. She was criticized by Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for her remarks, but along with Roy some mainstream Indian journalists, such as Vir Sanghvi (executive editor of the Hindustan Times), Jug Suraiya (editor of the The Times of India), and Swaminathan Aiyar (also at The Times of India), have argued similarly.
Sardar Sarovar Project
Roy has campaigned along with activist Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam project, saying that the dam will displace half a million people, with little or no compensation, and will not provide the projected irrigation, drinking water and other benefits. Roy donated her Booker prize money as well as royalties from her books on the project to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Roy also appears in Franny Armstrong's Drowned Out, a 2002 documentary about the project. Roy's opposition to the Narmada Dam project was criticised as "maligning Gujarat" by Congress and BJP leaders in Gujarat.
In 2002, Roy responded to a contempt notice issued against her by the Indian Supreme Court with an affidavit saying the court's decision to initiate the contempt proceedings based on an unsubstantiated and flawed petition, while refusing to inquire into allegations of corruption in military contracting deals pleading an overload of cases, indicated a "disquieting inclination" by the court to silence criticism and dissent using the power of contempt. The court found Roy's statement, which she refused to disavow or apologize for, constituted criminal contempt and sentenced her to a "symbolic" one day's imprisonment and fined Roy Rs. 2500. Roy served the jail sentence for a single day and opted to pay the fine rather than serve an additional three months' imprisonment for default.
Environmental historian Ramachandra Guha has been critical of Roy's Narmada dam activism. While acknowledging her "courage and commitment" to the cause, Guha writes that her advocacy is hyperbolic and self-indulgent, "Ms. Roy's tendency to exaggerate and simplify, her Manichean view of the world, and her shrill hectoring tone, have given a bad name to environmental analysis". He faults Roy's criticism of Supreme Court judges who were hearing a petition brought by the Narmada Bachao Andolan as careless and irresponsible.
Roy counters that her writing is intentional in its passionate, hysterical tone: "I am hysterical. I'm screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he and his smug little club are going 'Shhhh... you'll wake the neighbours!' I want to wake the neighbours, that's my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes".
Gail Omvedt and Roy have had a fierce discussions, in open letters, on Roy's strategy for the Narmada Dam movement. Though the activists disagree on whether to demand stopping the dam building all together (Roy) or searching for intermediate alternatives (Omvedt), the exchange has mostly been, though critical, constructive.
United States foreign policy, the War in Afghanistan
In a 2001 opinion piece in the British newspaper The Guardian, Arundhati Roy responded to the US military invasion of Afghanistan, finding fault with the argument that this war would be a retaliation for the September 11 attacks: "The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world." According to her, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were guilty of a Big Brother-kind of doublethink: "When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said: 'We're a peaceful nation.' America's favourite ambassador, Tony Blair, (who also holds the portfolio of prime minister of the UK), echoed him: 'We're a peaceful people.' So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is peace."
She disputes U.S. claims of being a peaceful and freedom-loving nation, listing China and nineteen 3rd World "countries that America has been at war with – and bombed – since the second world war", as well as previous U.S. support for the Taliban movement and support for the Northern Alliance (whose "track record is not very different from the Taliban's"). She does not spare the Taliban: "Now, as adults and rulers, the Taliban beat, stone, rape and brutalise women, they don't seem to know what else to do with them."
In the final analysis, Roy sees American-style capitalism as the culprit: "In America, the arms industry, the oil industry, the major media networks, and, indeed, US foreign policy, are all controlled by the same business combines." She puts the attacks on the World Trade Center and on Afghanistan on the same moral level, that of terrorism, and mourns the impossibility of imagining beauty after 2001: "Will it be possible ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a newborn gecko in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered in your ear – without thinking of the World Trade Centre and Afghanistan?"
In May 2003 she delivered a speech entitled "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy" at the Riverside Church in New York City. In it she described the United States as a global empire that reserves the right to bomb any of its subjects at any time, deriving its legitimacy directly from God. The speech was an indictment of the U.S. actions relating to the Iraq War. In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq. In March 2006, Roy criticized US President George W. Bush's visit to India, calling him a "war criminal".
India's nuclear weaponisation
In response to India's testing of nuclear weapons in Pokhran, Rajasthan, Roy wrote The End of Imagination (1998), a critique of the Indian government's nuclear policies. It was published in her collection The Cost of Living (1999), in which she also crusaded against India's massive hydroelectric dam projects in the central and western states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
Criticism of Israel
In August 2006, Roy, along with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others, signed a letter in The Guardian called the 2006 Lebanon War a "war crime" and accused Israel of "state terror." In 2007, Roy was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed an open letter initiated by Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism and the South West Asian, North African Bay Area Queers and calling on the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival "to honor calls for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions, by discontinuing Israeli consulate sponsorship of the LGBT film festival and not cosponsoring events with the Israeli consulate."
2001 Indian Parliament attack
Roy has raised questions about the investigation into the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the trial of the accused. She has called for the death sentence of Mohammad Afzal to be stayed while a parliamentary enquiry into these questions are conducted and denounced press coverage of the trial. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has criticized Roy for what it alleges is defence of a terrorist going against the national interest.[dead link]
The Muthanga incident
In 2003, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a social movement for adivasi land rights in Kerala, organized a major land occupation of a piece of land of a former Eucalyptus plantation in the Muthanga Wildlife Reserve, on the border of Kerala and Karnataka. After 48 days, a police force was sent into the area to evict the occupants–one participant of the movement and a policeman were killed, and the leaders of the movement were arrested. Arundhati Roy travelled to the area, visited the movement's leaders in jail, and wrote an open letter to the then Chief Minister of Kerala, A.K. Antony now India's Defence Minister, saying "You have blood on your hands."
Comments on 2008 Mumbai attacks
In an opinion piece for The Guardian (13 December 2008), Roy argued that the November 2008 Mumbai attacks can not be seen in isolation, but must be understood in the context of wider issues in the region's history and society such as widespread poverty, the Partition of India (which Roy calls "Britain's final, parting kick to us"), the atrocities committed during the 2002 Gujarat violence, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Despite this call for context, Roy states clearly in the article that she believes "nothing can justify terrorism" and calls terrorism "a heartless ideology." Roy warns against war with Pakistan, arguing that it is hard to "pin down the provenance of a terrorist strike and isolate it within the borders of a single nation state", and that war could lead to the "descent of the whole region into chaos". Her remarks were strongly criticized by Salman Rushdie and others, who condemned her for linking the Bombay attacks with Kashmir and economic injustice against Muslims in India; Rushdie specifically criticized Roy for attacking the iconic status of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. Indian writer Tavleen Singh called Roy's comments "he latest of her series of hysterical diatribes against India and all things Indian."
War in Sri Lanka against Tamil rebels, 2009
In an opinion piece, once again in The Guardian (April 1, 2009), Roy made a plea for international attention to what she perceived, based on reports, to be a possible government-sponsored genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. She cited reports of camps into which Tamils were being herded as part of what she described as "a brazen, openly racist war." She also mentioned that the "Government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide" and described the Sri Lankan IDP camps where Tamil civilians are being held as concentration camps. Ruvani Freeman, a Sri Lankan writer called Roy's remarks "ill-informed and hypocritical" and criticized her for whitewashing the atrocities of the LTTE
Violation of forest law
In 2003, Arundhati and her husband, were according to The Telegraph informed by Panchmarhi district administration that "a hilltop bungalow her husband owns near Panchmarhi stands on notified forest land and has to be pulled down...on grounds of violation of forest law.". Also named in the case was the sister of Indian novelist Vikram Seth and two forest officials. Arundhati–s husband bought the 4,346 sq ft plot in 1994.
Views on the Naxals
Roy has criticized Government's armed actions against the Naxalite-Maoist insurgents in India, calling it "war on the poorest people in the country". According to her, the Government launched the offensive in Naxals to aid the corporations with whom it has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). While she has received support from various quarters for her views, Roy's description of the Maoists as "Gandhians" raised a controversy. Writers with the South Asia Analysis Group have alleged that Roy does not hold sympathy for the victims of Maoist "terrorism".
Arundhati Roy was awarded the 1997 Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things. The award carried a prize of about US $30,000 and a citation that noted, 'The book keeps all the promises that it makes.' Prior to this, she won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1989, for the screenplay of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones.
In 2002, she won the Lannan Foundation's Cultural Freedom Award for her work "about civil societies that are adversely affected by the world–s most powerful governments and corporations," in order "to celebrate her life and her ongoing work in the struggle for freedom, justice and cultural diversity."
In January 2006, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, a national award from India's Academy of Letters, for her collection of essays on contemporary issues, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, but she declined to accept it "in protest against the Indian Government toeing the US line by 'violently and ruthlessly pursuing policies of brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarisation and economic neo-liberalisation.'"
Speeches, Essays, Interviews
Books and articles on Roy
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