N O T E S F R O M T H E S O U T H
The Riches We Hold
I spoke to author Arundhati Roy when she was in Durban for Time of the Writer
Made famous by one of he last great novels of the 20th century, Arundhati Roy didn’t quite expect the celebrity that came with the commercial and critical success of The God of Small Things. But she has singularly used that success as a distinctly political tool to shine a light on the machinations of the powerful against the powerless.
She has done so in numerous essays, in public appearances, in travels across the globe and, importantly, by sharing the rewards of her financial success; not in destructive blanket donations, but in small, carefully considered injections into resistance movements around the globe.
Now she is sitting in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban, on one of the first days of the city’s summer. She is an angelic imp with calm, wild eyes, her head shorn — so different from the publicity photograph that accompanied The God of Small Things. A haircut carrying whispers of catharsis and comfort and shades of effortless Coco Chanel
But we’re not supposed to notice when writers cut their hair, least of all when they are radically intelligent social commentators. Such observations should be reserved for rock stars and supermodels and David Beckham.
The cult of celebrity is pervasive and Roy knows that, much as she rejects the position of celebrity activist. She is a writer and it is her words, not her beautiful face, that have brought attention to the plights of millions. Before entering the political battlegrounds she now occupies, she wrote an extremely sad, exceedingly beautiful book that virtually everybody loved.
Through that success, she acquired a platform to tell the world other stories. They were about nuclear warheads; massive, people-displacing, environmentally disastrous dams; monolithic nationalisms; and the multinationals that form a central thread in her almost real-time narrative.
When you are a successful, popular novelist writing about such things, all kinds of people demand that you talk about the things you write about. So talk she does, tirelessly, and with seemingly infinite charm and patience. To video cameras, to radio microphones, to audiences around the world. To me.
After our interview I wonder if Roy (who is 40 and looks 10 years younger) has always been this gracious, this contained, this at peace with herself, even as she wages with focused rage a war on the very fabric of the “aching, broken world” to which she wakes up each morning. Because this rage has somehow not made her bitter, has not skewed her arguments into the realm of moral propaganda.
These are simple facts, simple thoughts, simple things. No complex arguments need to be invoked. She also talks about how much of life contains joy and beauty. And underneath all her energy and focus and determination, I sense that it is this hugely positive take on life that drives her. Her dream of a better world that exists on different principles, away from the monolithic religion of capitalism and its super-rich apostles of the boardroom.
I ask Roy to what extent her personal spirituality informs her political activism. “In any situation of conflict,” she says, “you do have to think very deeply about your own body — and when I say body, I mean everything. I think that it’s very important to realise that the greater the conflicts which are public, which are political, the more you need to have almost the opposite in your own life."
“It’s like you need to prove that what you’re fighting for is something beautiful. You need to have proof of that beauty: in your relationships, in the lack of smallness and pettiness and meanness and all that. And in freedom. And in refusing to play by the pre-set rules of the games.” At the same time, she says, when you’re as deeply critical of a place as she is of both India and the planet, it also must come from love. “What’s the use of fighting,” she asks, “if there’s nothing to preserve? What’s the use if there’s no beauty, there’s no grace, there’s no tenderness, there’s no gentleness?”
But, she says, her personal quest isn’t a search for the pristine. Rather, it’s a “search for a sort of integrity which only you can recognise. There are conflicts and contradictions in all of that, and given that, what is the honest place to be?”
Roy talks about being rewarded for the success of her novel in material terms that are, in her words, “completely out of line”. “I don’t think that there’s anything that one can do for which you need to be rewarded like this. It’s a symptom that there’s something terribly wrong in the world. But what do you do with that? How do you manage it? After all, it’s so very destructive to go splashing money around, and giving it away as charity. It destroys. So you hold it like you hold a nuclear weapon. And you can’t put it down."
“And you don’t necessarily always have the right answers. But you just have to try. You can’t just say
'I don’t know’ and 'I’m just giving up on this’.” But sometimes, surely, we all feel like doing so. Does she ever feel the temptation to just walk away from the world, from all the pain and all the suffering and all the pressure?
“I think everyone feels those feelings,” she says. “And it’s not that I don’t. I do.” And here, she places an almost painful emphasis on the words “I do”.
“I do walk away in my head — very often, you know. You have to. And I think one of the things about spirituality of any kind is to understand that it’s a very delicate balance between your consequentiality and your inconsequentiality (laughs). So you also have to know that you can’t do everything. You can’t be everything. You can only think 'what am I effective at? What am I best at?’"
“And I’m not best at living in a village and wearing traditional clothes and being an activist. I’m not good at that. Because I’m in conflict even culturally with a lot of people whose struggle I support. As a woman, I’m not going to play into the hands of a traditional Indian farmer because he’s been displaced by a dam. But I know I am effective as a writer. I am effective as somebody who is one of the few people in the world, I suppose, who has the privilege of spanning the range from a village in central India where open-cast miners are organised, to speaking in Riverside Church in New York. And that is a great range. And I’m one of those lucky people who do span it."