Arundhati Roy is clearly among the most controversial and prominent Asian writers of the present day. This controversial identity is something she unrepentantly enjoys. The 1997 Booker Prize winner for her God of Small Things and one of India’s most well known foremost writer’s of non-fiction, in Roy’s own words, she likes to ‘hang a peg or two’ when she can.
Having called for the boycott of the last Galle Literary Festival by fellow writers and artistes to protest against Sri Lanka’s human rights record, Roy stoically says that ‘peg hanging’ is done, in her inimitable style, to create space for dissent.
Speaking at Count Me In, a recent South Asian conference organized by CREA, a Delhi-based feminist organization, Roy was in her element speaking on exclusion, evolving feminism and resistance movements.
“The government of India is issuing a Unique Identification number to all citizens. India pontificates about its unique democratic identity while the unique ID will place in the hands of the authorities, information that need not go into any official database. Sometimes I think we should be counted out,” she protests.
Making it sound like a PIN number for self, she demands to know whether it is an inclusive practice. “To be included is when you ensure food and water for all your people. Sometimes, we don’t want to be counted in by governments, because it is actually about exclusion and not inclusion.”
Adds Roy, India has 800 million people living under one Dollar per day- but what policies count them in? “It is a country that has institutionalized exclusion through the caste system. Whether they are Gandhians, Adivasis or Maoists, their lives are all about exclusion. When the State declared war on its own people in Nagaland, Kashmir and Manipur, it was about exclusion. All this is doublespeak. Only bodies are counted not diversity of identities. Certainly not opinions.”
Was Roy the dissident always? She accepts that the streak always existed. Roy grew up with a dominant Syrian Christian mother who broke the village rules by marrying a Bengali Hindu and returning to rural Kerala with two young children as a divorced young woman and began teaching village children for a living.
“I had a complicated relationship with my mother. My brother was often at the receiving end of her anger and pent up frustrations. There was resistance growing within me to most things around us. I ran away from home at 16 and reached Delhi to study architecture.”
She recalls, “The marriages in our village were more like mergers and acquisitions. As a child, I was told that no “proper Syrian Christian boy” would want to marry you. I promptly learned to appreciate such exclusion and promised myself that I would not be a male acquisition.”
For all the arguments she makes for women and equality, Roy shuns the stereotypical feminist identity. ‘There is a fundamental problem with the identity. Is it about organized and theory-wielding activist types or about others who raise issues with empathy” she asks referring to an evolving feminist identity.
Raping of a bandit
Then she speaks of emerging alternate identities. Take Pulan Devi, the dark heroine in Shekar Kapoor’s film, Bandit Queen. Roy recalls, “She was swamped by the media when I visited her. Her life was on cinematic display. This bandit had been converted into India’s most famous serial rape victim in that film and people thronged to watch it on big screen. What I saw was the rape of a bandit”.
For Roy, the film was about how the male mind reiterates and reinforces female victimhood. “This woman’s life story had been cinematographically distorted. Those who lauded the film hated Pulan the woman, the bandit, the outlaw and low caste person. I also saw how she was devoured by the media and promised myself, Booker or no Booker, I was going to avoid the glare and keep my sanity”.
But winning the Booker changed her life and raised her profile instantly. “I used that newly created space and recognition to raise dissent. Used the adulation to hang a few pegs out here. I was perhaps what Thehelka termed: “the Cinderella smashing her glass slippers”.
Stoically taking on issues the mainstream media failed or refused to highlight, Roy won no accolades for her zealous expression of dissent. Her passionate writing drew passionate responses- intense dislike to again, adulation.
One key criticism against Roy is her alleged attempt to romanticize tribal societies. Roy’s writing on the Maoists movement following her encounters fuelled controversy and at times, outrage. But for her writer’s soul, this was absolute fodder.
Alternate feminist models
Among the tribals, Roy identifies feminists dabbling in ‘unfeminine’ tasks and rejecting patriarchal social and power structures. “Some 48% of the guerillas were women. Many had seen their mothers raped, experienced violence and had their homes repeatedly burnt. Talk about exclusion.”
To her, this resistance movement struggling to fight external forces and also forces within remains the ‘biggest feminist movement in India’. And she smiles, ‘but they are called terrorists.”
On a similar note, she finds the women mobilizers associated with Narmada Bacho Andolan to enshrine a new feminist identity. “To me, these are the icons, the emerging feminist identities. The adivasis, the dalits have lived with violence, oppression and inequality and are slowly beginning to push those boundaries. Yet, they are not recognized by the structured agencies and are not funded. So they are not allowed a label.”
The labeling often has a crippling effect, notes Roy. Is a Dalit demanding water an activist? An adivasi demanding forest clearing to stop, a conservationist or activist? What are these labels?
“Can a Maoist go on a hunger strike to demand her village not to be burned down or to demand for food? It is indeed fashionable to go on a hunger strike at Janthar Manthar, the heart of New Delhi where all the cameras are, not in the village and certainly not in the forest,” she remarks adding as an afterthought, “so what can they do but be pushed to become outlaws?”
Roy certainly admits to enjoying ‘breaking little bubbles’ and dealing with taboos. This habit has led to the writer to be sued for her new publication on grounds of ‘corrupting public morality’. And she laughs,”as if India’s moral sphere was truly pure until I came along!”
And she feels the narrative of victimhood should and will change. The past narrative will lead to the building of resistance movements- to resist labels and practices both. For more vibrant and meaningful engagements that exclude exclusion.
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