The goddess of big things

The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

ARUNDHATI ROY first captured western attention with The God of Small Things, her Booker Prize-winning novel set in Kerala, her birthplace.

However, while ever a creative writer, she has since devoted her life and, by extension, her pen to the causes of the common man, most notably as a critic of the Narmada dams project with its consequent displacement of millions of people. Those people, who have suffered the tyranny of “compulsory purchase orders”, have been disenfranchised and seen their lands flooded, their protests violently put down, their freedom a myth.

Pandit Nehru said “dams are the temples of modern India.” Grandiose though this sounds from a pillar of the young democracy, “the thing about dams and the struggle against them is that people have to understand that they’re just monuments to corruption and they are undemocratic. They centralise natural resources, snatch them away from people and then redistribute them to a favoured few.” These favoured few seem to drive the “free market” behemoth that is modern India. They, in the form of the Indian government, have made it clear, for instance, that in the matter of the Bhopal gas tragedy they support the outrageously negligent US company Union Carbide over the survivors of the tragedy.

Roy speaks witheringly of corporate globalisation that underwrites such corruption. Companies such as Enron, disgraced in the United States, continues with the blessing of the authorities to suck money out of the Indian economy. In fact, so blatant is the graft, the government is paying Enron not to produce electricity because it is so expensive.

It is a short leap of the imagination from corporate globalisation to recolonisation of this “post-colonial” democracy. One anecdote, in particular, highlights the correlation between the two: while trying to explain to villagers what globalisation was doing to the people of India, an environmentalist was met with blank expressions until one villager leapt up and said, “the East India Company has come back”.

American imperialism is a particular subject of scorn for Roy. George Bush is the king of this American empire which has metamorphosed from the British empire, and Tony Blair is seen as his foreign minister, especially in the context of the so-called War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m no patriot, and am fully aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that I speak as a subject of the US empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticise her king.”

Roy is an articulate critic of injustice in its myriad forms. Her critique is righteous, but well balanced; global in aspect, yet immediate in impact. She is a citizen of the world who rejects any association with nationalism, yet has suffered a period in jail for her defence of fellow Indians. The interviews gathered in this beautifully designed volume reveal a highly motivated woman who does not suffer fools gladly and does not suffer exploitation at all. The one-on-one interview format, reminiscent of the Paris Match interviews of the ’70s , serves to contextualise the arguments she has already proposed in earlier articles; the comprehensive notes and index provide an extensive record of provenance.

“A singer sings, a painter paints, a writer writes. For some it’s a profession. For others it’s a calling. One does it because one must.” In so doing, Arundhati Roy offers thought-provoking reflection not only on imperialism/globalisation, but on the judiciary, NGOs, the double-edged sword of violent and peaceful resistance, and religious conflict. May she continue to do so for the benefit of the global community.


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