Lifestyle & Belief

The Guardian's Ian Jack recalls Arundhati Roy

Full disclosure: I have a sneaking admiration and raging literary jealousy when it comes to Arundhati Roy, whose first novel, The God of Small Things, won her the Booker Prize.  Apart from taking the literary world by storm and putting a newish kind of so-called "Indian writing in English" on the publishing map, she's pulled a sortof reverse JD Salinger by quitting fiction writing to become a full-time activist (meanwhile turning to the bombastic rhetoric of the pamphleteer in her journalistic work).  She's a problematic figure here, though, because of her unique package of gorgeous looks, literary chops, Western fame and self-proclaimed selflessness.  On the one hand, she brings enormous attention to worthy causes that might otherwise fall into the abyss in the Indian media, let alone internationally.  But on the other, she makes no bones about "going native" on stories, seems to make no effort to substantiate many of her accusations, and tends to place herself at the center of everything she writes, as though the real story of the Maoist struggle, for instance, is their meeting in the jungle with a plucky former aerobics instructor (OK, Booker Prize winning novelist -- that raging literary jealousy is coming out).

Nevertheless, like everybody else, I never tire of reading about her hijinks, so I had a good look at Ian Jack's piece in the Guardian....  He gets Roy better than most, and manages to balance the good and the bad to explain what she's up to, and why it matters.

Here's a representative excerpt:

She said, "I don't feel the need to define myself and give myself a flag." The self-description she will settle for is "writer", but when I wondered if that word in this context meant sympathetic observer or explainer or advocate, she said it was more than that. Recently she'd had a letter from a Maoist prisoner in central India reminding her that in an early essay, The Greater Common Good, which argued against dam-building in the Narmada valley, she had written: "I went to the valley because I thought the valley needed a writer." The letter added, "We need a writer too." Roy, then, sees in her writing an Orwellian duty to bridge social distance, to bring home the truth about the poor and disaffected to the prosperous and content, and to realise their surroundings and situation as a good novelist would. In fact, the distances she needs to bridge are far greater than Orwell's – Wigan miners weren't to old Etonians as hill tribes are to metropolitan Indians – and her writing is more prolix and melodramatic.

But for all that, she is intensely readable – fluent, never solemn and always confident. She denies extraordinary self-belief, but my guess is only because she's never lived without it. The scones episode was an early example (to the scone-maker: "Well, I might just try one"), but her novel's publication process threw up many others. She had never published a book before, but she demanded, and was granted, complete design control – "I wasn't going to have a jacket with tigers and ladies in saris" – and refused suggested changes to the text from Sonny Mehta, the distinguished nabob of New York publishing (to be fair, she said, he later admitted that he'd been wrong). It was confident – and wise, too – to say she felt no obligation to write another novel. The work of producing the first one, she said this week, had been like four years in jail. "I didn't want to be like some factory producing novels, and I don't want to live my life as a project – in some ways I want to do as little as possible. I didn't mean to write my other books [her essay anthologies] either. There's so much noise in the world, so why add to it? In my case, I only write when I can't not."

That's as good a reason I can think of -- apart from the pressing need for cash.