Arundhati Roy took the literary world by storm 14 years ago with The God of Small Things. Since then she's become her country's harshest critic and its most fearless activist.
Arundhati Roy will turn 50 this year. I hope to be excused of sexism (would one write this of a man?) when I say that she looks no more than 35 at most. Her vitality has always been striking. I remember her from one of her early visits to London as a slight, supple woman with an Indian cotton bag slung over her shoulder, and gleaming skin and hair that suggested yoga and aerobics, yoghurt and juice made from fresh limes. My wife had baked scones in her honour. Roy looked at the scones as though they might be deep-fried Mars bars, but eventually and daintily conceded to try one. In her bag was the manuscript of a first novel that was to make her famous and (by the standards of writers) rich, and though some of that future could have been predicted (the manuscript had caused a stir among publishers), no one could have foreseen the Booker prize and editions in 40 languages. What has happened since the success of The God of Small Things is even more surprising. Among Indian public intellectuals, a bright category that includes the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Roy is probably now her country's most globally famous polemicist, as both a writer and speaker. Her essays are published across the world – the Guardian published a recent one in five parts – and she can pack out a big venue in New York and still have a few thousand listening outside.
In India she draws even bigger crowds, and switches from English to Hindi. She tours extensively, and often to the kind of country towns and small cities that rarely see anyone so celebrated. Recently, she told me, 5,000 tribal people from 34 districts had gathered to hear her at Bhubaneswar in Orissa. Some had walked for days to get there; 40 had been arrested and charged with waging war against the state; two, she believed, had died in jail. "So it isn't like Jaipur," she said, referring to India's first and largest literary festival, just ended, where well-fed writers are flown in from London and New York and put up in reupholstered palaces. This could easily have been her way of living, too – as, for a short time, it was. Instead she has spent the last dozen years castigating the Indian state for all its sins and omissions: grandiose dams that displace the poor peasantry, mineral quarries that threaten to do likewise, nuclear weapons, the occupation of Kashmir. Her prose takes few prisoners, and runs against the grain of urban India's swelling prosperity. A common criticism is her refusal to balance the bad against the good. Yes, the greed is spectacular. Yes, the corruption inside government may be obscene. Yes, 800 million people exist on less than 20 rupees (about 35p) a day. But look on the bright side. That leaves another 400 million doing better than ever before, in an economy growing at dizzying rates, with India now receiving the obeisance of the west. So why write so narrowly and speak so angrily?
Roy has a standard reply. "Suppose there are 10 people in this room. Seven are starving, and one is winning medals, and two are doing OK. And I say, 'Look at these seven people who are starving,' and you say, 'Oh don't be so negative, no, things are not so bad – look at the other three.' Really?"
She herself ranks quite high among the three-tenths. We met at her flat near Lodhi gardens, in one of the most desirable parts of south Delhi, where 4x4s with CD plates stand parked in dusty lanes, and diplomats come to shop. It would be wrong to see this as an example of a woman not practising what she preached. Although Roy is by no means a Gandhian renouncer of worldly goods, a good percentage of her royalties have funded causes she describes as "edgy", but is reluctant to name. "It's not that I want to live in some slum and wear a handloom sari," she said. "I'm not in sacrificial mode and I don't want to be saintly." But she found her sudden wealth problematic. Fame she could handle, but "the money just blew me out of the water. OK, so I wrote a good book, but that doesn't mean you need to be showered with money. If you're a political person, what do you do, what's the right way to deploy it?"
So, as a political person, how would she describe her politics? She has spent weeks with the Maoist insurgents in central India – a dangerous adventure in a bloody war that has killed thousands of people and emptied hundreds of villages – but she isn't a Maoist: "I'm not unaware of what that kind of doctrine can lead to." A Gandhian then? A snort of disbelief at the very idea: "I ask those people who say they are Gandhians, if you live in a tribal village in the heart of a forest and 800 paramilitaries surround it and start to burn it and rape the women, what Gandhian action would you prescribe? Gandhian politics is a form of celebrity politics. It needs an audience. They don't have an audience." A kind of liberal democrat perhaps? "The nation state is such a cunning instrument in the hands of capitalism now. You have a democracy that strengthens the idea of the nation as a marketplace."
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."
But what small demonstrations of her will these attitudes towards writing and publishing have turned out to be. Roy confronts her government on a wide range of issues. Last year there were calls for her to be charged with sedition after she was reported, not quite accurately, as calling for an independent Kashmir. By bitterly opposing Hindu nationalism in its violent as well as respectable forms – she would contest the difference – she has prompted a hatred that puts her in physical danger. Wherever this boldness has come from, it isn't the Indian ideal of the happy and extended family. Her mother ran away from a violent father in Kerala and married the first eligible man she met in Kolkata, a young assistant manager on a tea estate who was already victim to tea estate manager's occupational disease, which is alcoholism. They separated after three years, when Arundhati had still to reach two, and she and her mother and brother moved back to Kerala, where her mother ran (and still runs) a private co-ed school. In her daughter's word, a "character": she would lie in a zinc tub in her courtyard while one secretary clipped her toenails and the other took down her dictation for a letter of complaint to the local municipality. She now thinks of her mother as "one of the most extraordinary people I know". But the affection is retrospective. At the time she couldn't wait to get away – "I'd had enough of this family business" – and left home for Delhi aged 17. She had no contact with either her mother or brother for several years, until one day her brother read about her appearance in a film and managed to get in touch. A surprise that contained a greater surprise: he was in seedy hotel near the railway station and she was to guess who he had with him – a man Arundhati had no memory of ever seeing, their father. Her brother had found him in Kolkata, either on the streets or in the nearest thing to them, a home for the dying and destitute run by Mother Teresa. And so a reunion was arranged. She went, and met a ruin of a man who was "totally vacuous and completely happy". After the shock of his battered physical appearance wore off she imagined "how much worse I would have felt if he was some golf-playing CEO. This was much better."
She laughed at the last sentence, ironising her instinct for fiction and the underdog. Later she said she'd learned "to love and enjoy my father for what he was, I feel sorry that I couldn't do more for him". Not many members of India's elite, which is what she is, have a parent who's plunged so dramatically into the social abyss. Ascribing political beliefs to personal histories is a notoriously suspect activity; remedies for cruelty and inequality can require no more than an alert morality. Roy attributes her own awakening to "living as the child of a divorced parent and a mythical father among the smug Syrian Christians of south India – and also from leaving home at 17 and living on my wits". But that encounter 25 years ago in a squalid hotel may also have informed her.
Roy herself has been married twice, the second time to the film-maker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen. They now live separately. She's begun work on a second novel, 18 years after she started her first. "I want to think about detail now and not about the full picture. After I finished The God of Small Things there was nothing I wanted to understand more than the way the big wheels are working. Now that I do, I want to deploy that knowledge in minute observation."
Some people in India feel that they've had far too much of Roy the campaigner and not enough of Roy the novelist, though she may have more political support than her critics suggest. Her view is that she has divided the urban middle class. "Opinion is more polarised than you might think, and this worries the state quite a lot. The poor [including the Maoists] can remain in their forests and their villages. There are 200,000 paramilitaries already there [in central India] and the army's coming soon – the government knows how to deal with these things militarily." Middle-class sympathy, on the other hand, isn't so easily treated. "It's making the state unsure of itself and therefore more vicious."
An old friend of mine who knows her put it this way. "She's a bit of a solipsist – she just can't imagine life without herself in it. There are many cleverer people, just as concerned with injustices, who have more rounded and considered views. But there's nobody else who's as critically engaged with the state as she is and so willing to take it on. So is she a good thing? Yes."