Arundhati Roy was born in 1961 in Kerala. Her mother, a Kerala native, was Christian; her father was a Hindu from Bengal. The marriage was unsuccessful, and Roy spent her childhood years in Aymanam with her mother. The influence of these early years permeates her writings, both thematically and structurally.
Roy’s mother, who herself was a prominent social activist, founded an independent school and taught her daughter informally. This freedom from intellectual constraint allowed Roy to write, as she puts it acccording to Jon Simmons on his “Arundhati Roy Web”, “from within”; the ability to follow her inner voice, rather than having a set of restrictive rules ingrained in her, has been an integral part of her accomplishments as an adult writer. She comments that “When I write, I never re-write a sentence because for me my thought and my writing are one thing. It’s like breathing, I don’t re-breathe a breath… Everything I have – my intellect, my experience, my feelings have been used. If someone doesn’t like it, it is like saying they don’t like my gall bladder. I can’t do anything about it.”
In addition to the style of her writing, its subject matter also reflects the cultural texture of her childhood. Of Kerala she says that “it was the only place in the world where religions coincide, there’s Christianity, Hinduism, Marxism and Islam and they all live together and rub each other down…I was aware of the different cultures when I was growing up and I’m still aware of them now. When you see all the competing beliefs against the same background you realise how they all wear each other down.” The deep-seated nature of Roy’s activism may also be traced back to her early years, and the rural beauty of the landscape in which she spent them: “I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives in you. I don’t think it’s true of people who’ve grown up in cities so much, you may love building but I don’t think you can love it in the way that you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth, it’s a different kind of love. I’m not a very well read person but I don’t imagine that that kind of gut love for the earth can be replaced by the open landscape. It’s a much cleverer person who grows up in the city, savvy and much smarter in many ways. If you spent your very early childhood catching fish and just learning to be quiet, the landscape just seeps into you. Even now I go back to Kerala and it makes me want to cry if something happens to that place.”
At age sixteen Roy left home, and eventually enrolled at the Delhi School of Architecture. This training, like her elementary education, proved instrumental in shaping her as a writer. In The Salon Interview, she likens the creation of a piece of literature to that of plans for a building: “In buildings, there are design motifs that occur again and again, that repeat — patterns, curves. These motifs help us feel comfortable in a physical space. And the same works in writing, I’ve found. For me, the way words, punctuation and paragraphs fall on the page is important as well — the graphic design of the language.” But despite her affinity for the trade, Simmons reports, she left it after a few years to work on projects for the screen, writing first a television serial, which failed due to lack of funding, and then two screenplays, neither of which brought her great success or fulfillment. She then published a criticism of the acclaimed film “Bandit Queen”; the controversy that followed resulted in a lawsuit against her.
In the aftermath, she vacated the public sphere, focusing her energies on The God of Small Things, which was published in April 1997. About six months later it was awarded the Booker Prize; Roy is the first Indian woman ever to achieve this honor. The book has been a stunning success both in India, and internationally. Roy says that her use of the English language was not so much a conscious decision for her, as a choice imposed on her because “There are more people in India that speak English than there are in England. And the only common language that we have throughout India is English. And it’s odd that English is a language that, for somebody like me, is a choice that is made for me before I’m old enough to choose. It is the only language that you can speak if you want to get a good job or you want to go to a university. All the big newspapers are in English. And then every one of us will speak at least two or three – I speak three – languages. And when we communicate – let’s say I’m with a group of friends – our conversation is completely anarchic because it’s in any language that you choose.”
The acclaim that Roy garnered made her an instant celebrity, but the traditional trappings of literary fame were accompanied by a certain amount of notoriety due to the book’s controversial treatment of delicate subject matter. Charges of anti-Communism were leveled against Roy because of her portrayal of the Communist characters; the Chief Minister of Kerala claimed that this, and not the book’s literary merit, was the reason for its popularity in the West. In addition, Roy faced charges of obscenity and demands that the final chapter of the book be removed because of its sexual content. Roy attributed these hostile reactions not to the “eroticism (which is mild) but rather to the book’s explicit treatment of the role of the untouchables in India… The abhorrence was thus as much political as it was moral, and proves that fifty years after Gandhi coined the term Harijan (‘children of God’) the Hindu caste system is still an important issue.”
In the years following the publication of The God of Small Things, Roy has put her talents and status to use as an activist for several of the important issues facing India today. In September 1998 her article “The End of Imagination” appeared in The Nation as a response to the testing of nuclear weapons in India a few months earlier. The article demonstrates both a fervent appreciation for the natural beauty of her country, and a respect for the fragility of life in a world containing bombs that could destroy everything in a matter of seconds. Roy calls for those who agree with her about the evils of nuclear warfare to join her in public denunciation of it.
She has also returned to some of the political territory of The God of Small Things, speaking out against the oppression of the Dalits and appearing at a reception in Kerala to publicly declare herself an advocate of their cause. She also contributed materially, by donating the royalties from the Malayalam translation of The God of Small Things to advance Dalit literary efforts and “help Dalit writers to tell their stories to the world.”
Most recently, Roy has been involved in protesting against the Narmada Dam Project. Her article “The Greater Common Good” in Frontline disparages a project that could force millions to abandon their homes in order to provide limited benefits to a limited number of people. She has demonstrated against construction of the dam both in the Narmada Valley, and globally in an effort to heighten awareness and obtain support for the cause. In January 2000 she was arrested during a protest in the Valley, and released two days later.
Roy’s concern for the environment and for the people inhabiting it permeates her life; the social conscience that she exhibits may be read into the literature that she produces as a concrete embodiment of this concern.