“I wasn’t going to have a jacket with tigers and ladies in saris”


From The Guardian:

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.” 

“Arundhati Roy: India’s bold and brilliant daughter”, Ian Jack, The Guardian