Indian author Arundhati Roy was invited to give the opening speech at the Munich Literature Festival, which takes place from November 15 to December 3. However, the renowned novelist cannot travel to Germany, as she faces new charges in her home country related to comments she made 13 years ago.
While she will not be giving the festival’s opening address, she will nevertheless contribute to a panel discussion at the festival on the situation in India, via video link, on November 16.
In 2010, Roy made a speech about Kashmir, and her comments that the disputed region has never been an “integral” part of India have been dredged up once more. She now faces fresh charges for “offences related to provocative speech and the promotion of enmity between different groups.” The prosecution could lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years.
An observer of India’s cultural complexity
India is ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, but this has never held Roy back. On the contrary, she has been prolific in her production of essays and novels that expertly combine her political convictions with an ingenious play of words.
Roy shot to international fame with her 1997 novel, “The God of Small Things,” which won her that year the Man Booker Prize (now shortened to Booker Prize).
The novel is a family drama that tells the story of fraternal twins who navigate through the complexities of cultural mores in different Indian communities, religions, regions and caste. Set in Kerala and Calcutta, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it reflects different aspects of Roy’s life.
Roy was born in Shillong, in northeastern India, to a Christian mother from Kerala and a Bengali Hindu father who managed a tea plantation. She moved to Kerala after her parents split, and subsequently came back to Delhi to study architecture.
But writing remained her true calling. In her early years as a writer, she wrote a story called “In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones” (1989), which was made into an arthouse movie, and a film called “Electric Moon” (1992).
In the years following her Booker Prize victory, Roy dedicated herself to social causes and writing her opinion about the political and social state, not only of India but also of the world.
In 1999, she published a landmark essay called “The Greater Common Good” about the resistance movement that had shaped around the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, a river in Western India.
In the essay, Roy highlighted the plight of tribal communities whose villages would submerge once the dam was constructed. The essay generated global interest, not the least because Roy was pulled into legal proceedings for her “vituperative” writing, the Indian Supreme Court said.
In 2001, Roy wrote on the 9/11 attacks. Her essay, titled “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” was later published in a compendium of other political essays by the author.
Written before the US war on terror started, Roy’s essay proved prophetic: “The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one. If it doesn’t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one.”
She also correctly predicted that the “war on terrorism” would lead to the persecution of some communities, tighter rules and limit personal freedoms.
Charged with sedition
Roy’s literary-political activism continued in 2010, when she first faced arrest on charges of sedition for making remarks in support of Kashmir’s independence from India.
A year later, she released a book called “Walking with the Comrades,” which narrates the time she spent with communist guerrillas in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Called Maoists for their adherence to Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong’s revolutionary ideas, the insurgents have been fighting the Indian state for decades and claim to represent what the government classifies as “backward” classes, castes and tribal communities.
Two decades after her first novel, “The God of Small Things,” Roy published her second fictional work, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” in 2017. It tells the story of Anjum, a trans woman, and a woman called Tilo, an architect-turned-activist. Although the novel opened to mixed reviews, including being called a “fantastic mess” by The Atlantic, it too combined the strains of fiction and present-day politics, to become a statement on present-day India.
The political ‘conscience’
Meanwhile, Roy seems to have claimed the genre of political essay-writing as her own. Her 2020 collection of essays, called “Azadi,” or freedom in Urdu, discusses a range of issues, including India’s right-wing, “fascist,” government and the ongoing pandemic.
In an essay in the volume, called “The Pandemic is a Portal,” which was also published by The Financial Times in 2020, she discusses how the spread of the coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in social systems and infrastructure worldwide.
In India, lack of health facilities has deepened the divide between the rich and poor, and the upper and the lower castes and classes. In the US, for example, the poor have been left without enough support, she writes.
Roy’s political writings have often been termed as being too biased and vitriolic, but the fact remains that, as a writer, she holds a mirror to the society she lives in. In her case, this includes all of India and the world. But she goes a step further than just expressing her opinion — she urges readers to find a solution.
At the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair, Salman Rushdie criticized the recent moves to prosecute Arundhati Roy. “She is one of the great writers of India and a person of enormous integrity and passion,” he said. “The idea that she should be brought to court for expressing those values is disgraceful.”
Update: This profile was first published in 2020 and has been updated ahead of the Munich Literature Festival on November 14, 2023, with the new charges against Arundhati Roy.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier