I first saw Arundhati Roy on our black and white TV, in a film called Massey Sahib that was directed by her husband Pradeep Kishen. Though at the time I did not know she was the Arundhati Roy. She played the role of a tribal woman, if my memory serves right, and I found her quite attractive.
Then, of course, we all got to know Arundhati Roy. The Booker and all. There were two other people with India connection who had won the Booker before, but Salman Rushdie did not live long enough in India, while Naipaul was never born in India -- they were as good as Brits. The news of their winning the Booker, for the lay Indian, must have been as significant, or insignificant, as the mayor of an American city inaugurating a library. But Arundhati Roy, by winning the prize, brought about a revolution. Just how Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai, by winning the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns, made the average young Indian woman look at herself in the mirror again, Roy's Booker breathed fire into the ambition of the ordinary Indian who had always dreamed to be a respected writer.
I never bought a copy of God Of Small Things: I read a few passages from a colleague's copy and did not feel encouraged to invest money in it, even though those days -- this was in 1997 or 1998 I think -- I was buying books left, right and centre. Maybe I hadn't matured as a reader then, even though I was old enough.
I also never got around to reading any of Arundhati Roy's Outlook articles, maybe a few paras, though, thanks to the debates they always kicked up in newspapers and news channels; I have been aware of what she is writing about. It is clear that she likes to take up the case, or the cause, of voiceless people who do not have a strong spokesperson backing them. And I think that is highly commendable. Take the Maoists for example. If you treat Maoists as enemies, you will never win the battle against them. But if you look into the reasons why Maoist rebels are born in the first place, you might have a solution at hand. But then, an exchange of gunfire is far easier than making an effort to change the system -- so what if a few policemen lose their lives? Maoists, after all, are not enemies planted on Indian soil by al Quaeda: they are our own people -- very poor, very deprived and very humiliated.
When you are living in a big city, say Delhi, where everything is just a phone call away, right from the morning milk to the pizza for dinner, life is so hunky dory that you tell yourself -- "Wow, India has progressed so much! Couldn't have imagined this happening 10 years ago!" True. But it is only the cities that have progressed, India hasn't. In a city, all you need to do is walk up to the gate of your apartment with your child, and soon a school bus will arrive to take the child to school. But in non-urban India, children walk for kilometres to get to school. Just imagine pairs of tiny feet walking five or six kilometres just to get to school. Can it get any more cruel? In many cases, they have a river or a stream falling on the way: they wade through it too.
Now, how many of the pizza-eating crowd have ever bothered to take up the cause of such people -- people who are poor, who live in remote areas, who fight not only their fate but also the system perpetrated by the state? Yet they all like to talk about the harm that Arundhati Roy -- of all people -- is causing to the nation!
What's so drastically wrong if Roy spoke in favour of Kashmiris seeking freedom? Kashmir does not become an 'integral part' of India just because the Indian government says so. It is for the Kashmiris to decide whether they consider themselves to be an integral part of India or not. If they think so, well and good, but if they don't, just too bad. People like us, who don't live in Kashmir and are not even remotely concerned with it, have no business forcing them into being an integral part of India. Cyril Radcliffe had left Kashmir out while partitioning India, but when Pakistani raiders entered the Valley in October 1947, the maharaja acceded to India and since then, the 'Kashmir issue' was born. Even when there was peace in Kashmir, the Kashmiris referred to us as Indians -- which meant they did not consider themselves as one. Slogan-shouting is one thing, ground reality another.
The Indian government is aware of the ground reality, that is why it did not book Arundhati Roy for sedition. I am sure there were many benevolent Britishers who thought that India must be freed from British rule, but I don't think Britain tried them for sedition. That's the beauty of democracy. You speak your mind. The day you are hounded for speaking your mind, you are no longer living in a democracy but in an autocracy.
The real reason why there is so much of anger against Arundhati Roy, every time she writes or says something, lies elsewhere. It lies in the Indian mindset. She is attractive, intelligent, articulate, bold and defiant -- something unpalatable for the chauvinistic Indian, male or female, who want women to be always conforming. So they go after her, hammer and tongs, even while being indifferent when serious cases of corruption are exposed day after day. Recently I put a status message to this effect on my Facebook profile, and was greeted with several angry comments. I would like to quote from two of them:
-- Can the freedom of speech in a democracy be stretched to challenge the sovereignty and integrity of the country? Rights come to citizen along with responsibility. Citizens should heckle her instead of government doing that.
-- The anger of people has increased with every irresponsible statement she made which has shown complete disregard to this nation. The nation cannot sit back and ignore her when she keeps on making those politically provocative statements again and again and again!!!
Nation. Sovereignty. Integrity. Big words. But, then, we are a big nation. A very big nation. Yet threatened and outraged by the views of just one woman activist. Why?