by Amelia Gentleman
|NEW DELHI – Last week, Arundhati Roy found herself standing at traffic lights in a sleazy district of Delhi handing out stickers bearing the slogan "Bush Quit India" to passing traffic. No one recognized her as the Booker Prize winning writer. It was a curiously anonymous form of protest for a woman adept at using her celebrity to draw attention to forgotten causes.
"It was very enlightening. People on the auto-rickshaws and horse carts were asking for more," she said; the drivers of cars were less receptive.
Amid the noisy street demonstrations to protest President George W. Bush’s trip to India, Roy provides a sober but quietly strident voice of opposition to the United States.
Such is her fury at the new Indian tilt towards Washington that she is giving the campaign all her energy: not content with pouring her literary talents into sharp- tongued written protest, she has joined students in nighttime vigils mourning the event and become an enthusiastic distributor of anti-Bush stickers.
Often laughing, she highlights the ludicrous to underline her despair at the welcome Bush has been given. The organizational details of a presidential trip offer much amusement – particularly the decision to hold the president’s landmark speech about the emerging Indo-U.S. strategic partnership in a spot by the Delhi zoo.
"First they tried to see whether he would address Parliament, but most of the MPs said they would heckle and boycott so that was canceled," she said in an interview this week.
The Red Fort was out because the Muslim population surrounding the building made it a security nightmare. "So now he will be speaking in the zoo – to some eminent people and some caged animals. I don’t know if the lions can disagree, the cockatoos might say they are against globalization. It’s really kind of funny," she said.
Opinion polls offer contradictory information about how widely her antipathy to the U.S. is shared. Beyond the protests organized by Muslim and leftist organizations, there is evidence to suggest that Indian affection for the U.S. is growing. A recent survey found that 71 percent of the population had a positive opinion of the U.S., up from 54 percent three years ago; another study published in India last Friday concluded that 66 percent of the nation see Bush as a friend of India.
But Roy argues that polling in India is notoriously unreliable and particularly ill-equipped to gauge the sentiments of the large remote rural regions.
She believes that people have been seduced by the promise of imminent glory that a partnership with Washington might bring. "The middle class loves nothing more than to be told, now you’re a nuclear power, now you’re a superpower. They’re mesmerized," she said. She finds India’s growing closeness with the United States "vaguely humiliating."
"This fawning that goes on. There is such a lack of dignity," she said. But beyond a personal distaste for the style of the courtship, she is concerned about the long-term consequences of such a partnership.
Since "The God of Small Things" appeared in 1997, selling more than 6 million copies, Roy has moved away from fiction and devoted herself instead to campaigning against the brand of globalization that Bush’s visit aims to promote. "What is very, very worrying is that if you look at the record of countries that have cooperated with America, that have entered that embrace, most of them have been incinerated," she said. "I’m not talking about the first world – but look at Africa, and Indonesia, Latin America, see what happens."
She bridles at being branded anti- American. "The term ‘anti-American’ is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and – not falsely, but shall we say inaccurately – define its critics," she wrote in a recent essay. "Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they’re heard and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.
"What does the term anti-American mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or you are opposed to free speech?"
Besides, in this current protest, her condemnation of the U.S. is matched by her criticism of the Indian administration.
"I actually have a problem with people protesting against Bush in Bush’s visit," she said. "What they should be protesting against is the Indian government."
At a time of surging optimism about India’s economic prospects, Roy has become a champion of those left out of the new economic order – those dispossessed by the construction of big dams, the farmers driven to suicide by debts, the "emaciated laborers" who work through the night by candlelight "to lay fiber-optic cab
It is not always easy, she finds, to draw the nation’s attention to their plight. "It is almost as if the light is shining so brightly that you do not notice the darkness," she says.
Her antipathy to India’s ruling Congress government prompted her earlier this year to turn down India’s highest literary prize, awarded for a collection of political essays, "The Algebra of Infinite Justice."
The prize was, she said, a ruse to "deal with a troublesome writer."
"Under the BJP government I was sent to jail and under the Congress government I was given this award," she said, referring to a short prison sentence for contempt of court handed down under the previous administration. "I don’t see any difference."
Her unstinting activism has taken a heavy toll on her literary output, and now Roy says that her energy for campaigning is beginning to wane. "I must say I am at the end of the rope, in terms of this kind of work," she said.
Will she return to writing fiction? "I hope fiction will return to be written by me. You just need to make a space for yourself before that can happen," she said.
But in order to find time to write she has to find a way to close off her social conscience. "It is very difficult, because it’s not superficial things that beckon," she said. "It’s easy to believe that you make a difference, which is both true and untrue."
Copyright © 2006 the International Herald Tribune