Arundhati Roy won’t be silenced  

The writer believes important battles are fought not on literature festival circuits, but on the streets of life

Published - July 05, 2024 12:30 pm IST

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

Listening to Arundhati Roy is unfailingly illuminating. She instils in you the belief that however steep the odds, they can be surmounted. Like when she stepped out of her comfort zone of conversing in English to address the anti-CAA protesters at Shaheen Bagh, a little over four years ago. Speaking in a mix of halting Urdu and Hindi, she still managed to present a strong case to her audience: “If we fight for ourselves it is not a fight for justice. It is when we fight for each other that it is a fight for justice.”

It said much about life and its purpose for Roy. The writer believes the most important battles are fought not on literature festival circuits, but on the streets of life with all its skulduggery and bigotry. Of course, it helps if you can transport some of those challenges to the pages of a book. As she told me shortly after the release of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017, “There’s no such thing as the ‘voiceless’, there’s only the deliberately silenced. I have never considered myself an activist. I’m a writer. I write about the world I live in. In the old days, that used to be considered normal writerly activity. That’s why, once upon a time, writers used to be considered dangerous people. Today, the definition of a ‘writer’ seems to have shrunk; they are expected to be entertainers, to pitch their tents somewhere between literature festivals and bestseller lists. So today, with this new, reduced definition, when you are faced with writers who do what writers of yore used to do, you have to hyphenate their job description.”

It is a sentiment that has been lauded yet again, through the announcement of the PEN Pinter Award for Roy. As the jury said, she casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze on the world and shows a “fierce intellectual determination… to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.

Of course, Roy was happy to accept the award, stating, “I wish Harold Pinter were with us today to write about the almost incomprehensible turn the world is taking. Since he isn’t, some of us must do our utmost to try to fill his shoes.”

Not short on support

The “almost incomprehensible turn” she mentioned was, in fact, quite comprehensible. The award came barely two weeks after Delhi Lieutenant Governor V.K. Saxena granted the police permission to prosecute her, along with the academic Sheikh Showkat Hussain, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for remarks made on Kashmir at a seminar in 2010.

People protesting against the order to prosecute Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain under the UAPA

People protesting against the order to prosecute Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain under the UAPA | Photo Credit: Getty Images

But like with her other social causes, Roy was not short on support. It came from over 200 academics and journalists who signed an open letter, deploring the action and appealing “that no infringement of the fundamental right to freely and fearlessly express views on any subject” takes place in India. Pune’s National Commission for Safai Karamchari and the Samyukt Kisan Morcha also made favourable noises. Their support meant Roy had succeeded in stepping beyond the perceived limitations of a writer.

This popularity is hard earned. I remember watching Roy on a chilly December evening in 2019, mingling with the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia on the lawns of India Gate. They were protesting against the amendments to the CAA, and while she had no direct stake in it, she stuck it out with the youngsters. There were no airs of being a Booker Prize winner, no whims of a writer. She posed for photos, and distributed pamphlets.

She repeated the act a week later when she went to Delhi University and alerted students that the “NPR [National Population Register] will become database for the NRC [National Register of Citizens]”. “We are not born to face lathis and bullets,” she roared, and the students responded, “Inquilab zindabad.” The writer and the activist merged into one.

‘We speak from a position of love’

Never guilty of manipulating language to suit her ends, Roy has used her words — measured and scathing — to call out the triumphalism of phoney liberalism, to alert the State about the unwitting consequences of development, and the subjugation of the minorities, the Dalits.

Happy to stand beside Medha Patkar during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, willing to risk it all for the rights of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, the rights of Kashmiris, and those of the Shaheen Bagh women, Roy has relentlessly strived to show a mirror to a nation often witness to private deprivation amidst public affluence, and vice-versa. Not for her the refuge in silence or the ambiguity in stance. As she once said, “We don’t speak from a position of hate, we speak from a position of absolute love. And that is why we fight so hard.” 

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