Arundhati Roy is a famous Indian novelist and social commentator.
She is most well-known for her award-winning 1997 novel the God of Small Things, which speaks out against India’s caste system and examines crucial issues of identity and power vis-a-vis India’s British colonial history.
Through her work and commentary, Roy has probed topical issues of inequality, discrimination, human rights, imperialism and neocolonialism.
Here are her top 10 ideas.
The 10 key ideas of Arundhati Roy
1) Roy believes writers must be political and challenge unjust power
Roy strongly opposes Narendra Modi’s nationalist government in India and considers the country to be sliding into what she terms “micro-fascism.”
She has stated in interviews that writers should not be satisfied to just sell a product, they must speak out for their beliefs and stand up for them even when it’s extremely unpopular.
Roy’s stance against the rise of rightist nationalism in India has certainly brought a lot of anger and resentment her way.
In fact, Roy is widely labeled a terrorist sympathizer, communist and traitor in India despite being feted when she is abroad.
“What I do worry about is the fact that writers have become so frightened of being political.
The idea that writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous.”
2) Roy’s latest novel tackles anti-Muslim violence and the Kashmir conflict
Roy’s latest fiction novel took her twenty years to write and was released in 2017. It is called the Ministry of Utmost Happiness and explores issues around gender, inequality, militarism and prejudice in modern India.
It only increased the controversy surrounding Roy since it gets at a lot of the problems and injustices occurring in Indian society.
In particular, Roy examines and condemns the anti-Muslim violence which has increasingly swept India over the past decade.
Although Western media covers it occasionally when it flares up, the growth in visceral and murderous hate of Muslims in India has actually been vastly underreported and is almost always one flicker away from exploding into all-out riots and mob lynchings.
“So much of what the novel explored was the violence against India’s minorities, the bleeding wound of the Kashmiri occupation by the Indian military and the daily indignities of caste Roy had been writing about in her nonfiction for decades.”
Ministry has won Roy many new readers and cemented the loyalty of her old fans, but it’s also intensified opposition.
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This opposition isn’t just from within India and includes mainstream literary critics who feel that Roy has now abandoned her role as a writer to basically become an “activist-writer” hybrid.
Roy dismisses this label as misogynistic nonsense. As Qureshi recalls:
“Some critics argued that the political overtones in the book proved that Roy’s activism had now fully colonized her literary imagination. She was an activist-writer now.
When I asked her about the accusations of being ‘angry,’ she laughed. It’s an especially pernicious accusation against women writers who are expected to stay in their lane, she said.”
3) Roy believes that non-violence ‘can be a kind of violence’
Anyone who may think Roy is just continuing in the tradition of civil rights leaders like Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi should think again.
While Westerners may be familiar with the positive image of Gandhi promoted ceaselessly in Western curricula and media they may be less familiar with his deeply-held anti-Black racist beliefs and outrageous convictions.
This includes Gandhi’s horrific belief that Jews in Germany during the Holocaust should not have fled or fought back but should have voluntarily “offered themselves to the butcher’s knife” in order to win a “moral” victory over the Nazis.
For her part, Roy considers political non-violence to often simply be a way of feeling warm and fuzzy and feeling morally superior instead of confronting reality.
Explaining her view, Roy says that non-violence can just be a way to pass the buck and pass judgment on people whose shoes you’ve never walked in.
“Fighting people will choose their own weapons. For me, the question of armed struggle versus passive resistance is a tactical one, not an ideological one.
For example, how do indigenous people who live deep inside the forest passively resist armed vigilantes and thousands of paramilitary forces who surround their villages at night and burn them to the ground?
Passive resistance is political theater.”
Roy has also expressed her belief in an American empire and “deep state” which provides some interesting overlap with the non-establishment right which also believes in this malevolent contingent of the US federal bureaucracy.
4) Roy opposes nuclear weapons proliferation
Roy believes that India’s nuclear program has coincided with a rise in intolerance, extreme nationalism, and militarism. She points to the 1998 nuclear tests in particular as a breaking point.
In fact, Roy broke ranks with the role that had been prepared for her when she wrote her essay “the End of Imagination” at the time of the tests, denouncing her government’s desire to become a nuclear power.
According to Roy, she was being fitted as a representative for a new, “market-friendly” India after the God of Small Things.
But the glossy “New India” didn’t interest her; in fact, Roy went in the opposite direction.
She became a critic of empire and capitalism instead.
Thus began her contentious career as a polemicist, essayist, and cultural figure, criticizing everything from US foreign policy in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict to nuclear proliferation.
Despite choosing to reside in India, Roy is widely considered its foremost anti-nationalist and leftist writer, arguing for a pluralistic, open India instead of a closed, caste-based, nationalist India.
“Her observation continues to hold true in a country in which the media has proved a supplicant to power, entirely willing to bow before the political and corporate agenda.”
5) Roy believes that women’s rights need to be championed more in the developing world
Roy’s work and statements show that she believes women are undervalued, exploited, and mistreated – broadly speaking – in the developing world and countries such as India.
Particularly in societies such as India, Roy’s focus on feminism and strong, independent women have been met with a backlash and interpreted as trying to undermine the nation’s social fabric by her critics.
Her work including the character of Ammu in the God of Small Things, for example, depicts women as being devalued, objectified, and socially excluded from opportunities due to their gender.
“D’you know what happens when you hurt people? When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”
6) Roy is against the free market and suspicious of corporate sponsorship
Roy considers global capitalism to be a smokescreen for corporate greed and imperialism.
She is against the free market broadly speaking and considers even outwardly philanthropic and cooperative projects such as development-oriented foundations with corporate ties to be engaging in crypto-colonialism.
Roy shares many of the economic views of leftists such as Noam Chomsky, who consider the international financial and economic system to basically be a means of the ultra-rich pulling puppet strings on the working class and national economies as they move pieces around the geopolitical chessboard.
“She declares that the free market undermines democracy, allowing for no complexity in the relationship between them.
Grant-making institutions funded by companies are automatically suspect, their agendas serving only as tools to pry open markets and convert people into consumers.”
7) Roy supports militant groups many consider terrorists
In her 2010 essay “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy spent quite some time with Maoist guerillas in India.
Her essay is somewhat nuanced but more or less sympathizes with this group and expresses her belief that judging them as evil or malicious is simplistic and incorrect.
It provoked a firestorm of controversy, as has Roy’s ongoing defense of Kashmiri resistance to the Indian military in the long-disputed zone.
Andrew Anthony notes that Roy has been dogged by things such as her support of Kashmiri rebels and Maoist insurgents.
“Roy directed her considerable energies towards political activism, most especially in India where, despite her success, she has remained.
It was a path that has led her to express solidarity with groups – such as Kashmiri separatists and Maoist guerrillas – that are seen by many Indians, with some reason, as terrorists.
As a result Roy has become a controversial figure, an outspoken heroine in certain radical quarters, but loathed by large sections of Indian society, not least Hindu nationalists.”
Speaking of Kashmir, Roy has said that her concern about it is attached to her wider opposition to the domestic “imperialism” of the Indian state:
“Kashmir is one of the deadliest and densest military occupations in the world. India transformed from colony to imperial power virtually overnight.
There has not been a day since the British left India in August 1947 that the Indian army and paramilitary have not been deployed within the country’s borders against its ‘own people’,”
8) Roy believes the wilderness should not be privatized
Roy has been strongly opposed to the privatization and economic extraction of resources from India’s woodlands and wetlands.
She ties the exploitation of resources and invitation of multinational companies into India to the problems faced by working people and ethnic and sexual minorities, viewing the world in an intersectional way.
Essentially, intersectionality views all injustices as linked and oppressive power systems as totalistic and all-encompassing.
Roy has long expressed serious concern over climate change and economic damage, believing that human beings are irrevocably destroying the world through the industrial economic model we are engaged in.
In her thesis paper Youngsuk Chae describes Roy as congruent with a postcolonial ecofeminist perspective:
“Roy’s critique of environmental exploitation in postcolonial India reveals the interconnectedness of ecological deterioration and oppression based on gender, class and race.”
9) Roy believes ‘fascists’ want Artificial Intelligence to take over the world
Roy is not a fan of Artificial Intelligence, or at least of those who control it.
In fact, she believes that it might eventually wipe out most human beings.
“Artificial intelligence is a way of becoming the perfect human being, which fascists have always thought about: the supreme human being.”
Expanding on this, Roy explains that AI combined with a heartless view of humanity could result in a worldwide genocide:
“Another “update” that we ought to think about is that new technology could ensure that the world no longer needs a vast working class…
How long will it be before the elite of the world feel that almost all the world’s problems could be solved if only they could get rid of that surplus population?”
10) Roy fears censorship by the mob
Roy considers the 2014 election of the conservative Narendra Modi to be a “tragedy” and believes that his followers and supporters of India’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP party (Bharatiya Janata Party) are dangerously deluded.
Modi was reelected in a landslide in 2017 and is enormously popular in India.
Roy charges that censorship is occurring of authors and commentators who speak out against the government, not through official policy but more so through the violence and threats of the mob.
Roy has faced death threats numerous times for her opposition to BJP and Modi.
“At the moment what is happening in India is that censorship is being outsourced to the mob. Some person comes out and says: ‘Oh you’re not showing rajput in a good light,’ or any community starts feeling that they can burn down cinema halls, they can stop a film release, and it’s all being allowed.
In the same way, writers have been killed and shot and threatened. The government can try to act as if it’s not involved, but its involvement is in protecting the mobs.”
Explaining her perspective further, Roy claims that:
“In India today, storytelling is being policed not only by the state, but also by religious fanatics, caste groups, vigilantes, and mobs that enjoy political protection.”
Do people agree with Roy’s beliefs?
As I’ve outlined here, millions of people – particularly nationalist Indians – consider Roy to be a traitor and malcontent who is disloyal to their country.
On the other hand, she is one of the most celebrated authors in the world outside India and has gained a receptive and passionate following on the political and social left for her fiction and essays.
I personally find Roy’s intersectionalism ideology largely clashes with my own worldview – or at least is founded on such a different starting premise and assumptions as to make it socially and politically unpalatable to me.
However, I find merit in various of her ideas including those surrounding environmentalism, economic exploitation, the injustices of majority populations against minorities as in the case of Kashmir, and her prescient concerns over the future of AI and its controllers.
At the end of the day, one can only say of Roy the same thing one says about any influential thinker who boldly states their position and lets the chips fall where they may:
Many people love her and consider her to be a brilliant and bold voice;
Many other people hate her and consider her a leftist scold and negative, self-righteous troublemaker.
Perhaps the truth about Arundhati Roy lies partly in the eye of the beholder.