A fake news report about writer Arundhati Roy incensed actor and parliamentarian Paresh Rawal enough to recommend her as a human shield to the Indian Army in Kashmir. But this is hardly the first time the prize-winning author of The God of Small Things has been at the receiving end of public ire.
Roy's honeymoon with Indian readers barely outlasted the euphoria surrounding her sudden global fame. In the next few years, she committed herself to a range of causes and became a public intellectual to reckon with — someone who stood up for her principles without fear.
From her close involvement in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which landed her in Tihar jail for contempt of court, to her spirited opposition to Afzal Guru's death penalty, she never shied away from expressing views that were stridently anti-establishment. No wonder Roy managed to raise the hackles of so many across the political spectrum.
There are several reasons why Roy is such an easy target of hate but the most obvious of these is perhaps to do with the way she frustrates any label.
Roy started out as a celebrity author but quickly refused to be boxed into that one role. Instead she took delight in being several entities at the same time — feminist, writer, social activist, reformer — rather than limiting herself to the pursuit of singularity.
As a successful writer with a sizeable advance and generous prize money, she was expected to have done the following: be lenient with her time to the media, ensure her territorial rights on Page 3, regularly attend book launches, boutique openings, music release, sell film rights to an international production company, teach creative writing, become the Voice of India (or cultural equivalent of the Lonely Planet for the West), and "divide her time" between continents. Finally, she should have written another novel in a couple of years, then done more of the above, and so on and so forth.
Instead, for a decade or more, Roy wasn't even sure if she would ever write another novel. As early as 2001, she told Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian that fame "was much like a tin can trailing noisily behind her wherever she went: eventually, it would drop off and she would then write some 'worstsellers' and eat mangoes in the moonlight".
By 2001, Roy had become a major force in Indian intellectual life, a dissident voice to be reckoned with, unsparing, bold, forthcoming and intrepid. Even as India was supposedly Shining in those turbulent early years of the millennium, Roy was deploring nuclear tests, communalism, privatisation of electricity by Enron, America's War on Terror and the construction of dams that would wipe out hundreds.
Academics thought her naïve, the media was patronising, and the public was divided between adulation and admonition. But whatever Roy wrote was informed by the passion of a novelist, a fiction-writer's eye for detail, and the wandering journalist's capacity for empathy for others. When she wrote 'Who is Osama bin Laden?' — included in her collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice — her gift for analysis, description and reading of human character was no less than that of Truman Capote's, Harper Lee's or Norman Mailer's.
The Global Philanthrophy Inc. suddenly realised how useful she could be, but was once again baffled by her. As Roy told Bunting, "One woman phoned me and said, 'Oh, darling, that essay on the Narmada was absolutely wonderful. I wonder if you could do one for me on child abuse?' And I said, 'For or against?'"
Then somewhere along the way came that famous haircut.
With her cropped hairdo and a sartorial taste bordering on retro-chic, she would be slotted as one of the jholawalas, though she remained ever the misfit in any institution, mindful of preserving the complexity of her thoughts and the crystalline poetry of her articulation. Above all, she was utterly devoted to protecting her right to be happy.
"I think it's important to patrol the borders of your happiness, to understand your sources of joy and to protect them," she told Bunting, and even quoted her mother's views on her instinct for finding joy in all the things she does. Mary Roy, Roy's mother, had reportedly said of Arundhati that she had "never known anyone who guards their happiness so fiercely".
In contemporary India, where anyone can become a target of public derision for the audacity of thinking differently, a knack for preserving one's right to personal well-being is essential. If that "anyone" happens to be celebrity woman writer who refuses to walk the beaten track, the consequences can be far too dire.
In 2006, Saba Naqvi wrote a splendid analysis entitled "Why We Love to Hate Ms Roy". Sadly, almost all the "complex Indian responses" to Roy she had delineated all those years ago persist.
There is still "the macho male response to a woman who is not just brilliant and beautiful, but is also blessed with a talent for turning out powerful prose." Then there is the reaction at a personal level — despite her "waif-like appearance, [Roy] does not fit the stereotypical Indian woman". As Naqvi wrote memorably, "Roy's sartorial tastes are like a bucket of cold water to a cash-rich middle-class pursuing polyester dreams".
The recent animosity against Roy on social media was another variation on these narratives of misogyny, insecurity, fear and mistrust that have grown around her for years. But blessedly, this history of hate has another face too—one of immense love, adoration, fandom and respect from generations of readers who were transformed by The God of Small Things and are now eagerly awaiting the release of Roy's second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in less than two weeks.
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