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The problem called Ms Arundhati Roy

Indian society, while valorised for various reasons, is a deeply problematic one. A society that is constantly at odds with itself. While appreciating its history (as much as any other civilisation ought to be respected), one cannot help but reflect on its paradoxes. For example, Kali the female goddess is venerated by Hindus for her power. Paradoxically, any behaviour by a female that is ontologically similar to Kali’s would be completely out of place in most Indian household. Women are generally expected to personify a narrative of a docile Sita. In this context Arundhati Roy is a problem for a masculine Indian society. As an old Hindustan Times article argued, Even more intriguing is the Indian response to Roy at a personal level. Despite her waif-like appearance, she does not fit the stereotypical Indian woman. If Indian men feel threatened by her, the average woman would probably be deeply confused by her personal carriage.. The reasons for this are manifold. She is unlike modern female symbols such as Aishwarya Rai who can be argued to typify many urban Indian women – having a career, yet declaring that she believes in the institution of marriage. We all know the sub-text of such declarations — in one stroke she presents herself as a non-threatening symbol to patriarchy while continuing to enjoy fruits of individual pursuits. In this context, Arundhati Roy is derided by the Indian male as she refuses to be slotted into the “liberated” position that Aishwarya Rai is in. Unlike other Indian women, Arundhati will not be bullied or subjugated into accepting a controlled choice. To us she is closer to the Kali persona than the feminine cult of Sita and Lakshmi, which Indian society so much venerates. Like Kali she is the rebel, the outcast — the slayer of all masculine power. All hail Kali

Why we love to hate Ms Roy

The article appeared in the Hindustan Times, which has a terrible system of removing articles from its website. So I reluctantly republish it here:

The full article appeared here.

Arundhati Roy certainly has a stomach for controversy. By writing several articles (including Who needs Reality TV? in HT, Dec 23) and providing an introduction to a book defending Mohammad Afzal Guru (December 13, A Reader The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament), the main accused in the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament, she has stuck her neck out again.

Ever since the lady made her views on the matter public, many furious friends have called. Who does that woman think she is? they have thundered, accusing her of passing off conspiracy theories as investigations. As far as they are concerned, Roy should be the first citizen in their rogue’s gallery of “anti-national” elements. No other writer inspires as much anger and mountains of hate mail to publications where she writes as this “petite woman”.

So when a foreign journalist recently asked me how Roy is perceived by Indians, the best reply I could come up with is that we have a love-hate relationship with her. I then checked the Net and found an old essay in the Observer, London.

Is India just jealous of Arundhati Roy, asked the paper which profiled her under the headline “The Dam Buster”. The same day the Sunday Times carried a full-page article that somewhat absurdly equated Roy with Victoria Beckham, both described as role models for young British women.

Ridiculous as the comparison between a sexy footballer-wife-pop-star and a serious novelist-essayist may be, it does reveal that Roy has been an icon in the West for some years now.

But what of her status back home in India? She’s certainly not the sort of role model that utters platitudes and makes us feel good about ourselves. On the contrary, she manages to ruffle many Indian feathers. Deconstructing the complex Indian responses to Roy reveals layers of prejudice.

First, there is 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. Roy would be adored by the Indian male if she had been content to sit prettily on a pedestal.

Instead, she has repeatedly asked for trouble challenging the big boys when they are playing with their favourite toys: the Big Bomb, the Big Dam, the Big War and now the Big Terrorist.

Even more intriguing is the Indian response to Roy at a personal level. Despite her waif-like appearance, she does not fit the stereotypical Indian woman. If Indian men feel threatened by her, the average woman would probably be deeply confused by her personal carriage.

Roy’s sartorial tastes are like a bucket of cold water to a cash-rich middle-class pursuing polyester dreams. Ethnic chic, new-age hippie, Western vogue, all rolled into one. Her mix of colourful peasant style skirts with the casual Western T-shirt is devastatingly trendy, but also very individualistic.

Her haircut, too, is a case in point. Some years ago she changed to a close-cropped style to expose her slightly protruding ears. In one stroke, she challenged the conventional stereotype of beauty. The hair has now grown, but so has Roy’s appetite for courting controversy.

The trendy style, impeccable articulation and high profile causes have certainly made Roy a romantic heroine in the West. In an article titled “Grassroots gamine” the Guardian‘s Madeline Bunting wrote: The next time someone asks you what happened to feminism, you know the answer. It moved south in search of the sun.

But an Indian summer is not a sun-bathing vacation. It is a long, hot, miserable ordeal. Roy’s causes have all landed her in conflict with the Hindu Right that freely bandies the phrase “anti-national”. It also portrays her as a lost soul in search of a cause; an individual who is raising issues that an emerging superpower cannot afford to engage with. To some extent, they have succeeded in projecting this image.

Self-absorbed as we are, most Indians are oblivious that Roy’s forceful post-September 11 essay made her an icon not just in the West but also in West Asia. Yet, most of us still think of Roy as a Booker Prize-winning author of a novel we have never read, who inexplicably seems to enjoy slumming it with anti-dam activists and now “Muslim terrorists”.

Indians would probably like Roy better if like VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, those other great writers they claim as their own (despite both of them living in the West), Roy made grand statements about Islam or Indian civilisation in rarefied writers’ fora and then swiftly retreated from the public stage. Besides, shouldn’t she learn some lessons from Naipaul and Rushdie, both of whom are now on the right side of the great “clash of civilisations” debate?

Yet, Roy seems to prefer clashing with those who believe they know better. But Indians are a forgiving people and her critics would absolutely adore Roy if she moved to the West, where they believe people like her actually belong. Then every Indian heart would swell with pride whenever they recall their great galaxy of English language writers.

But if Roy insists on staying on in India, there are a few things she could do to soften the hatred she often inspires in some Indians. Wear saris, shut up, stay at home, have babies, grow her hair long and start plaiting it.

Saba Naqvi Bhaumik is Bureau Chief, Outlook.


1 Yesh Prabhu { 05.29.09 at 1:28 am }

This is a very good article and well-written. I like Arundhati Roy just the way she is now. I don’t think she needs to change her appearance to conform to an average Indian’s taste, because she is not an average Indian woman. She is an extraordinary woman and a brilliant writer. She has her own style. A few years ago People magazine chose her as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. I am waiting eagerly for her second novel. Two years ago she admitted that she had been working on her new novel in Kashmir. I understand that it is nearly complete.
Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ

2 Nikhil { 06.09.09 at 8:23 pm }

This is a very bad article and does not reflect reality. No one had any problem with Indira Gandhi. Arundhati Roy’s views are anti-nationalistic and hence she is criticized by many. Now her admirers are trying to show how she has been “victimized”

3 lakhi { 02.15.10 at 7:37 pm }

Is presenting the facts makes one antinational?Who says that no one had problem with Indira Gandhi? And yes, one should be admired for being admirable espeacially Roy for presenting facts like fiction and opening the eyes of the readers,to see beyond the surface of things.

4 Praveen { 10.26.10 at 2:49 am }

She is an attention seeker. Just want to create controversies.
not at all useful. why dont she do something good for society than spreading hate.
if she made similar anti national comments anywhere else she would have been deported by now.
stop giving importance to attention seekers.

5 Rani { 11.04.10 at 11:38 am }

How can you have such a narrow understanding of Indians so as to suggest the Ms. Roy should grow her hair or stay at home to raise childern in order to find acceptance in the society! are you living in caves!! And again how could yo compare her with a goddess kali!!! the recent remarks of her are not well received as it under-valued the Indian democracy and the Unity. I believe that a persaon of her calibre, who has intelligence and mastery over the language should also have resposibility and accountability towards the socity.

6 Gopalan Ravindran { 11.07.10 at 4:54 pm }

Kishore, thanks for the good take on A Roy as Kali. There is also the problematic of mainstreaming of the conformist values in Indian society and politics which militates against any one raring to walk the extra mile in their advocacy çampaigns. Indian media and other social institutions have to share the blame in this regard. A section of Indian media, which have a penchant for carrying the lengthy prose of A Roy have also elevated A Roy as the glamour post of anti-establishment for meeting its own ends. Why they are not keen to elevate Medha Patkar as one is not lost on us. Medha Patkaar does not personify the alienation potential A Roy harbours in her sartorial ways and prose. Who is the real Kali? Or who is the glamourised/de-glamourised Kali of the patriarchal Indian media/society.A Roy as a Kali here is sharing a lot in common with Aishwarya Rai than with a more ordinary and unglamorous Kali like Medha Patkar. If one believes in the larger thread of feminism, Kali in any flavour is threatening to the patriarchal order, but the likes of A Roy seem wildly threatening because of their quick-footed alienation potential.

7 Sandeep { 09.13.12 at 8:21 pm }

Well when one cannot justify the anti-nationalistic and separatist actions of Arundhati, let us play the victim card. That always works. Sensational writings are the choicest topics of the author. Minority support and majority bashing goes really well in our great country of India. She has exploited that to make a name for herself. And yes the west loves a person which is able to that, glorify that person and showcase this pseudo problem. May be someone should check how much she gets paid for such articles ? Or she should put in a disclaimer that she does not get paid for such articles.

And comparing medha patkar with Arundhati is outrageous. One is media hungry where as the other has worked her whole life for a cause.

Also it is clear cut case of putting a twist of feminist spin and portray that she has been victimized for being bold honest and righteous. Unfortunately this is a dirty trick since in reality she has been highly unscrupulous since she choses topics which are fashionably outrageous and gets higher traction from the media.

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