|the-south-asian.com SEPTEMBER 2001|
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SEPTEMBER 2001 Contents
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David Barsamian is the director
of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado
"Is globalization about 'the eradication of world poverty,' or is it a mutant variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?"
There is a high-stakes drama playing out in India these days,and the novelist Arundhati Roy is one of its most visible actors. Multinational companies, in collusion with much of India's upper class, are lining up to turn the country into one big franchise. Roy puts it this way: "Is globalization about 'the eradication of world poverty,' or is it a mutant variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?"
Roy, forty-one, is the author of The God of Small Things(Random House, 1997), which won the Booker Prize, sold six million copies, and has been translated into forty languages. Set in a village in the southwestern state of Kerala, the novel is filled with autobiographical elements. Roy grew up in Kerala's Syrian Christian community, which makes up 20 percent of the population. She laughs when she says, "Kerala is home to four of the world's great religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Marxism." For many years, Kerala has had a Marxist-led government, but she hastens to add that party leaders are Brahmins and that caste still plays a strong role.
The success of Roy's novel has brought lucrative offers fromHollywood, which she takes impish delight in spurning. "I wrote a stubbornly visual but unfilmable book," she says, adding that she told her agent to make the studios grovel and then tell them no. In Kerala, the book has become a sensation. "People don't know how to deal with it," she says. "They want to embrace me and say that this is 'our girl,' and yet they don't want to address what the book is about, which is caste. They have to find ways of filtering it out. They have to say it's a book about children."
Roy lives in New Delhi, where she first went to become anarchitect. But she's not working as an architect or even a novelist these days. She's thrown herself into political activism. In the central and western states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, a series of dams threatens the homes and livelihoods of tens of millions. A huge, grassroots organization, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), has arisen to resist these dams, and Roy has joined it. Not only did she give her Booker Prize money (about $30,000) to the group, she has also protested many times with it, even getting arrested. She skillfully uses her celebrity status and her considerable writing gifts for this effort, as well as in the cause of nuclear disarmament. Her devastating essay on dams, "The Greater Common Good," and her searing denunciation of India's nuclear testing, "The End of Imagination," have literally kindled bonfires. The upper class didn't appreciate her critique of development, and the nationalists abhorred her for questioning India's nuclear arsenal. (These two essays comprise her latest book, The Cost of Living, Modern Library, 1999.)
By now, Roy is used to criticism. "Each time I step out, Ihear the snicker-snack of knives being sharpened," she told one Indian magazine. "But that's good. It keeps me sharp." Her most recent essay is called "Power Politics." In it, she takes on Enron, the Houston-based energy corporation that is a large financial backer of George W. Bush. In India, Enron is trying to take over Maharashtra's energy sector. The scale of what is happening, she says, makes California's power woes look like child's play.
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