Happy 50th birthday, Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy turns 50 today.

She probably was not expecting a PIL in a Jammu court for her comments on Kashmir as a birthday present. But being Arundhati Roy, she is probably not too surprised.

If she read the weather report, somebody would find some reason to be upset about it. But on her birthday here are five reasons to be thankful for Arundhati Roy.

She is an equal opportunity offender: Arundhati Roy always speaks her mind even when she knows it will win her no friends. Over the years with every cause she’s taken up, every essay she has written, she has probably lost friends. She is not afraid to be the person everyone loves to hate. She annoys us and forces us to stop sitting on the fence. She has lambasted Bush, Kerry, Congress, BJP,  Anna Hazare, fundamentalists and liberals. " She spares no one.

Except, her critics say, militants, Maoists, terrorists. She is accused of being a hypocrite, taking on the Indian state in Kashmir but not the plight of the Pandits. But she has spoken about it in an interview with Tehelka and not shied away from assigning responsibility.

It is the duty of the leaders of Kashmir’s present struggle to get the Pandits to return. That needs more than rhetoric. Apart from it being the right thing to do, it would give them enormous moral capital. It would also help shape their vision of what kind of Kashmir they are fighting for.

But she says there is a difference between Godhra and the riots in Gujarat. She always, unequivocally, draws a distinction between “a state-assisted pogrom against a people in a country and something that militants have done.

She is strident, unapologetic, shrill. And these are her virtues. She is not afraid to be the last protester standing. Getty Images.

She is strident, unapologetic, shrill. And these are her virtues. She is not afraid to be the last protester standing.

She takes responsibility as a citizen: You may not agree with her. But in a democracy we always need that person who is willing to take the unpopular view. She is, writes Manu Joseph, Neo in The Matrix.

She is, more than anything, an anomaly that completes the system, a system that not only made her but also needs her for its own balance and survival.

Arundhati Roy can be accused of being uncompromising, of making the perfect the enemy of the good. But she takes responsibility for her country in a way few of us have the courage to.

At a time when everyone wants to point fingers at everyone, from the UPA government to bureaucrats to the media for the malaise in the country, Roy is not afraid to look into the mirror. As we pat ourselves on the back endlessly  about being the world’s largest democracy, Roy asks the uncomfortable question in an interview with India Currents:

But when I am a citizen of a democracy, I have to take responsibility for what the state I voted for does. Are people in a democracy more responsible for the acts of their elected government?

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She lives outside Page 3. Arundhati Roy burst on our national scene as a star with the Booker Prize in 1996. She was smart, beautiful and photogenic. She could have cashed in on that for the rest of her career and been the toast of literary fests around the world.  But she chose to march to her own drummer. Shoma Chaudhury says in Tehelka sometimes it’s easy to forget the moment when she burst into the limelight.

Watching her now, few will remember that Roy was first announced to the world by a breathless article in a leading Indian magazine. The year was 1996. Liberalisation was just five years old. An ebullient middle-class was looking for a mascot. Roy came tailor-made from heaven: she had an elfin beauty, a diamond flash in her nose, a mane of gorgeous hair, a romantic backstory and a manuscript that triggered an international bidding war. India loved her….Arundhati Roy was India’s triumphant entry on the global stage. She was the princess at the ball.

But this Cinderella chose to instead turn her back on the ball and instead show that the emperor had no clothes. In 1998, fresh from the Booker euphoria, she wrote The End of Imagination, her angry critique of India’s nuclear bomb. That was her first act of “betrayal” and she hasn’t stopped.

She lives her stories: Arundhati Roy has been accused of being an activist butterfly, a Janey-come-lately to various causes who then sucks up all the media oxygen. A western filmmaker making a documentary about dams was told she could get funding only if she could get Arundhati Roy in the film. The filmmaker capitulated and the film got made.

A picture of Roy when she had won the Booker Prize. Reuters.

But in an age where journalism comes out of Wikipedia and Google searches, Roy lives her stories. She goes into the forests and spends time with Maoist guerillas before she writes about them. You can accuse her of being too romantic in her view of them, or justifying their violence but you cannot accuse her of not getting her hands dirty in the pursuit of a story.

She has been accused of hypocrisy, of paying fines instead of slogging it out in jail.  But she still goes the extra mile for her story. It is true that sometimes the story then becomes about Arundhati Roy not tribals, or Maoists or Kashmir. But she understands fully that she is a star and that sometimes causes need stars.

I know I will be a lightning conductor. I know the press will come. They will have to be accountable. On the other hand I’ll also be a celebrity arriving on the scene. I went because you have to realise you can’t always be pristine and say I am the Snow Queen and I will only do what is right for me. You have to take the shit.

She is 100 percent Indian:  In  The Guardian, Leo Mirani posed the question:

Who would want to live in Arundhati Roy's India? Who would even want to read about Arundhati Roy's India? … Confronted with the relentlessly bleak picture she paints, one in which the only good guys are murderers and mercenaries, who can blame middle India for retreating into their iPods and tabloid newspapers?

Well there is one person who for sure wants to live in India. And that is Arundhati Roy. I have seen Arundhati Roy on stage in Berkeley, the tumultuous applause that greets her. It almost feels like a cult, vibrating with some kind of Arundhati-aura. It makes you wonder why she keeps returning to India where she is routinely harassed, censured, accused of sedition, of being a traitor and trotted out on television shows to boost the ratings. She is like the red meat routinely served to a hungry rabble. She could easily be a princess in exile, lobbing self-righteous firebombs at the world’s largest democracy. But she chooses to live in Delhi, in the heart of the beast. As she told Tehelka:

I’m not going to explain my relationship with this country and its people. I am not a politician looking for brownie points.

We could say Happy Birthday, Arundhati Roy. But then she’s claimed she’s never liked that word “happy.”

“Happy is a tinny middle-class word. We think it’s our right to be happy. It comes in unexpected snatches,” she once said.

Here’s hoping for a  little snatch of happiness today for Arundhati Roy.

Updated Date: Nov 24, 2011 17:18 PM

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