The Power of Words

An interview with Arundhati Roy

01 March 2011
Author and activist Arundhati Roy at her home in New Delhi.
STUART FREEDMAN / IN PICTURES / CORBIS
Author and activist Arundhati Roy at her home in New Delhi.
STUART FREEDMAN / IN PICTURES / CORBIS

IN JULY 1986, a young Salman Rushdie visited Nicaragua. The tiny country was under attack by Ronald Reagan and the American-funded Contras. In his travelogue The Jaguar Smile, Rushdie painted a warm portrait of the struggling Nicaraguan people, especially of the poor campesinos and fishermen whom he described as “inventing their own country, and, more than that, themselves”. An image that stayed in my mind was Rushdie’s account of a simple meal he ate in a fishing village: “With the generosity of the poor, they treated me to a delicacy at lunch. I was given an egg and bean soup, the point being that these eggs were the best-tasting, because they had been fertilized. Such eggs were known as ‘the eggs of love.’ When people had so little a fertilized hen’s egg became a treat.”

A quarter-century later, I was reminded of those eggs when I read an op-ed by Arundhati Roy in TheNew York Times. Roy’s piece had been written after Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010, during which the US president announced that the US would not intervene in Kashmir. In her op-ed, Roy was recounting a visit to Shopian, in Kashmir, in the days following the threat of her arrest on the charge of sedition. Roy was in Shopian at the invitation of Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar—the man whose wife and sister had been found lying in a shallow stream near an army camp the previous summer. The young women’s rape and murder had been the cause of widespread anger and protest in the valley. Roy’s op-ed was full of pathos and yet it also contained her signature wit—while observing the apples being packed in wooden boxes in the orchards, she wrote of her worry that “a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake”. But what reminded me of Rushdie writing about Nicaragua was something else.

As Roy was leaving Shopian, she got a message that Ahangar’s father-in-law was on his way to meet her. Roy couldn’t wait, however. It was late and if they lingered any longer it would be unsafe to drive back. There was also the threat of her arrest. In fact, as they began to drive back from Shopian, a journalist called with the news that the police were typing up the warrant for Roy’s arrest. And, soon enough on the dark highway, a car overtook them and began to wave them down. Two men on a motorcycle asked Roy’s driver to pull over. Roy wrote that she steeled herself for what was coming. A bearded man appeared at her window. He was the father of Ahangar’s murdered wife, Nilofar.

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, The Lovers: A Novel, is forthcoming from Aleph Book Company.

Keywords: Maoists activism Kashmir Arundhati Roy Amitava Kumar The God of Small Things Indian writers Booker Prize
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