A Novelist with a Fury: Reading Arundhati Roy in the Present

Yogita Goyal explores Arundhati Roy’s wide-ranging nonfiction and unflinching political activism.

A Novelist with a Fury: Reading Arundhati Roy in the Present

WHEN ARUNDHATI ROY published her searing screed against India’s nuclear testing in 1998, “The End of Imagination,” just a few months after universal acclaim over her Booker Prize victory for The God of Small Things (1997), she inaugurated a second career as a political commentator. In doing so, she rejected the life she could have easily slipped into: eminent globe-trotting Third World novelist and mascot for a resurgent post-liberalization India. Since then, she has sought nothing as eagerly as the charge of being “anti-national,” fearlessly putting her mind and body in the service of those left out of development schemes, like the villagers displaced by the Narmada dam. Some two-and-a-half decades later, Roy has built up a formidable body of work that deserves scrutiny for what it says about the role of the writer today, about the crisis of democracies at risk, and about the vital power of storytelling in the face of global foreboding over resurgent authoritarianism.

Right now, between April 19 and June 1, 969 million voters are at the polls to vote in India’s national elections. They do so not just to determine their own fate—a choice between either holding on to the shreds of democracy or falling, fully, into fascism—but also, as the world’s largest democracy, to presage the same choice faced by democracies across the globe. As India’s most astute and unrelenting critic, Roy has eloquently warned of this preelection moment as one of special risk. “Interpreting an Indian election is about as exact a science as sorcery,” she concedes in Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (2009). And yet, as was made clear during the last election cycle five years ago, “a constant circus” of brutality accompanies elections in India—“arrests, assassinations, lynchings, bomb attacks, false flag attacks, riots, pogroms.” Such violence has been aimed at Roy herself. In 2017, Bollywood actor Paresh Rawal tweeted that Roy should be tied to a jeep and used as a human shield for government forces in Kashmir; in October 2023, a court charged her with sedition in response to a 13-year-old speech she gave in support of Kashmir’s liberation. Roy continually puts her body on the line as she sounds the alarm that India’s social contract has desperately frayed, and that Balkanization, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide may soon follow.

Critics in India have tried to dismiss Roy as the proverbial thorn in their behind, but her clear-eyed anger and prescient analysis of the rise of intolerance and the birth of a fascist infrastructure in a nation of more than 1.4 billion people cannot be ignored. Whether traveling to Moscow with John Cusack to interview Edward Snowden, connecting massacres in Gaza to those in Kashmir, or joining with transnational Indigenous activists over ecology, mining, and water conservation, Roy has cemented her superstar status among the global Left. Such essay collections as My Seditious Heart (2019) and The End of Imagination (2016) come with glowing endorsements from the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. And yet, she has chosen a decidedly anti-glamorous life, championing causes that few liberal middle-class audiences want to support. Speaking out against nuclear armament, supporting Maoist insurgencies and freedom struggles in occupied Kashmir, and challenging the ecological devastation caused by dams, Roy jettisons the safety of fiction and wades into the political muck—risking name-calling, accusations of grandstanding, and charges of sedition. Such unflagging, principled commitment led critic and writer John Berger to anoint her “the direct descendant of Antigone.” Living up to the moniker, Roy battles the Indian state on multiple fronts, attacking its misogyny, its caste brutality, its occupation of Kashmir, its nuclear bravado, its attacks on Muslims and other minorities, its betrayal of farmers and environmental activists, its censorship of thought and all dissent, and its pervasive doublespeak.

Any reader of Roy’s first novel who witnessed its hyperbolic reception must wonder why she chose to turn away from the safe perch of a literary luminary to become a crusader for justice—a decision she has taken at great risk to herself (government surveillance, death threats, abuse, even a day spent in jail for contempt of court). Her choice is especially puzzling given her introduction to a recent compendium of essays, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (2020), in which she argues that “a novel gives a writer the freedom to be as complicated as she wants—to move through worlds, languages, and time, through societies, communities, and politics.” Such freedom stood her in good stead in The God of Small Things, where she evoked the forbidden love of Ammu and Velutha, and the intricate and intense world of the twins Rahel and Estha, against a backdrop of caste, class, and gender violence in Kerala. Her nonfiction demands other strategies. As she wonders in “The Language of Literature” (one of the essays gathered in Azadi): “Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? About the salinization of soil? About drainage? Dams? Crops?” How could she communicate the scale of state repression on one hand, and the minutiae of failed policies and the sheer numbers of people displaced by them on the other, in gripping prose?

Roy herself has suggested that when she turned to nonfiction, her language evolved from the lyricism of The God of Small Things to being “quick, urgent, and public. And it was straight-up English.” But most of the time, as she explains in Field Notes on Democracy, her nonfiction is effective precisely because she refuses that expediency, as her commitment to literature takes her to “poetry and […] the feral howl.” Even as they incorporate research into dams and irrigation systems, her essays continue to throb with passion, outrage, and raw emotion. In “The Language of Literature,” Roy displays her figurative chops to describe one arm of the Hindu right-wing—the cultural-nationalist organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: “The RSS is chameleon-like, and millipede-like, too, for it moves on a million legs.” She is also capable of the well-placed zinger, noting that, in India, “it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman.” Making no effort to soften the dangers she describes, she calls on a medley of literary modes: melodrama for its clear morality of heroes and victims, horror and the gothic to describe mob lynchings, and farce to mock the judicial process. Her background as an architect helps her construct edifices on sound foundations of historical research, balanced by a vernacular desire to be legible to ordinary people, letting light into dimly lit rooms. Not only does Roy, in her essays, draw on the same skills she displays in her fiction—vivid depiction, raw urgency, intricately described landscapes—she also invests the essay form (whether that be lecture, treatise, pamphlet, speech, or op-ed) with the beauty and aesthetic complication of a literary work. Her essays demand that we pause to take stock, to linger in the scenes she conjures, to learn more about the lives upended by political turmoil.


For Roy, literature is compulsion, ache, and refuge all at once, its narrative complexity and affective immediacy a bulwark against authoritarianism. The “sweeping simplifications of fascism” must be met with “our beehive, our maze,” she insists. Putting the vividness and sheer excess of her fiction into the service of her extensive meditations on literary language, the need for translation, and the possibilities of privacy and interior life, Roy exposes what the repressive state conceals, inviting contemplation and action together. She urges readers to remember past visions of collective life that were less hostile to difference than the ones we experience today, as well as imagining new forms of sociality built on mutual aid.

To take just one example—where Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no secret of his plan for a Hindu polity, with one nation, one language, and one religion, Roy’s essay “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?” muses over the 780 different tongues of India, some 22 of which are recognized as official languages. This “ocean of languages” best expresses the “teeming” possibilities of the country. As Roy shows, the history of Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani, Persian, and Khari Boli in Delhi is one of cross-contamination, borrowing, and endless movement, in stark contrast to Modi’s purist fantasies.

To read Roy’s early nonfiction is to be astonished by her prescience about the situation in which India finds itself now. In 2002, she warned of the fascist threat posed by the “hydra-headed, many-armed Sangh Parivar” or “‘joint family’ of Hindu political and cultural organizations, [including] the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.” Modi has been a member of the RSS since the 1970s, despite the open secret that the organization was founded in 1925 in admiration of Hitler and Mussolini, envisioning for Indian Muslims a similar fate as the one that befell Germany’s Jews. While Roy’s insistence on calling the devolution of Indian democracy fascism is not unique, her meticulous tracing of India’s staggering descent into full-blown fascist authoritarianism over the last three decades still leaves one flabbergasted. To fully appreciate Roy’s foresight, one must contend with the widespread amnesia that attends contemporary Indian life. Perhaps the dizzying pace of one crisis after another, as well as the stunning scale of devastation affecting the country’s natural resources—its forests and waters falling victim to what Roy calls ecocide—leaves us unable to fully absorb what’s going on. Roy’s essays chronicle every flash point with the precision of an investigative reporter, but nested within them, like a set of Russian dolls, are the larger histories and longer genealogies that both testify to despair and provide the resources for collective resistance.

Roy thus emerges as a major theorist of fascism, democracy, and contemporary forms of empire, with implications not just for India but for the world at large. Consider how she urges us to recognize that India is doing to Kashmir exactly what the British did to India. To fully engage with such a claim, as opposed to coming away with a banal notion of how victims sometimes turn into oppressors, one would have to learn exactly how the legacy of colonialism continues to haunt our world, in an often distorted or camouflaged fashion. In addition to throwing down the gauntlet against the state, Roy also challenges existing forms of knowledge—political theory, postcolonial thought, studies of US militarism and empire—in the process exploring the afterlives of Third World solidarity struggles and the impact of people-powered movements during periods of extreme state repression. Not merely testifying to the collapse of civil society and the system of political checks and balances in India, Roy also evinces a deep-seated pessimism about the power of elections to bring about change in the 21st century. While India as a nation-state is being remolded by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into ever more restrictive forms, Roy restores for us the historical reality of India as a loose federation of many populations, ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures that can never fit into the increasingly narrow containers favored by contemporary politics.

Systematically reading through Roy’s prolific nonfiction reveals an alternative history of India, one the state has suppressed and made impossible to utter or even to think, as well as a psychobiography of—and elegy for—Indian liberal, leftist, and democratic aspirations. Roy grants that the notion of India as a secular, socialist republic, which is enshrined in the state’s constitution, may always have been a myth, and that the Congress Party (which held power for most of the post-1947 Independence period) paved the way for what the BJP regime has unleashed in India. Those dreams of democracy now firmly belong in the graveyard. Roy reconstructs the story of Modi’s rise in the context of a post-1989 world, when formerly nonaligned countries like India pivoted to alliances with the US in the name of globalization and deregulation, eager to shoehorn a feudal society into a narrative of “progress” and “development,” heedless of the cost.

That cost today is all too painfully visible. We see it in the Oxfam report finding that the top 10 percent of Indians hold 77 percent of the nation’s total wealth, with some 200 billionaires reported in 2024, while income inequality is worse than it was under British rule. Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest billionaire and a Modi crony, recently spent upwards of $120 million on a spectacle for his son’s pre-wedding celebration, which drew Western VIPs such as Rihanna, Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates alongside numerous Bollywood celebrities, all of whom were only too happy to dance to his tune. While the global elite toast India’s glitterati, Genocide Watch warns of the risks of Modi’s Hindutva agenda—its discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and Anti-Conversion laws targeting Muslims, Christians, and Dalits—as well as the national government’s tacit support of Hindu-supremacist calls for mass killings. In 2019, that government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, unleashing a campaign of pure terror against Kashmiris, punctuated by forced lockdowns, widespread detentions (including of former chief ministers), the blinding of protestors with pellet guns, and internet shutoffs for months on end. A Hindu temple in Ayodhya, built this year at a cost of $217 million dollars on the site of the 16th-century Babri mosque viciously demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992, further presages the devolution of India’s secular state into violent religious bigotry.

India’s judiciary, police, press, and corporate media have all sanctioned rampant attacks on Muslims, including lynchings of Muslim men, the bulldozing of Muslim homes and businesses, and beatings of interfaith couples. A chilling video from last year reveals how such hate trickles down, as a seven-year-old Muslim child is slapped by each of his Hindu classmates at the behest of his teacher in North India. The lives of the country’s 200 million Muslims, representing 14 percent of India’s population, have never been as precarious as they are now, yet Modi’s approval ratings stand firm at 75 percent despite his criminally inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in millions of deaths across the country, and his failed economic policies, including his 2016 push for demonetization.

What explains this enduring appeal? “People who have lost control over their lives, people who have been uprooted from their homes and communities who have lost their culture and their language, are being made to feel proud of something,” Roy proposes. “Not something they have striven for and achieved, not something they can count as a personal accomplishment, but something they just happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen not to be.” Before becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi built his political fortune as chief minister of the state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014. In her heartrending essay “Democracy: Who’s She When She’s at Home?” Roy recounts that as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed, an unknown number of women raped, and 150,000 people driven from their homes into refugee camps under Modi’s watch. The pogrom was purportedly in revenge for the killing of 58 Hindus in an attack on a train returning from a religious pilgrimage, but in hindsight, it was a key moment in the implementation of a long-simmering Hindutva agenda. In 2005, Modi was denied entry into the United States, his visa rejected because he stood credibly accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Today, as India prepares to go to the polls and Modi runs for a third term, the past three US presidents have embraced him—Barack Obama during the announcement of a weapons sales agreement in Delhi in 2015, Donald Trump in Dallas at the 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” extravaganza, and Joe Biden at a White House state dinner in 2023.

For an American reader, Roy’s essays are perhaps the best introduction to the complexity of contemporary Indian politics and the scope of the fascist capture of civil society. But her history of modern India nestles within it larger global critiques—from the memory of Nazi horrors to the depredations of the US war machine after 9/11 to the rise of a corporate capitalism that supports ethnonationalism and xenophobia to the urgent question of Palestine. Continually connecting Kashmir to Gaza, Roy also reminds us of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, naming recent horrors the world wants to forget. Her writings against caste discrimination may seem especially distinct to India’s situation, but they also engage larger questions of Indigeneity, environmentalism, and the impact of global capitalism. And when she writes about the dangers of fascism writ large, US readers would do well to listen attentively, her exposure of the dangers of strongman worship, racial chauvinism, vigilante mob justice, and the demonization of internal enemies striking painfully close to home. Roy brilliantly describes what fascism does to “us”—

the exhausted, quarreling opposition, the vain, nitpicking Left, the equivocating liberals who spent years building the road that has led to the situation we find ourselves in, and are now behaving like shocked, righteous rabbits who never imagined that rabbits were an important ingredient of the rabbit stew that was always on the menu.

Though she writes about Modi’s India, it’s hard not to see her concerns as offering an apt description of the United States today, which is also heading towards its own perilous election this year. US readers may well approach her writing as a primer on modern Indian history, a role it fulfills admirably, but they will also at times feel that they are looking into a mirror.

Roy’s writings further raise the question of what forms of resistance might be possible in the face of this fascist nightmare. In her early writings, Roy often voiced a hope that her warnings would matter, inspiring resistance to state authority, leading to local coalitions of minority groups as well as a global turn against empire and war. Most recently, accepting a lifetime achievement award for her political writings on the occasion of the French translation of Azadi, she suggested that all we can say today is that we know what is happening—none of us can deny that we saw it coming, or that the scale of the devastation isn’t certain.

And yet, it is also true that our era has brought tremendous mobilization and innovative forms of mass protests, from Black Lives Matter to demonstrations for a ceasefire in Gaza. In India in 2021, the farmers’ protests actually led to a repeal of unpopular farm bills (even though the government’s promises remain unfulfilled), and there was an unprecedented nationwide uprising against Modi’s citizenship laws. Whether such ferment can bring true “azadi” (or “freedom”) remains an open question. Azadi was a demand first articulated in Kashmir in terms of anti-colonial resistance to Indian occupation; today it has been repurposed by young Indian activists for whom freedom has become a freewheeling notion, adapted into soulful songs and recirculated memes, signaling a powerful urge toward a better world, one free from caste, patriarchy, corruption, capitalism, violence, and war. Field Notes on Democracy is dedicated to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason,” and it is perhaps time for all of us to do so, to strive for radical change despite all evidence to the contrary.


Featured image: Frances Hodgkins. Still Life: Self-Portrait, ca. 1935. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. tepapa.govt.nz, CC0. Accessed May 15, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Yogita Goyal is a professor of African American studies and English at UCLA and the author of Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature (2010) and Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery (2019). She has published widely on African diasporic, postcolonial, and US literature, and is writing a book on anti-colonial thought and its current revival.


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