“The Cost of Living”, Arundhati Roy 1999

/, Essays, Blesok no. 133 - 135/“The Cost of Living”, Arundhati Roy 1999

“The Cost of Living”, Arundhati Roy 1999

Fame is a funny thing. Apart from my friends and family and of course some old enemies (what’s life without a few old enemies?) most people who know of me now, know of me as the author of that very successful book – The God of Small Things.

Success of course, is a funny thing too.

Many are familiar with the public story that surrounds the publishing of The God of Small Things. As stories go it has a sort of cloying, Reader’s Digest ring to it – an unknown writer who spent secret years writing her first novel which was subsequently published in 40 languages, sold several million copies and went on to win the Booker Prize.

The private story however is a less happy one. When The God of Small Things was first published I truly enjoyed accompanying it on its journey into the world. I had a high old time. I spent a year travelling to places I never dreamed I’d visit. I was exhilarated by the idea that a story written by an unknown person could make its way across cultures and languages and continents into so many waiting hearts. At readings when people asked me what it felt like to be a writer who was published and read in so many languages, I’d say “The opposite of what is must feel like to be a nuclear bomb. Literature hugs the world and the world hugs it back.” After a year of travelling I decided I wanted to go back to my old life in what was now the New Nuclear India. But that proved impossible. My old life had packed its bags and left while I was away. As the Indian Government gears up to spend millions on nuclear weapons, the land it seeks to protect moulders. Rivers die, forests disappear and the air is getting impossible to breathe. Delhi, the city I live in, changes before my eyes. Cars are sleeker, gates are higher, old tubercular watchmen have made way for young, armed guards. But in the crevices of the city, in its folds and wrinkles, under flyovers, along sewers and railway tracks, in vacant lots, in all the dank, dark places, the poor are crammed in like lice. Their children stalk the streets with wild hearts. The privileged wear their sunglasses and look away as they glide past. Their privileged children don’t need sun glasses. They don’t need to look away. They’ve learned to stop seeing.

A writer’s curse is that he or she cannot easily do that. If you’re a writer, you tend to keep those aching eyes open. Every day your face is clammed up against the window pane. Every day you bear witness to the obscenity. Every day you are reminded that there is no such thing as innocence. And every day you have to think of new ways of saying old and obvious things. Things about love and greed. About politics and governance. About power and powerlessness. About war and peace. About death and beauty. Things that must be said over and over again.

While I watch from my window, the memory of the years of pleasure I had writing The God of Small Things has begun to fade. The commercial profits from book sales roll in. My bank account burgeons. I realise that I have accidentally ruptured a hidden mercantile vein in the world, or perforated the huge pipeline that circulates the world’s wealth amongst the already wealthy, and it is spewing money at me, bruising me with its speed and strength. I began to feel as though every emotion, every little strand of feeling in The God of Small Things, had been traded in for a silver coin. As though one day, if I wasn’t very careful, I would turn into a little silver figurine with a gleaming, silver heart. The debris around me would serve only to set off my shining. These were my thoughts, this my frame of mind when, in February (1999), there was a ripple of news in the papers announcing 1 2 that the Supreme Court of India had vacated a four year long legal stay on the construction of the controversial, half completed Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in central India. The court order came as a body blow to one of the most spectacular, non-violent resistance movements since the freedom struggle. A movement which, those of us watching from a distance thought, had more or less already achieved what it set out to. International attention had been focussed on the project. The World Bank had been forced to withdraw from it. It seemed unlikely that the Government would be able to cobble together the funds to complete the project. Then suddenly, with the lifting of the stay, the scenario changed. There was gloom in the Narmada Valley and dancing on the streets of Gujarat.

I grew interested in what was happening in the Narmada Valley because almost everyone I spoke to had a passionate opinion based on what seemed to me to be very little information. That interested me too, so much passion in the absence of information. I substituted the fiction I intended to read in the coming months with journals and books and documentary films about dams and why they’re built and what they do. I developed an inordinate, unnatural interest in drainage and irrigation. I met some of the activists who had been working in the valley for years with the NBA – the extraordinary Narmada Bachao Andolan.

What I learned changed me, fascinated me. It revealed in relentless detail, a Government’s highly evolved, intricate way of pulverising a people behind the genial mask of democracy. I have angered people in India greatly by saying this. Compared to what goes on in other developing countries, India is paradise, I’ve been told. It’s true, India is not Tibet, or Afghanistan, or Indonesia. It’s true that the idea of the Indian Army staging a military coup is almost unimaginable. Nevertheless, what goes on in the name of ‘national interest’ is monstrous.

Though there has been a fair amount of writing on the Narmada Valley Development Project, most of it has been for a ‘special interest’ readership. Government documents are classified as secret. Experts and consultants have hi-jacked various aspects of the issue – displacement, rehabilitation, hydrology, drainage, water-logging, catchment area treatment, passion, politics – and carried them off to their lairs where they guard them fiercely against the unauthorised curiosity of interested laypersons.

Social anthropologists have acrimonious debates with economists about whose jurisdiction R&R falls in. Engineers refuse to discuss politics when they present their proposals. Disconnecting the politics from the economics, from the emotion and human tragedy of uprootment is like breaking up a band. The individual musicians don’t rock in quite the same way. You keep the noise but lose the music.

Social anthropologists have acrimonious debates with economists about whose jurisdiction R&R falls in. Engineers refuse to discuss politics when they present their proposals. Disconnecting the politics from the economics, from the emotion and human tragedy of uprootment is like breaking up a band. The individual musicians don’t rock in quite the same way. You keep the noise but lose the music.

2020-12-23T17:40:44+00:00 December 22nd, 2020|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 133 - 135|0 Comments