First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.
Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.
In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.
The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.
What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.
The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.
The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.
“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.