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November 8, 1999
Activists Laud Roy, Media Ignores Her
Aparna Narayanan in New York
The author of God of Small Things walked on to the stage at the Tishman auditorium holding a big pitcher of water.
"This huge jug is like a reservoir of water, almost like a dam," Arundhati Roy said, and her audience laughed appreciatively. After all, they were at the New School University auditorium to hear her speak about the human and environmental costs of big dams.
Roy's talk about the struggle to protect India's Narmada river was part of a series of lectures in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The tour coincides with the publication of her new nonfiction book, The Cost of Living, a vigorous attack on the rationale behind the dams being built in the Narmada valley and India's nuclear tests.
The New York event was co-sponsored by the South Asian Journalists Association.
One of the two essays, 'The Greater Common Good', created a furore in India with its no-holds-barred criticism of the Sardar Sarovar dam project. In Gujarat, supporters of the dam publicly burned the Indian edition of the book. In October, the controversy was fueled when the Supreme Court of India castigated Roy and Narmada activist Medha Patkar for bringing the court into disrepute through press interviews and magazine articles.
Across America, though, Roy engaged scores of sympathizers, social activists and admirers but unlike during the promotion of her first book over a year ago, there was hardly any coverage in the mainstream media. When God of Smaller Things was published, at least 20 newspapers and over 15 radio stations ran stories on Roy.
"I am surprised she has been ignored so cruelly," says Suprotim Bose, a documentary film-maker, adding that he could not understand how such publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post did not cover the social activism of an acclaimed writer whose first book was a national bestseller for nearly a year.
Roy recalled what led to her involvement in the Narmada issue. The commercial success from her novel, she says, troubled her and made her feel as if she had "perforated a secret vein that distributes the world's wealth to the wealthy." Then in February, she read a report that the Supreme Court had revoked its 1984 stay order on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. She says everyone had a passionate opinion on the subject, but the arguments were based on little information.
Roy embarked on her own investigation: She read books about "drainage, irrigation and all kinds of unsexy subjects" and met activists. She found the issue had been hijacked and divided up to serve the interests of special interest groups. This led her to visit the valley herself and she came back "convinced that the valley needed a writer, a fiction writer who would use the craft and discipline of fiction writing to make the parts cohere."
Soon after visiting the Narmada valley, she published the essay, The Greater Common Good, which first appeared in India in Outlook and Frontline magazines, and was later published as a non-fiction book that made the bestseller charts. In Gujarat, the book is not allowed to be stored in shops, says Roy, adding that she gets more letters from Gujarat than from anywhere else asking how to get copies of the book.
At the New York lecture, Roy read excerpts from 'The Cost of Living' and from the Supreme Court of India judgment castigating her for "objectionable writings" and "misinforming the public" about its interim order permitting a rise in the height of the gigantic Sardar Sarovar dam.
"To heed the warnings of the court would be to undermine the dignity of art," she said. "All of us need to reclaim the political arena."
Patrick McCully of International Rivers Network, a Berkeley-based environmental organization, credits Roy with giving to the Narmada issue "a new language, a new way of talking, a new way of seeing things. She spread awareness that the project is not necessary, is not in the greater common good."
The IRN organized Roy's lecture series, says Mary Houghteling, development director, because Roy already has a following because of the success of God of Small Things. They were certain that Roy's fans would be inspired by, and interested in, what she has to say about the politics of big dams.
The IRN's involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) dates back to 1986 when the IRN itself was a fledging non-profit venture with just a handful of volunteers. Its inaugural newsletter featured the Narmada issue on the front page. McCully describes the NBA as "an epic struggle of fasts, demonstrations, marches and jail time." In April, Roy donated the Booker prize money (21,000 British pounds) from the God of Small Things to the NBA because, she says, "there was nothing better I could do with it."
In New York City, the Narmada Solidarity Coalition has been established to raise awareness about the environmental impact of big dams like the Sardar Sarovar. One of the founders, Sheila Ghose, 33, a graduate student at New York University, says Roy's book "has given us a language to synthesize many issues -- accountability from corporate entities, what democracy is about and the idea that dams are a global issue."
Inspired by the notion of corporate responsibility, the organization has written to Chase Manhattan and Lazard Brothers to find out if they are among the financiers of the Narmada project.
Mala Hathiramani, 32, a writer from Edison, New Jersey, attended the lecture in New York City and said, "I feels she said almost everything that is there in the book. There was nothing new."
But Shantanu Agrawal, 23, a medical student in Manhattan, said Roy was "very informative. I don't think I knew as much about the issue as after the talk."
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