“It would be presumptuous, arrogant, and even a little stupid of a writer to believe that she could change the world with her writing. But it would be pitiful if she didn’t even try,” Arundhati Roy said as she received a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 45th edition of the European Essay Prize (Prix Europeen de I’Essai) at the Lausanne Palace in Switzerland, two days ago.
Known for her unapologetic candour in everything she does and formidable words of truth, the award comes as little surprise to most. A few months ago, the Charles Vellion Foundation announced the award for her 2021 book Azadi—a compilation of Roy’s essays in which she writes about the true meaning of freedom in a growing authoritarian climate. “The jury of the Prix Europeen de I’Essai wishes to highlight an enriching work in terms of reflection on the construction of the world and the relationship with language. Arundhati Roy uses essays as a form of combat, analysing fascism and the way it is being structured. This is an issue that is increasingly occupying our lives. Her essays offer shelter to a multitude of people,” read a statement.
The award is a testament to much of her life’s work and Roy took centre stage to express her gratitude and her unwavering belief in seeking the truth. She looked back at her journey, as a writer first, and then as an essayist. “What makes me happiest is that it is a prize for literature. Not for peace. Not for culture or cultural freedom, but for literature. For writing. And for writing the kind of essays that I write and have written for the past 25 years,” she said.
Roy has received a Man Booker Prize for her fictional novel God of Small Things, published in 1997, and was nominated for her Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a decade later. She is a political activist and has been at the forefront of battles concerning human rights, equality, communalism and the environment. Is there something she can’t do?
To commemorate the occasion, we decided to take a look at some of her best non-fiction work that we’d definitely recommend giving a read.
The Shape of the Beast
The Shape of the Beast is a collection of fourteen interviews that the author conducted between 2001 and 2007 of those involved in pertinent issues of the time such as the Gujarat riots, the Kashmir issue, the Narmada Dam project, the Maoist rebellion, and others. Through her work, Roy uncovers rarely-spoken-about ideas and themes. "These interviews were a flexible way of thinking aloud and exploring ideas—personal as well as political—without having to nail them down with an artificially structured cohesion and fit them into an unassailable grand thesis,” she wrote in the preface of the book.
The Doctor and the Saint
This 2017 book is an insight into the deep-rooted practices of casteism in India. Roy, very brilliantly looks at the age-old practice of caste through a historical lens, uncovering the dark truths of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s philosophy, and the modern prism that finds itself amid law enforcement systems and communities at large.
“The chant of ‘Azadi!’—Urdu for ‘Freedom’—is the slogan of the freedom struggle in Kashmir against what the Kashmiris see as the Indian Occupation. Ironically, it also became the chant of millions on the streets of India against the project of Hindu nationalism,” reads the synopsis of her book Azadi. This collection of essays draws focus to the meaning of freedom in an ever-growing and largely authoritarian world and challenges the preconceived notions to reimagine a better future.
An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire
A compilation of 14 essays written between 2002 and 2004, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire seeks to create a common thread amid America’s war on terror, the threat of corporate power, communal and caste politics in India, the significance of NGOs and a dangerous culture perpetuated by mass media. It delves deep into the details and intricacies of these issues and covers them in the most enriching manner.
The Algebra of Infinite Justice
This collection of essays sheds light on the happenings of a young India on the brink of a new millennium—the euphoria of succeeding in the nuclear tests, the unprecedented impact of development projects on the environment, terrorism, and more. Her essay on the nuclear tests challenged the notion of having nuclear power and it garnered attention across the world. Roy received accolades for her sincerity and honesty.