A River Runs Through It

By Kari Molvar '00 / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
After she published The God of Small Things in 1997, novelist Arundhati Roy experienced a bittersweet homecoming. She returned to her native India, but was startled by its rampant poverty and corruption. "A writer can never close her eyes to this obscenity," Roy, winner of Britain's prestigious Booker-McConnell prize, said at a November President's Lecture. "I knew that I needed to go back to where The God of Small Things came from -back to the rivers, forests, and streets of the poor."

As the work of a longtime activist, Roy's latest book, The Cost of Living, details her involvement with the Narmada Valley, an area where the government has uprooted thousands of families to build irrigation dams and water-management structures. "On a single river in India, 3,600 dams exist," she said. "Over 140,000 people were forced to leave their homes - [they were] simply told to get out."

After a visit to the Narmada Valley to see the projects firsthand, Roy began a campaign to reveal their devastating effects. "These dams are supposed to deliver India from poverty," she said. "To question such development is to be against progress, to be against India."

The reconfiguring of the Narmada Valley is one of the largest civil-engineering projects in Indian history. Not surprisingly, Roy's stance has made her something of political ogre. Last year, India's supreme court threatened her with criminal contempt for her protests.(The court eventually dropped the charges, contending that Roy had simply made a mistake.) "I've made myself very unpopular in certain parts of India," Roy admitted. "But I'd rather be loved by a river valley than a nation state."

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January / February 2000