In her late 30s, Roy was perhaps India’s most famous writer. The publication of “The God of Small Things” in 1997 coincided with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. It was the beginning of an aggressively nationalist, consumerist phase, and Roy was seen as representative of Brand India. The novel, her first, appeared on the New York Times best-seller list and won the Booker Prize. It went on to sell more than six million copies. British tabloids published bewildering profiles (“A 500,000-pound book from the pickle-factory outcast”), while magazines photographed her — all cascading waves of hair and high cheekbones — against the pristine waterways and lush foliage of Kerala, where the novel was set and which was just beginning to take off as a tourist destination.
Roy’s tenure as a national icon came to an abrupt end when, a year later, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) government carried out a series of nuclear tests. These were widely applauded by Indians who identified with Hindu nationalism, many of them members of the rising middle class. In an essay titled, “The End of Imagination,” Roy accused supporters of the tests of reveling in displays of military power — embracing the jingoism that had brought the B.J.P. to power for only the second time since independence — instead of addressing the abysmal conditions in which a majority of Indians lived. Published simultaneously in the English-language magazines Outlook and Frontline, the essay marked her beginning as an overtly political writer.
Roy’s political turn angered many in her upper-caste, urban, English-speaking audience, even as it attracted another. Most of her new fans had never heard of her novel; they often spoke languages other than English and felt marginalized because of their religion, caste or ethnicity, left behind by India’s economic rise. They devoured the essays Roy began writing, which were distributed in unauthorized translations, and flocked to rallies to hear her speak. “There was all this resentment, quite understandable, about ‘The God of Small Things,’ that here was this person writing in English winning all this money,” Roy said. “So when ‘The End of Imagination’ came out, there was a reversal, an anger among the English-speaking people, but also an embrace from everyone else.”
The vehemence of the response surprised her. “There is nothing in ‘The God of Small Things’ that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years,” Roy said. “It’s instinctive territory.” It is true that her novel also explored questions of social justice. But without the armature of character and plot, her essays seemed didactic — or just plain wrong — to her detractors, easy stabs at an India full of energy and purpose. Even those who sympathized with her views were often suspicious of her celebrity, regarding her as a dilettante. But for Roy, remaining on the sidelines was never an option. “If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy said. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”