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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's November/December 2003 Let's Talk book selection:
The Cost of Living
a book by Arundhati Roy

The Cost of Living What it's about
In the late 1990s Arundhati Roy's first book, a haunting novel about an Indian family called The God of Small Things, rose to the New York Times best-seller list and stayed there for 49 weeks. In The Cost of Living, Roy uses her newfound fame to blow the whistle on two projects hailed as "patriotic" necessities in her native India: the atom bomb and the Narmada River dam project. This illuminating polemic raises advocacy journalism to spirited new heights. It has also inspired people fighting nukes and other unwise development worldwide. "Numbers used to make my eyes glaze over," Roy says. "Not anymore. Not since I began to follow the direction in which they point."

Where to get it
Try your local library or your favorite book store. A copy of the first half of the book, an essay on the Narmada dams, "The Greater Common Good," is available free at

About the author
Arundhati Roy is probably best known for her first and only novel, The God of Small Things, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 and spent 49 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. She has used her fame to draw attention to overlooked issues in her native India and around the world.

Born in 1961 to Mary Roy, who later successfully fought to require India's inheritance laws to treat women equally, Roy scarcely knew her father. She grew up in the same village in which The God of Small Things is set. "When I think back on all the things I have done, I think from a very early age I was determined to negotiate with the world on my own," she says. Roy left home at age 16 to live in a squatter's colony in Delhi. Eventually she attended architectural school where she began to write scathing articles and screenplays. After one of her film critiques stirred up a major controversy, she retired to private life and, while supporting herself as an aerobics instructor, wrote The God of Small Things. Though her novel received international acclaim, again it was the target of controversy back home for, among other things, its description of an inter-caste love affair.

Roy's first nonfiction book, The Cost of Living, comprises two essays: one about a massive Indian dam project and another about the country's nuclear weapons. She has since written two other works of nonfiction, Power Politics and War Talk.

Discussion questions Printable version of questions

If you ran the world, what would you do about the Narmada dam situation? Would it be fairer to all concerned than the Indian government's response? Why?

In discussing the Narmada dams, Roy says, "What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its rivers? Its forests? Its fish?" How is the nature of democracy reflected in the United States by how we manage resources such as land, rivers, forests, fish?

Roy talks about two paradigms for Indian development: Nehru's "paternal, protective morality of the Soviet-style centralized State" and Gandhi's "nurturing, maternal morality of romanticized village republics." Why does she reject both these visions for India? How would you describe the U.S. approach to development? What would be a better vision for India? For the United States?

Roy takes personal responsibility for the government's missteps, saying, "Of course we make it easy for them, we its beneficiaries." Why does she call herself a "beneficiary"? How is she making it easy?

Roy points out that the Indian government has good data on a multitude of subjects. It can, for instance, tell you how many graduates India produces and how many men have had vasectomies in any given year. But it doesn't know how many people have been displaced by the Narmada dams. "How can you measure progress if you don't know what it costs and who has paid for it?" Roy asks. Do U.S. decisionmakers tend to ignore the costs of the projects they want to promote? If so, what are some examples?

Roy says that India has exhausted its supply of big heroes like Nehru and Gandhi, and therefore needs to support its small heroes. "Of these we have many. Many," she says. Does the United States still have big heroes? Does it have many small ones? Who? Can "small heroes" make big changes in a society? If so, how?

Why is Roy concerned about the nationalistic response in her country to the nuclear bomb? Compare that response to America's reaction to the September 11 attacks or the war in Iraq.

If you ran the Indian government, would you want an atomic bomb? Why or why not? What do you think about the United States' weapons policies?

"Listen then, to the story of the Narmada valley," Roy says. "Understand it. And, if you wish, enlist. Who knows, it may lead to magic." What kind of "magic" do you think Roy is envisioning? Is her hope realistic? To what extent can a book or article change the world?

Friends of River Narmada offers the most informative site about the Narmada valley, with up-to-date news about the continuing struggle, background information, links to press releases, and photos of rallies. One of the book's essays, "The Greater Common Good," is available free at

The International Rivers Network quotes from the book and provides links to information about dams in the Narmada valley. The site also has more general information about human rights and the environment.

Click on the photo of Roy to enter this fan site, with detailed information about the author's background and writing style as well as the Booker Prize and the many controversies that surround her.

South Asian Women's NETwork has a long list of links to information about Roy's life, writing, and activism as well as several critiques of the author-activist. Unfortunately, several links are broken.

Author B. G. Verghese has written a rejoinder to "The Greater Common Good" titled "Poetic Licence."

For the text of a compelling lecture about the Narmada conflict that Roy delivered at Cambridge University on November 8, 1999, go here.

An interview about Roy's life, writing, and activism published in the Progressive magazine.

The Natural Resources Defense Council uses nuclear war simulation software to determine the human costs of a possible nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Take action
Friends of River Narmada's Web site offers updates, action alerts, and the names and addresses you need to express your opinion about the environmental and human impacts of the Narmada dams.

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