When Arundhati Roy woke up at 5.30am this morning in Tihar prison, New Delhi, it must have struck her that reality was proving stranger than any fiction. Over the past week terrible communal violence in India has claimed hundreds of lives while the forces of law and order stood by. This has now been juxtaposed with the spectacle of a diminutive, softly spoken novelist being sent to one of the country's most notorious prisons to uphold what the supreme court called the "glory of the law" because she dared to criticize it. Images of what constitutes the law in modern India absurdly collide.
That is Arundhati Roy's point, that is why she is in prison and why she is considering refusing to pay the 2,000 rupees (£30) fine which could see her one-day prison sentence stretching to three months. With a novelist's eye for the power of symbolism and the activist's understanding of the purpose of principle, Roy has succeeded in deeply embarrassing the Indian state's much-vaunted pride as the world's biggest democracy.
By refusing to apologize (as others in her position have done), she has tested the fabric of Indian democracy and it has disintegrated in her hands. Her visit to Tihar prison is as articulate as her essays, The End of the Imagination (her attack on India's nuclear bomb) and Rumpelstiltskin (her attack on the collaboration between western corporations and the Indian ruling establishment), in describing the impact of globalization on India.
What has made Roy endlessly fascinating to the western media since she won the Booker Prize in 1997 is her shrewd understanding of how big subjects like nuclear bombs, dams, corporate power and democracy can be communicated to a huge new international audience. In part, it is a straightforward matter of applying her skills as a novelist, bringing wit and an eye for the telling detail to abstruse issues such as irrigation or electricity distribution and producing compelling political essays which are both witty and horrifying. In part, it has been about the skillful use of her international fame - fulfilling some expectations of a beautiful, successful novelist and confuting others.
She is acutely aware of how in the western media there is nothing more politically powerful than the personal, so she has used her own self to advance her cause. She is canny enough to know that part of the interest is in what it perceives as her exotic beauty; artlessly, she looks both traditional Indian - the Gandhi-esque homespun scarves - and modern gamine with her short cropped hair. Instinctively, she understands how all politics is a form of theater and her very stature speaks eloquently of a David and Goliath battle. Rather as Aung San Suu Kyi wears flowers in her hair, Roy wore pink in court, the newspapers reported, the color of life-affirming courage and an assertion of the quintessentially feminine in the face of clumsy state power.
What makes Roy so thrilling a political icon is that she represents the coming of age of feminism. It was the radical feminists of the 1960s who coined the phrase the personal is political, and now Roy, a celebrity in the global media, is bringing that insight to bear on the politics of globalization
Crucially - and this is where western feminists need to sit up and take notice - her feminism is not about imitating masculine models of achievement and competition, nor about sexual power; it is not about glass ceilings and stilettos. Her feminism is about articulating a voice and a sensibility which is authentically feminine and offers no deference to a largely male-determined status quo.
Her feminism is about integrating the whole of her life: understanding the power relations which underpin her friendships as much as those which underpin the Indian state. She is not afraid of talking about traditional female virtues such as gentleness and love, nor reticent about enjoying traditional female pastimes such as gossiping with friends as she picks over glass beads and cheap, brightly colored cotton fabrics in the market.
It is those pleasures, plus her wicked sense of humor, which have ensured that she escapes the puritanism and judgmentalism which has dogged western feminism from bra burning to political correctness. Key to her philosophy is that the real defeat for your enemies is that you simply have too much fun.
So the next time someone asks you what happened to feminism, you know the answer: it moved south in search of the sun. Roy is not a one-off; she is standing on the shoulders of thousands of grassroots women activists in the Narmada valley. It was another woman, Medha Patkar, who launched the Sardar Sarovar dam protest movement.
The pattern is repeated all over the developing world from Wangari Maathai in Kenya to Vandana Shiva; women are at the forefront of radical environmental and social justice movements. They swamped the Rio summit in 1992 and are likely to do the same at its follow-up in Johannesburg this August. It is this groundswell of defiance which inspires Roy's remarkable courage.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002