A radical for the ages.
By David Barsamian, February 2007 Issue
There is a high-stakes drama playing out in India these days, and the novelist Arundhati Roy is one of its most visible actors.
Multinational companies, in collusion with much of India's upper class, are lining up to turn the country into one big franchise. Roy puts it this way: "Is globalization about 'the eradication of world poverty,' or is it a mutant variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?"
Roy, forty-one, is the author of The God of Small Things (Random House, 1997), which won the Booker Prize, sold six million copies, and has been translated into forty languages. Set in a village in the southwestern state of Kerala, the novel is filled with autobiographical elements. Roy grew up in Kerala's Syrian Christian community, which makes up 20 percent of the population. She laughs when she says, "Kerala is home to four of the world's great religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Marxism." For many years, Kerala has had a Marxist-led government, but she hastens to add that party leaders are Brahmins and that caste still plays a strong role.
The success of Roy's novel has brought lucrative offers from Hollywood, which she takes impish delight in spurning. "I wrote a stubbornly visual but unfilmable book," she says, adding that she told her agent to make the studios grovel and then tell them no. In Kerala, the book has become a sensation. "People don't know how to deal with it," she says. "They want to embrace me and say that this is 'our girl,' and yet they don't want to address what the book is about, which is caste. They have to find ways of filtering it out. They have to say it's a book about children."
Roy lives in New Delhi, where she first went to become an architect. But she's not working as an architect or even a novelist these days. She's thrown herself into political activism. In the central and western states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, a series of dams threatens the homes and livelihoods of tens of millions. A huge, grassroots organization, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), has arisen to resist these dams, and Roy has joined it. Not only did she give her Booker Prize money (about $30,000) to the group, she has also protested many times with it, even getting arrested.
She skillfully uses her celebrity status and her considerable writing gifts for this effort, as well as in the cause of nuclear disarmament. Her devastating essay on dams, "The Greater Common Good," and her searing denunciation of India's nuclear testing, "The End of Imagination," have literally kindled bonfires. The upper class didn't appreciate her critique of development, and the nationalists abhorred her for questioning India's nuclear arsenal. (These two essays comprise her latest book, The Cost of Living, Modern Library, 1999.)
By now, Roy is used to criticism. "Each time I step out, I hear the snicker-snack of knives being sharpened," she told one Indian magazine. "But that's good. It keeps me sharp."
Her most recent essay is called "Power Politics." In it, she takes on Enron, the Houston-based energy corporation that is a large financial backer of George W. Bush. In India, Enron is trying to take over Maharashtra's energy sector. The scale of what is happening, she says, makes California's power woes look like child's play.
On a cold, mid-February afternoon, Roy gave the annual Eqbal Ahmad lecture at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, before a huge crowd. It was a powerful, political talk, and afterward she was besieged by a long line of mostly young South Asian women, many of whom are studying at one of the five colleges in the Amherst area. She donated her lecture fee to earthquake relief in Gujarat.
The next morning, I interviewed her in the back seat of a car taking her from Amherst to Logan Airport in Boston. The two-hour drive went by in a flash.
Q: You grew up in Kerala. What's the status of women there?
Arundhati Roy: Women from Kerala work throughout India and the world earning money to send back home. And yet they'll pay a dowry to get married, and they'll have the most bizarrely subservient relationships with their husbands. I grew up in a little village in Kerala. It was a nightmare for me. All I wanted to do was to escape, to get out, to never have to marry somebody there. Of course, they were not dying to marry me [laughs]. I was the worst thing a girl could be: thin, black, and clever.
Q: Your mother was an unconventional woman.
Roy: She married a Bengali Hindu and, what's worse, then divorced him, which meant that everyone was confirmed in their opinion that it was such a terrible thing to do in the first place. In Kerala, everyone has what is called a tharawaad [lineage]. If you don't have a father, you don't have a tharawaad. You're a person without an address. That's what they call you. I grew up in Ayemenem, the village in which The God of Small Things is set. Given the way things have turned out, it's easy for me to say that I thank God that I had none of the conditioning that a normal, middle class Indian girl would have. I had no father, no presence of this man telling us that he would look after us and beat us occasionally in exchange. I didn't have a caste, and I didn't have a class, and I had no religion, no traditional blinkers, no traditional lenses on my spectacles, which are very hard to shrug off. I sometimes think I was perhaps the only girl in India whose mother said, "Whatever you do, don't get married" [laughs]. For me, when I see a bride, it gives me a rash. I find them ghoulish, almost. I find it so frightening to see this totally decorated, bejeweled creature who, as I wrote in The God of Small Things, is "polishing firewood."
Q: Tell me a little more about your mother.
Roy: She is like someone who strayed off the set of a Fellini film. She's completely nuts. But to have seen a woman who never needed a man, it's such a wonderful thing, to know that that's a possibility, not to suffer. We used to get all this hate mail. Though my mother runs a school and it's phenomenally successful--people book their children in it before they are born--they don't know what to do with her, or with me. The problem is that we are both women who are unconventional in their terms. The least we could have done was to be unhappy. But we aren't, and that's what bothers people.
By the way, my mother is very well known in Kerala because in 1986 she won a public interest litigation case challenging the Syrian Christian inheritance law that said a woman can inherit one-fourth of her father's property or 5,000 rupees, whichever is less. The Supreme Court actually handed down a verdict that gave women equal inheritance retroactive to 1956. But few women take advantage of this right. And the churches have gone so far as to teach fathers to write wills that disinherit their daughters. It's a very strange kind of oppression that happens there.
Q: Since you wrote your novel, you've produced some remarkable political essays. What was that transition like?
Roy: It's only to people in the outside world, who got to know me after The God of Small Things, that it seems like a transition. In fact, I'd written political essays before I wrote the novel. I wrote a series of essays called "The Great Indian Rape Trick" about a woman named Phoolan Devi, and the way the film Bandit Queen exploited her, and whether or not somebody should have the right to restage the rape of a living woman without her consent. There are issues I've been involved with for a while.
I don't see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of nonfiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It's very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr. Wolfensohn at the World Bank. That's what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it's the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.
Q: Estha, one of the main characters in your novel, is walking "along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought by World Bank loans." The World Bank scheme for the Narmada River Valley envisioned the construction of more than 3,000 dams. The bank has since withdrawn from the project, and the government of India has taken it over. Tell me about the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the NBA.
Roy: When I first met people from the NBA, they told me, "We knew that you would be against the dams and the World Bank when we read The God of Small Things." The remarkable thing about the NBA is that it is a cross-section of India. It is a coalition of Adivasis [India's indigenous people], upper-caste big farmers, the Dalits [formerly known as Untouchables], and the middle class. It's a forging of links between the urban and the rural, between the farmers and the fishermen and the writers and the painters. That's what gives it its phenomenal strength, and it's what a lot of people criticize it for in India, saying, you know, these middle class protesters! That makes me furious. The middle class urban engineers are the people who came up with this project! You can't expect the critique to be just Adivasi. You isolate them like that, and it's so easy to crush them. In many ways, people try to delegitimize the involvement of the middle class, saying, how can you speak on behalf of these people? No one is speaking on behalf of anyone. The point is that the NBA is a fantastic example of people linking hands across caste and class. It is the biggest, finest, most magnificent resistance movement since the independence struggle.
Q: One protest you were involved in last year took place at a village on the banks of the Narmada at the site of one of the proposed dams. You were among many who were arrested there. What was that like?
Roy: It was absolutely fantastic. I was in a village called Sulgaon. All night, all over the valley, people started arriving, by tractor, by motorcar, by foot. By three in the morning there were about 5,000 of us. We started walking in the dark to the dam site. The police already knew that the dam site would be captured, but they didn't know from where the people would come. There's a huge area of devastation there. So we walked in the dark. It was amazing. Five thousand people, mostly villagers, but also people from the cities--lawyers, architects, journalists--walking through these byways and crossing streams in absolute silence. There was not a person that lit a bidi or coughed or cleared their throats. Occasionally, a whole group of women would sit down and pee and then keep walking. Finally, at dawn, we arrived and took over the dam site. For hours, the police surrounded us. Then there was a baton charge. They arrested thousands of people, including me. The jails were full.
Q: You say that the government of India is "hell-bent on completing the project." What's driving it?
Roy: There are many things. First of all, you have to understand that the myth of big dams is something that's sold to us from the time we're three years old in every school textbook. Nehru said, "Dams are the temples of modern India." So they're like some kind of huge, wet national flags. Before the NBA, it was like, the dam will serve you breakfast in bed, it will get your daughter married and cure your jaundice. People have to understand that they're just monuments to political corruption, and they derive from very undemocratic political institutions. You just centralize natural resources, snatch them away from people, and then you decide who you're going to give them to.
The first dam that was built in the Narmada was the Bargi, completed in 1990. They said it would displace 70,000 people and submerge 101 villages. One day, without warning, the government filled the reservoir, and 114,000 people were displaced and 162 villages were submerged. People were driven from their homes when the waters rose. All they could do was run up the hill with their cattle and children. Ten years later, that dam irrigates 5 percent of the land that they said it would. It irrigates less land than it submerged. They haven't built canals. Because for contractors and politicians, just building the dam in itself is a lot of money.
Q: What happens to those who are displaced?
Roy: Nobody knows. When I was writing "The Greater Common Good," what shocked me more than the figures that do exist are the figures that don't exist. The Indian government does not have any estimate of how many people have been displaced by big dams. I think that's not just a failure of the state, but a failure of the intellectual community. The reason that there aren't these figures is because most of the people that are displaced are again the non-people, the Adivasis and the Dalits. I did a sanity check based on a study of fifty-four dams done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration. According to that study, just reservoir-displaced, which is only one kind of displacement, came to an average of something like 44,000 people per dam. Let's assume that these fifty-four dams are the bigger of the big dams. Let's quarter this average. We know that India has had 3,600 big dams built in the last fifty years. So just a sanity check says that it's thirty-three million people displaced. They all just migrate to the cities. And there, again, they are non-citizens, living in slums. They are subject to being kicked out at any minute, anytime the housewives of New Delhi's upscale areas decide that all these slum people are dangerous.
Q: You've compared this uprooting to a kind of garbage disposal.
Roy: It's exactly like that. The Indian government has managed to turn the concept of nonviolence on its head. Nonviolent resistance and nonviolent governance. Unlike, say, China or Turkey or Indonesia, India doesn't mow down its people. It doesn't kill people who are refusing to move. It just waits it out. It continues to do what it has to do and ignores the consequences. Because of the caste system, because of the fact that there is no social link between those who make the decisions and those who suffer the decisions, it just goes ahead and does what it wants. The people also assume that this is their lot, their karma, what was written. It's quite an efficient way of doing things. Therefore, India has a very good reputation in the world as a democracy, as a government that cares, that has just got too much on its hands, whereas, in fact, it's actually creating the problems.
Q: But you say about your own politics that you're "not an anti-development junkie or a proselytizer for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition."
Roy: How can I be? As a woman who grew up in a village in India, I've spent my whole life fighting tradition. There's no way that I want to be a traditional Indian housewife. So I'm not talking about being anti-development. I'm talking about the politics of development, of how do you break down this completely centralized, undemocratic process of decision-making? How do you make sure that it's decentralized and that people have power over their lives and their natural resources? Today, the Indian government is trying to present privatization as the alternative to the state, to public enterprise. But privatization is only a further evolution of the centralized state, where the state says that they have the right to give the entire power production in Maharashtra to Enron. They don't have the right. The infrastructure of the public sector in India has been built up over the last fifty years with public money. They don't have the right to sell it to Enron. They cannot do that. Three-quarters of our country lives on the edge of the market economy. You can't tell them that only those who can afford water can have it.
Q: Still, I sense some optimism on your part about what you call the "inherent anarchy" of India to resist the tide of globalization.
Roy: The only thing worth globalizing is dissent, but I don't know whether to be optimistic or not. When I'm outside the cities I do feel optimistic. There is such grandeur in India and so much beauty. I don't know whether they can kill it. I want to think they can't. I don't think that there is anything as beautiful as a sari. Can you kill it? Can you corporatize a sari? Why should multinationals be allowed to come in and try to patent basmati rice? People prefer to eat roti and idlis and dosas rather than McDonald's burgers. Just before I came to the U.S., I went to a market in Delhi. There was a whole plate of different kinds of dal, lentils. Tears came to my eyes. Today, that's all it takes to make you cry, to look at all the kinds of dal and rice that there are, and to think that they don't want this to exist.
Q: Talk about the material you covered in "The End of Imagination" concerning the nuclear testing on the subcontinent.
Roy: It's so frightening, the nationalism in the air. I'm terrified by it. It can be used to do anything. I know that a world in which countries are stockpiling nuclear weapons and using them in the ways that India and Pakistan and America do to oppress others and to deceive their own people is a dangerous world. The nuclear tests were a way to shore up our flagging self-esteem. India is still flinching from a cultural insult, still looking for its identity. It's about all that.
Q: You said that the jeering young Hindu men celebrating the nuclear test were the same as the ones who were thrilled with the destruction of the Babri mosque.
Roy: Indian intellectuals today feel radical when they condemn fundamentalism, but not many people are talking about the links between privatization, globalization, and fundamentalism. Globalization suits the Indian elite to a T. Fundamentalism doesn't. It's also a class problem. When people stop some film from being shot or burn a book, it's not just that they are saying, this is against Indian culture. They are also saying, you Westernized, elite, English-speaking people are having too much of a good time. It's a very interesting phenomenon. I think it has to be addressed together, not separately. The religious rightwingism is directly linked to globalization and to privatization. When India is talking about selling its entire power sector to foreign multinationals, when the political climate gets too hot and uncomfortable, the government will immediately start saying, should we build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri mosque? Everyone will go baying off in that direction. It's a game. That's something we have to understand. With one hand, you're selling the country out to Western multinationals. And with the other, you want to defend your borders with nuclear bombs. It's such an irony! You're saying that the world is a global village, but then you want to spend crores of rupees on building nuclear weapons.
Q: You use a metaphor of two truck convoys. One is very large, with many people going off into the darkness. The other is much smaller and is going into the light of the promised land. Explain what you mean.
Roy: India lives in several centuries at the same time. Every night outside my house I pass a road gang of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay fiber optic cables to speed up our digital revolution. They work by the light of a few candles. That is what is happening in India today. The convoy that melts into the darkness and disappears doesn't have a voice. It doesn't exist on TV. It doesn't have a place in the national newspapers. And so it doesn't exist. Those who are in the small convoy on their way to this glittering destination at the top of the world have completely lost the ability to see the other one. So in Delhi the cars are getting bigger and sleeker, the hotels are getting posher, the gates are getting higher, and the guards are no longer the old chowkidars, the watchmen, but they are fellows with guns. And yet the poor are packed into every crevice like lice in the city. People don't see that anymore. It's as if you shine a light very brightly in one place, the darkness deepens around. They don't want to know what's happening. The people who are getting rich can't imagine that the world is not a better place.
Q: You made a decision, or the decision was made for you, to identify with, or to be part of, that large convoy.
Roy: I can't be a part of the large convoy because it's not a choice that you can make. The fact that I'm an educated person means that I can't be on that convoy. I don't want to be on it. I don't want to be a victim. I don't want to disappear into the darkness. I am an artist and a writer, and I do think that one always places oneself in the picture to see where one fits. I left home when I was sixteen and lived in places where it was very easy for me to have fallen the other way. I could have been on the large convoy because I was a woman and I was alone. In India, that's not a joke. I could have ended up very, very badly. I'm lucky that I didn't.
I think my eyes were knocked open and they don't close. I sometimes wish I could close them and look away. I don't always want to be doing this kind of work. I don't want to be haunted by it. Because of who I am and what place I have now in India, I'm petitioned all the time to get involved. It's exhausting and very difficult to have to say, 'Look, I'm only one person. I can't do everything.' I know that I don't want to be worn to the bone where I lose my sense of humor. But once you've seen certain things, you can't un-see them, and seeing nothing is as political an act as seeing something.
Q: Are you thinking about writing any new fiction?
Roy: I need fiction like you need to eat or exercise, but right now it's so difficult. At the moment, I don't know how to manage my life. I don't know how I'll ever be able to make the space to say, "I'm writing a book now, and I'm not going to be able to do x or y." I would love to.
Q: You feel a sense of responsibility to these silent voices that are calling out to you.
Roy: No, I don't feel responsibility because that's such a boring word.
Q: You're in a privileged position. You are a celebrity within India and also outside. Roy: But I never do anything because I'm a celebrity, as a rule. I do what I do as a citizen. I stand by what I write and follow through on what I write. It's very easy for me to begin to believe the publicity about myself, whether for or against. It can give you an absurd idea of yourself. I know that there's a fine balance between accepting your own power with grace and misusing it. And I don't ever want to portray myself as a representative of the voiceless. I'm scared of that.
But one of the reasons some people get so angry with me is because I have the space now that a lot of others who think like me don't. It was a mistake maybe for so many people to have opened their hearts to The God of Small Things. Because a lot of dams and bombs slipped in along with it.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Angela Davis in the February issue.