Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, and screenplay writer in India. Roy is the author of the novel The God of Small Things, (Random House/HarperPerennial) for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize. The novel has been translated into dozens of languages worldwide. She has written several non-fiction books: The Cost of Living (Random House/Modern Library), Power Politics (South End Press), War Talk (South End Press), and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (South End Press) and Public Power in the Age of Empire (Seven Stories/Open Media).
Roy was featured in the BBC television documentary, “Dam/age,” which chronicles her work in support of the struggle against big dams in India and the contempt of court case that led to a prolonged legal case against her and eventually a one-day jail sentence in spring 2002. A collection of interviews with Arundhati Roy by David Barsamian was published as The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile (South End Press). Roy is the recipient of the 2002 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Prize.
On Jan. 18, 2008, Roy delivered the Hrant Dink memorial lecture at Bosphorus University in Istanbul. In her lecture, titled “Listening to Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial and Celebration,” Roy reflected on the legacy of Hrant Dink and dealt with the history of the “genocidal impulse,” the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the killing of Muslims in Gujarat, India in 2002.
Speaking about the slain editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Roy said, “I never met Hrant Dink, a misfortune that will be mine for time to come. From what I know of him, of what he wrote, what he said and did, how he lived his life, I know that had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the one hundred thousand people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying, ‘We are all Armenians,’ ‘We are all Hrant Dink.’ Perhaps I’d have carried the one that said, ‘One and a half million plus one.’”
“I wonder what thoughts would have gone through my head as I walked beside his coffin,” she added. “Maybe I would have heard a reprise of the voice of Araxie Barsamian, mother of my friend David Barsamian, telling the story of what happened to her and her family. She was ten years old in 1915. She remembered the swarms of grasshoppers that arrived in her village, Dubne, which was north of the historic city Dikranagert, now Diyarbakir. The village elders were alarmed, she said, because they knew in their bones that the grasshoppers were a bad omen. They were right; the end came in a few months, when the wheat in the fields was ready for harvesting.”
In this interview, conducted by phone on Feb. 2, we talk about some of the issues she raised in her lecture and reflect on genocide and resistance.
Khatchig Mouradian—What was going through your head when you were writing the speech for the commemoration in Istanbul of Hrant Dink’s assassination?
Arundhati Roy—These days, we are going through a kind of psychotic convulsion in India. Genocide and its celebration are in the air. And it’s terrifying for me to watch people celebrating genocide every day. It was at a time when I was very struck by this celebration in India and the denial in Turkey that they asked me to go to Istanbul.
When I landed in Istanbul, I realized that there’s a very big difference between what Armenians, Turks and others could say outside Turkey—where everybody could be very direct about the Armenian genocide—and inside Turkey—where, Hrant Dink, for example, was trying to find a way of saying things in order to continue living. His idea was to speak out, but not to die.
In Istanbul, I spoke with people and I was very concerned not to give the impression that I flew in, made a speech, and flew out leaving everybody else in trouble. I was interested in helping to create an atmosphere where people could begin to talk about the Armenian genocide to each other. After all, that’s the project of the Armenians who are living in Turkey and trying to survive there.
At the same time, I was somebody who is involved quite deeply in issues in India and I didn’t want to be some global intellectual who flies in, makes some superficial statements and then flies out. I wanted to relate the issue to what I knew and what I fought for, and tried to push a little bit more and a little bit more. And this is not a simple thing to do.
K.M.—The story that weaves your lecture together is that of your friend, David Barsamian’s mother, Araxie Barsamian. In an interview, you say, “I think that a story is like the surface of water, and you can take whatever you want from it.” What did you take from the story of Araxie Barsamian?
A.R.—In fact, David happened to be in India just before I went to Turkey and we talked about the issue. It mattered to me that I knew him. I’m not saying that if I didn’t know him I wouldn’t have spoken, but it suddenly became something that was more personal. I was having the discussion with a friend that there are people who talk about politics that is informative and politics that is transformative. These are such silly separations because in Turkey, for example, everybody knows what happened. It’s just that there’s a silence around it and you’re not allowed to say what happened. And when you say it, it becomes transformative in itself. I made my point through the words of David’s mother instead of going and saying, “Look, that bullet that was meant to silence Hrant Dink actually made someone like myself take the trouble to go and read history. Whether I say it and I don’t say it, you and I know what happened, and if you want to maintain the silence, then people here will have to fight with that, as I will have to fight with the celebration around genocide in India.”
This is something that a novel writer does. How you say what you want to say is as important as what you want to say. By telling Araxie Barsamian’s story, the history comes alive. You could say that 1.5 million people were killed or you could say that the grasshoppers arrived in Araxie Barsamian’s village…
K.M.—You spoke about the difference between speaking about the Armenian genocide outside and inside Turkey. But in your speech, you are quite bold: You do not come off as trying to imply things rather than stating them outright. You are not trying to avoid using the term genocide…
A.R.—When I started speaking about the term “genocide,” defining it, then talking about the history of genocide and what’s happening in India today—how Indian fascists killed Muslim—I wanted to make it clear that that the genocidal impulse has cut across religions and that the same ugly, fascist rhetoric that the Turks used against the Armenians has been used by the Christians against the Indians, has been used by the Nazis against the Jews, and today, it is being used by Hindus against Muslims. Genocide is such a complex process. The genocidal impulse has never been related to just one culture or just one religion. I spoke about the Armenian genocide and its denial openly to the extent that I could without shutting down the audience.
I would like to note that in my readings, one problem I realized is that many scholars who have studied the Armenian genocide in detail—almost all of them—keep on insisting that it was the first genocide of the 20th century and, in asserting that, they deny the other genocides that took place—for example, the genocide against the Herrero people in 1904. So I was also trying to talk about the Armenian genocide without giving the impression that some victims are more worthy than others.
K.M.—How was your lecture received?
A.R.—The important thing was that it was received. It wasn’t blocked out. It wasn’t denied. People didn’t say, “Oh, here’s a person who has come here to tell us about our own past.” That’s because I wasn’t just talking about the past of Turkey. For me, that was the way of guaranteeing that my talk was received.
The biggest thing is that it was received. It was taken in and it was thought about. I saw many people in tears in the hall. And I hope that in some tiny, little way, it will change the way this subject is spoken of. I might be presuming too much…
K.M.—As you point out in your lecture, genocide and gross human rights violations have plagued us for centuries and they continue to do so. What has changed?
A.R.—I don’t think that there’s been that much change in the genocidal impulse. Technology and industrialization have only enabled human beings to kill each other in larger numbers. I talked about the slaughter of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in India. It was all on TV.
About three months ago, the killers were caught on camera talking about how they decided how to target the Muslim community, how it was all planned, how the police was involved, how the chief ministers were involved, how they murdered, how they raped. It was actually broadcast on TV and it worked in the favor of that party. The people who voted for them said, “This is what they deserve.” So I actually feel that this notion of the liberal conscience, of human conscience, is a fake notion. Today in India we are on the verge of something terrible. Like I say in the article, the grasshoppers have landed, and there is a kind of shutting down and cutting off of the poor from their resources, herding them off their land and rivers. And people are just watching. Their eyes are open but they are looking the other way. And again and again we think of the fact that in Germany when Jews were being exterminated, people must have been taking their children to piano lessons, violin lessons, worrying about their children’s homework. That kind of absolute lack of conscience is still present today. No amount of appeal to conscience can make any change. The only way disaster can be averted is if the people who are on the receiving end of that can resist.
Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator, currently based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He can be contacted at: [email protected]