â€œ[W]hen you live in the United States, with the roar of the free market, the roar of this huge military power, the roar of being at the heart of empire, it’s hard to hear the whispering of the rest of the world. And I think many U.S. citizens want to.â€
- Arundhati Roy, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, with David Barsamian.
Arundhati Roy was catapulted to fame in 1997 when she won the Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things. She is trained as an architect, worked as a production designer and written the screenplays for two films. Since then she has also become known internationally for her lyrical political writing in books like Power Politics, War Talk, and her latest, about to be released: â€œAn Ordinary Personâ€™s Guide to Empireâ€. Arundhati Roy was recently in the United States to publicize her book The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, which is a series of interviews with journalist David Barsamian. KPFKâ€™s host of Uprising, Sonali Kolhatkar, interviewed Roy in San Francisco on August 16th , 2004.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: The last time I saw you, you were in Mumbai, India. You were on a very big stage and you were speaking to tens of thousands of people at the World Social Forum and you were one of the few people who made a specific suggestion about boycotting a couple of American companies that were profiting from the war in Iraq and you got a lot of applause for it because that was sort of a rare thing â€“ there were mostly platitudes at the WSF. Has anything come of that suggestion?
*Arundhati Roy*: Well I donâ€™t know that anything has come of it concretely but I think people are working on that idea. How exactly it should be done is a difficult issue. But I would just like to repeat the fact that itâ€™s really dangerous for us to limit our protests to purely symbolic spectacle and that we have to begin to inflict real damage and we have to be able to signal to these absolutely heartless multinational companies that they cannot function like this. And if we donâ€™t do that, then weâ€™re going to take a very big hit. Weâ€™re just going to be a comical movement of people who like to feel good about ourselves.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: But youâ€™re also very much a believer in non-violent struggle. How does one hit the empire without using a little violence â€“ and can boycotts be effective?
*Arundhati Roy*: I donâ€™t also want to go around being the Barbie doll of non-violent struggle. To confuse non-violence with passivity is one of the things thatâ€™s dangerous. And the fact is that neither am I a person who feels that I have the right, or I am in a place where I should be dictating to people how they should conduct their movements. Personally Iâ€™m not prepared to pick up arms now. But maybe I can afford not to, at whatever place I am in now. I think violence really marginalizes and brutalizes women. It depoliticizes things. Itâ€™s undemocratic in so many ways. But at the same time, when you look at the massive amount of violence that America is perpetrating in Iraq, I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™m in a position to tell Iraqis that you must fight a pristine, feminist, democratic, secular, non-violent war. I canâ€™t say. I just feel that that resistance in Iraq is our battle too and we have to support it. And we canâ€™t be looking for pristine struggles in which to invest our purity. But I feel that for those of us who are prepared to resist non-violently, the economic outposts of empire are vulnerable. These same companies that first did business with Saddam Hussein, then were on the Defense Policy Board advising America to go to war, now are getting huge contracts from the destruction of Iraq, are also the same companies that are privatizing water and privatizing power and so on, in Latin America, in Africa, in India. Therefore we do have a foothold and we can shut them down if we wanted to.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: I want to touch on what you said about not demanding that a particular movement be pristine. Women are on the forefront of the struggle against globalization. At the same time, they are fighting a slightly different battle from men â€“ they are against the misogynist traditions of their community, as well as against the â€œmodernity of the global economyâ€ as you call it. How do you explain the dynamics then between men and women â€“ the men who on the one hand fight the same fight against globalization but may want to retain, even harder, the structures of misogynist traditions?
*Arundhati Roy*: Well, look, people like me, and Iâ€™m sure you, are in this dilemma full time, right? I spent the first part of my life just fighting tradition, just refusing to be the woman that the community that I come from wants me to be. And you escape that and you come slap-bang up against some that, itâ€™s hard to say which is worse. But I think thatâ€™s beautiful in a way, to pick your way through that fight. And though the experiences of women are different, the fact is that the fight is not being fought separately by women and men. There are plenty of men who see that side and there are plenty of women who donâ€™t. The battle lines are not drawn between women and men. They are drawn between particular world views.
What is disturbing, I think, is that there are two kinds of struggles going on in the world today — I mean resistance movements-wise. And they are almost like in two different eras even though they are both contemporary. One is the struggle of movements like the Zapatistas, or the anti-dam movement in the Narmada, or the anti-privatization forum, or the landless peasant movements, those movements which are fighting their own states and are radically wanting to restructure their society. And then there are those movements which are fighting neo-colonial occupations whether itâ€™s Tibet, or Palestine, or Kashmir, or in the Northeast [of India]. And there the repression is so extreme that those movements, even if they were more radical when they started, or more progressive, are being pushed into retrogressive positions, where they /are/ misogynist, or they /are/ fundamentalist and in many ways, using the same language and the techniques as the states they seek to replace. And then you have the cycle turning full circle and coming back to Iraq where youâ€™re re-colonizing a place and appropriating its resources and so on. I think that the fact is that those movements that are fighting liberation struggles have to start asking themselves now, what kind of state are they fighting for. And especially the women have to ask that question now. They canâ€™t be saying once it happens, then weâ€™ll be okay, because they wonâ€™t be.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Speaking of women as well, the situation in the United States is interesting on the left. Itâ€™s very refreshing for me to see a South Asian woman, a woman who looks like me, be the new superstar of the left. And you may reject that term, â€œsuperstarâ€ but unfortunately, or fortunately, whether you like it or not, when you walk into a room today, you command an audience. And itâ€™s the Noam Chomsky effect â€“ when he walks into a room, he gets a standing ovation before he even says a few words. So on the one hand Iâ€™m ecstatic that itâ€™s not just another straight white male with a fancy education. How do you deal with that and is it healthy for the left?
*Arundhati Roy*: I think itâ€™s very unhealthy. This process of iconization is also a political one. That it is a way of making real political resistance very brittle. Because itâ€™s okay to say oh Arundhati Roy, sheâ€™s a superstar. And then tomorrow say, but actually you know, sheâ€™s this and sheâ€™s that and itâ€™s over. But itâ€™s not about me and what a nice human being I am because Iâ€™m not a nice human being. Iâ€™m not at all playing for saint-hood here. So I think itâ€™s a very dangerous process. Itâ€™s hard to know what to do about it. Because all one does is to continue to write and say what one writes and says. Then the rest of it is a fallout that you have to deal with and realize and that the option is to shut up and go away. Is that what I want to do? I donâ€™t know.
But it is dangerous because it does make the whole movement very brittle. Obviously itâ€™s not just me, there are others. But individuals who are picked out â€“ we are very fragile things. I could be … how easy is it for the propaganda machine to try to discredit me tomorrow?
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Youâ€™ve talked about, in the book, [The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile] with David [Barsamian] the way in which ordinary people are different from powerful people who can be ruthless, cold, calculating. Does ruthlessness and coldness just come from power? Unless people have power we canâ€™t solve the problems of the world. What are your ideas on distributing power?
*Arundhati Roy*: Tonight, the subject of my talk is â€œPublic Power in the Age of Empireâ€. I think itâ€™s probably a subject that occupies many of my waking hours and what does that mean in todayâ€™s age? What does it mean in an election year? Does it mean just going out and voting? What does it mean? I think that itâ€™s very very important for us to also accept a certain amount of culpability for what is happening to the world and what we have allowed to happen. So how do we as people who are not walking the path to public office or government, how do /we/ shorten the leash on power because thatâ€™s the only way. Like I keep saying that basically the pre-neo-liberal era, already in countries like India, the distance between people who made decisions and people who suffered those decisions was big enough. Corporate globalization has just increased it and we have to minimize that distance. And sometimes in order to minimize it, we have to reach across national boundaries and borders. If you see in a very simple way, democracies are premised on an almost religious acceptance of the nation-state. Neo-liberalism is simply not. Capital moves across these boundaries in the way that it does. And so while that project needs the coercive powers of the nation state to quell the revolt at the servant quarters, it also ensures that no individual nation can stand up to the project of corporate globalization. So whether itâ€™s Lula or whether itâ€™s Nelson Mandela, whoever they are, theyâ€™ve crumbled in the face of that. The only way the public can ensure thatâ€¦. Like in India what is called now when people are arrested and called terrorists and put in jail in the thousands under this new POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act, the counterpart to the USA PATRIOT Act in India] act? You know what itâ€™s called? Creating a good investment climate. So weâ€™ve got to create a bad investment climate.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Speaking of elections and of whatâ€™s happening in India â€“ the election here in the United States is seeing a face off between Democrats and the Republicans and some of the left is very much rooted in the â€œAnybody But Bushâ€ strategy. I wonder if you see a comparison between what happened in India and what could happen in the US â€“the Congress versus the BJP similar to the Democrats versus the Republicans â€“ itâ€™s good to have the Democrats but still lots of work to be done.
*Arundhati Roy*: Well, yes and no. There is a parallel. And yet, we have to admit that whether itâ€™s the Congress or the BJP that came into power in India it doesnâ€™t affect the rest of the world as much as the outcome of the American election, in theory. Iâ€™ve been here for just a few days and one thing that bothers me is that the whole thing has been reduced to some personality contest â€“ like some squabble between two boys who belong to Yale, and were in the â€œSkull and Crossbonesâ€ club or whatever. Letâ€™s say, as a subject of empire I speak; Kerry says that even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, he would still have gone to war. He says that he wants to send another 40,000 troops more to Iraq. He wants to send Indians and Pakistanis or other people there to kill and die instead. Heâ€™ll get UN cover. For the Iraqis what does it mean? That the French and the Germans and the Russians can also partake of the spoils of the occupation? These are very difficult questions. But the fact is that if the antiwar movement in the left openly campaigns for Kerry then people in the rest of the world will ask, do you support â€œsoft imperialismâ€ a la Kerry or not? In terms of the fact that people like me and many of us have gone out of our way to make a huge distinction between American government and the American people. But now you have to accept that people in democracies are more responsible for the actions of their governments than the Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or the Afghans were for the actions of the Taliban. So then if you are responsible, then you have to take responsibility. Itâ€™s a complicated and dangerous situation right now. And what you say is very important. Can you openly support this man?
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: We deal with a lot of these issues on KPFK. We donâ€™t hear much discourse on corporate globalization and free trade in the United States. But during this election we are hearing a conversation thatâ€™s focused on the outsourcing of jobs which is very much related to India with hi-tech and other jobs going to India. Some people on the left think that they should embrace this as a positive benefit of globalization [with jobs going to a third world country] but others end up falling into the nationalistic trap and denounce the losing of jobs to India. What is your approach and how does one walk the line and how does one treat the issue of outsourcing jobs in India?
*Arundhati Roy*: The middle and upper classes in India who completely support the neo-liberal corporate globalization project now say, look, we have call centers, isnâ€™t that wonderful? Not seeing that part of the project of India having many thousands of people working for call centers, but who are they? They are also the English speaking, middle class or upper middle class people, at the cost of what? Of millions losing their lands and their jobs and the rest of the corporate globalization project, because of the privatization of electricity and water and removal of subsidies and so on. So once again, for a few people who are comparatively better off getting jobs there, millions are losing jobs there. And over here, what is happening is that the poor are losing jobs. So you have to see it as a complete process of what is happening. Itâ€™s not just that you say, oh look, some people are losing jobs here and theyâ€™re getting jobs there. Itâ€™s just a little part of a much larger project.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: A distraction if you will?
*Arundhati Roy*: Itâ€™s not a distraction because in India itâ€™s the main issue.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: â€¦ I mean here in the United States in election termsâ€¦
*Arundhati Roy*: â€¦ Itâ€™s a kind of jingoism. I think that what actually globalization has done here is more than people losing jobs in call centers. If you look at the fact that America and Europe are trying to force a country like India to remove subsidies for farmers and poor people while they pay 1 billion dollars a day in subsidies to their farmers, but not to their poor farmers, but to the corporate farmers. So within America too, that project â€¦ you see itâ€™s really important for people to understand that it isnâ€™t just a divide between rich countries and poor countries â€“ itâ€™s a divide between rich people and poor people. And that affects the Indian poor as well as the American poor.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Some people, liberal economists for example, like the New York Timesâ€™ Paul Krugman who will take a pretty decent position on the issue on war, will disagree with the anti-globalization movement saying that we should embrace the issue of globalization, itâ€™s good for the world. But then you have movements represented by the World Social Forum who are wholly rejecting it. In your opinion, is there anything good about globalization, or what would â€œyourâ€ globalization look like? Or is there just no space for globalization? Should everything turn back to localism?
*Arundhati Roy*: I suppose itâ€™s one of the most loosely used words in history. Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not. And of course I think when you look at it, we are the people who are saying we should have global treaties on nuclear weapons, on international justice, on environmental issues and how can there not be that kind of globalization? And then thereâ€™s that issue of whether organizations like the WTO and the IMF and the World Bank can be reformed. And even within the global justice movement there are two schools of thought. One says, scrap them and other says, no no, you can reform them. To me, it doesnâ€™t matter. If you can reform them, then reform them. But the fact is of course it would be good to have financial institutions that are just institutions, fair institutions. But itâ€™s much worse to have an entrenched, unfair international agreement. You know what I mean. You canâ€™t entrench injustice and institutionalize it in the way that these institutions are doing. It isnâ€™t a vague debate about globalization is good or bad. Youâ€™ve got to understand what it means.
And it keeps changing and warping. Five years ago the World Bank was funding big dams. Not five years ago, in 1993 they were driven out of the Narmada Valley. Now they are back. But how? They are not directly funding them. But they are trying to fund them through organizations like the NHPC which is the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, they are trying to come in through the back door now. They are trying to hold hands with the government. Because in any case, these private projects have to have government support. You canâ€™t privatize power without government support. You canâ€™t privatize a dam without using the coercive powers of the state. So it keeps warping and changing. You canâ€™t just have clichÃ©d reactions to it, also keep understanding what is happening.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: The issue of globalization from the perspective of activists who want justice, is an interesting one because it brings up ideas and challenges that I noticed â€“ in the World Social Forum there was one topic that kept coming up was the issue of language. You had all these people coming together â€“ most of them didnâ€™t speak one common language. And Nawal el Saadawi [famed Egyptian feminist] was talking about rejecting the use of the colonial language, English. Even though the â€œGod of Small Thingsâ€ [Royâ€™s first novel] has been translated into many languages, your primary language that you write in is English. Do you think that language, colonial or not, is an issue that activists should be trying to solve?
*Arundhati Roy*: I donâ€™t think itâ€™s an issue about what is imperialist or not. Because Arabic is also imperialist at some point. So is Hindi, Sanskrit. So on what basis are you going to say what is imperialist and what is not? I think it is true that language is a very complicated issue in India, say. Because I often feel why am I supposed to speak in Hindi? I am not from the north. I speak Malayalam, I write Malayalam. But I canâ€™t go into a meeting in Delhi and speak Malayalam. But I can speak English. I can also speak Hindi but the point is that itâ€™s complicated. Because of course, in some ways, English is the language that is common all over India.
As a writer, as a writer of fiction, as a writer of literature, I have to say that I suppose I have a sort of upside down notion of language which is that I donâ€™t feel that I am the slave of language. But that the language is the slave of me and itâ€™s my art to make it say what I think or make it do what I want. But that is the privilege of a writer. Often people are enslaved by language. Like if you think how frightening is it for somebody in the Narmada valley to have to go through a Supreme Court affidavit in English? How would we feel if our lives were governed by a language we feel we have no access to. But at the same time, I think the solution to that is that there has to be a way of facilitating translations in ways. It canâ€™t be that you use one language at the cost of someone else.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: So communication in the end is the main issueâ€¦?
*Arundhati Roy*: Yes.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Writers like yourself who are from South Asia and who write in English have become popular in the West in say the last 10, 20 years. One of the first was Salman Rushdie who became very popular in the West and who also ended up turning to political writing. I saw he has lavished some praise on you on the back of the book (The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile). But he takes a different position on the issue of war. Heâ€™s a liberal hawk, lining himself more with the Christopher Hitchens-crowd. Any thoughts on Salman Rushdie?
*Arundhati Roy*: I must say that of all the writers, the Indian writers who write in English, I think at least his earlier work has certainly been the most inventive and exciting in terms of the way he uses language. But obviously I do have a different position on all these issues, from them. But still I feel that, the fact is, writers have become playthings now. Youâ€™re actually seriously asked the question as to why donâ€™t you just go back to writing fiction and why are you doing this? I mean, now not so much but I used to be asked this. As if writers are just sort of court eunuchs or entertainers of the master. So somehow even the fact that he does engage with the world is a good thing.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Looking back at your early political writing, I remember reading the essay, â€œThe Great Indian Rape Trick,â€ years ago, right after I watched The Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur. That was a very scathing critique of the film, Iâ€™m sure well deserved, and from what I read, it certainly was. Did you get into trouble for writing that and did Shekhar Kapur ever respond to you?
*Arundhati Roy*: Oh big time trouble, big time trouble! Because what happened was that at the time that this film came out, I had just finished making a film for Channel Four, which was the same company that produced this. And then they had commissioned me to write another film. And while I was doing that I saw this film and I was really furious. I wrote to them and said look, this is not a conversation Iâ€™m prepared to have over some private meal or something and Iâ€™m going to write about it because I think itâ€™s outrageous. And I wrote. And of course that led to a lot of trouble between me and them and so on.
And of course the usual thing â€“ it was incredible how the Indian middle class and the press was so happy with that film and so furious with Phoolan Devi [the woman on whose life The Bandit Queen was based] herself when she objected to the film. So somehow she was okay on celluloid but when she appeared in real life objecting to what had been done to her, people would say, she looks like a maid servant, they used to tell me. Things like this. And the fact is that she was â€“ sheâ€™s been killed now â€“ she was a very interesting, cunning, and not nice woman. So everyone would tell me, sheâ€™s just doing this for money. I said maybe, but then give her money â€“ theyâ€™re making money. And my point, apart from a critique of the film was that you canâ€™t show the rape of a living woman without her written consent. You canâ€™t be showing, even if sheâ€™s a public figure, people payingâ€¦ and actually people were hooting and whistling in the halls when it was happening.
Iâ€™m very happy that whole thing happened because there was vitriolic outpourings against me when I wrote and it actually helped her to go to court. But it was good for me because all that happened before The God of Small Things and I already knew how to deal with this publicity and so on. I used to always say I preferred that to this middle class seduction of me later.
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Maybe that also prepared them for you.
*Arundhati Roy*: Maybe [laughs].
*Sonali Kolhatkar*: Arundhati Roy, thank you so much for this interview.
*Arundhati Roy*: Youâ€™re very welcome.