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The god of big things


A month ago, as she faced a roomful of journalists in Italy, writer Arundhati Roy was asked what it is like to be an icon of peace-seekers around the world. "First of all," she advised her audience, "always be suspicious of icons." And indeed she does not behave like one. She is generous and curious in listening to others, she answers her own phone and does not have any personal assistants. "Secondly," she continued, "I am not a pacifist. I come from a feudal society. Being a pacifist in a society like that means accepting the existing order. My whole life I have been involved and have engaged in various kinds of resistance, which is the opposite of pacifism."

Roy won the Man Booker Prize and international fame thanks to her quasi-autobiographical novel "The God of Small Things" in 1996. When she walks down the street in Delhi, people recognize her. But, she adds, "It is a little ironic to talk about the fame of a writer in a country 400 million of whose billion inhabitants are illiterate."

This is a characteristic reaction for Roy, who seems to channel every personal question into a political observation. And thus she leads her listeners on an alternative trip in India. And therefore perhaps more than being an icon of anything, Arundhati Roy is an iconoclast. For example, the truism that India is a democracy — the world’s largest — or the worship of the Moloch of development. She even wants to reexamine the image and status of Mahatma Gandhi.

Stop being afraid

We met last month in the city of Ferrara in Italy at a conference organized by the Italian weekly Internazionale. Over the course of three days, thousands of Italians, among them many young people who by coming refuted the claim that the younger generation lacks an interest in politics, filled the halls for the lectures and discussions with foreign and Italian correspondents, filmmakers and writers, among them Roy. The audience was thrilled by her words and the cameras delighted in her beauty.

Roy explained there that she has started to consciously exploit her huge fame and publicity to come out against the centers of power in the society in which she lives. "I became the darling of the middle classes," she relates with self-mockery. Her status as a national sweetheart does indeed enable her to take risks. Like, for example, the risk she took upon herself at the end of September when she published the article "Scandal in the Palace," which criticizes India’s judiciary.

For Roy, 46, this is nothing new: Already seven years ago, she was convicted of contempt of court after she attacked a court decision to allow the construction of a huge dam on the Narmada River in central India. The project is in fact a system of 30 gigantic dams, 135 middle-sized dams and 3,000 small dams, the construction of which is slated for completion in 2025. It is expected to uproot hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and cause tremendous environmental damage.

The contempt-of-court law — which allows for an almost automatic conviction and imprisonment of anyone who "lowers the authority" of the Indian justice system — is, unsurprisingly, a legacy of the colonial era. The privy council of the British Empire determined that with respect to colonies in which there are "colored populations," it was necessary to make use of the sanction of trial for contempt of court in order to maintain an attitude of respect and esteem for the court.

Last year that same court ordered the ejection of tens of thousands of people from their homes in Delhi, as well as the demolition of many thousands of small shops, houses and workshops constructed over a more than 20-year period at the edges of the city. The clearing of the area was intended to make way for large construction initiatives: shopping malls, hotels and a site for the British Commonwealth Games. According to Roy, "Suddenly Delhi became the capital city of the new emerging superpower. It had to be dressed up to look the part. As Delhi was being purged of its poor, a new kind of city was springing up around us. A glittering city of air-conditioned corporate malls and multiplexes, where multinational corporations showcased their newest products." The city smoldered, as people protested and riots broke out, related Roy against the serene medieval backdrop of Ferrara. "The city was just being shut down, parts of Delhi were like a police state."

The protests caused the authorities to ask the court to reconsider the decision to evacuate and demolish, and they even submitted a revised master plan. But Yogesh Kumar Sabharwal, who was the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, refused to revise the ruling. Incidentally, two of his sons "happened" to build a highly profitable shopping mall in the area. The publisher of the newspaper Mid-Day, which published a series of investigative reports about the apparent conflict of interest, as well as two editors at the paper and a cartoonist, was brought to trial on contempt charges, and sentenced to four months in prison. The question of the story’s accuracy was not even an issue; the very fact of questioning the court’s integrity was tantamount to "contempt." The Supreme Court did not rescind the sentence but it did postpone its implementation to early next year.

In praise of empire

Arundhati Roy writes her articles for, and publishes them first, in the Indian press, in English, after which they are translated into the multitude of Indian languages. She is able to write in Malayalam — the language spoken in Kerala, the southern state where she grew up, "but not as a writer," she explains. "When I grew up, I learned the language, but my mother used to hit me if I spoke it. I had to write down, ‘I will speak English, I will speak English.’ So now English is the language I am most comfortable in." That, she says, is the way things are when you have a Christian mother from Kerala and a Hindu father from Bengal.

Roy herself was born in Assam, a northeastern Indian state, and now lives in Delhi, where she speaks Hindi and English.

And how is it to write in your ex-colonizer’s language, in today’s language of imperialism?

"I’ll tell you a story. After my book was published, I was on a radio program in England, with two imperial historians who both started speaking about how the British Empire was such a glorious empire. One of them said that if an alien was to come to earth, and was totally neutral, they would have to say that British civilization was one of the world’s defining civilizations.

"I had never heard anyone praising the empire. I told myself, don’t get into it, it doesn’t matter. Then the next one started and said that ‘even the fact that your book was written in English is a tribute to the British Empire’. I lost it. I said: ‘That is like telling the child of a raped parent that he is a tribute to his father’s brutality.’ I said: ‘My tragedy is that I love English, not hate it, but I will use it in any way I can against you.’"

Speaking of language, critics of her first and thus far only novel have said that her language is too rich and laden. "I have never got into the business of defending my language. It’s like somebody telling me that my gall bladder has a funny shape. Maybe it does, but it is my gall bladder. I can understand that feeling from some people who write in a very spare way. ‘The God of Small Things’ — much of it was seen through the eyes of children, with their big imaginations," she says. Perhaps, she hazards, the next book will be different.

And there is indeed such a new book "cooking." Roy refrains from providing any details of the plot or its characters, or of how close she is to the end. She is prepared to reveal that there will be "something Kashmiri" in it, but no more. When she is in the midst of the writing process, especially the writing of fiction, it is hard for her to share with others.

Reservations about Gandhi

Roy is also not sharing the many revelations and insights she has had in researching an essay about Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led the movement for the liberation of India from the yoke of British colonialism. Yes, some of her reticence derives from the man’s being so admired. She has several reservations about him as a person and as a leader, though she doesn’t deny his centrality and or his significance to India’s history. But though she may admire him, she is not impressed, for example, by asceticism. "His rich supporters always said it takes a lot of money to keep that man in poverty," she says.

India has been independent for 60 years but from Roy’s perspective, it is not "the largest democracy in the world." In fact, according to one of her definitions, India has created its apartheid regime. "The most successful secessionist movement in India has been the secession of middle and upper classes into a sort of space where they join hands with the rest of the elites."

According to another of her definitions of what is happening in India, "The whole corporatization is really like a genetically modified form of feudalism. And this is in a country that at least on paper had land reforms … True, there were all those loopholes provided so that the oligarchy could carry on being huge land owners." But at least there was an aspiration for a fairer distribution. Now, she laments, everything has been overturned in the name of the corporation.

According to a third definition, India is carrying out its own colonization: In the name of development, the wealthy capitalists, with the backing of the national and international centers of power, are taking control of the lands of hundreds of millions of people, flattening mountains, building dams that divert rivers from their courses, ruining the environment, affecting the climate, destroying thousands of villages and forcing a brutal change in their way of life.

Roy says that the court stands at the crossroads of all of these changes, and hence her great criticism of it as "the theater of democracy." As she explains it, the government itself cannot make undemocratic and unpopular decisions that will deprive millions of their homes, for example, and all for the benefit of development initiatives that serve narrow classes, so it leaves this to the court, which is an institution immune to criticism and accountability.

Man’s challenge to God

The first occasion on which Roy exploited the power that became attached to her name was after India carried out a nuclear test, in May of 1998. In an article called "The End of Imagination," she wrote: "The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made. If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: We have the power to destroy everything that You have created. If you’re not religious, then look at it this way. This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon."

Ever since then, even without having written more about the matter, Roy’s voice has been joined as a matter of fact to the anti-nuclear movement.

Therefore, in mid-October she was pleased to announce that the Indian government had declared the postponement of an almost signed deal to purchase a nuclear reactor from the United States. In a period when social battles have suffered many defeats, this announcement was a sign not to despair. "This is the American way of binding India in all kinds of commercial ways for supposedly civilian purposes. They sell us nuclear reactors that they don’t sell themselves, and they control you with the supply of fissile material, and they use that to leverage every kind of deal. It’s like tying your hair to a nail in the wall and trying to pretend that you are free and you can go and sit somewhere else."

Here again, Roy breaks her promise not to talk about current events, or to write opinion pieces or even to give interviews at a time when she is writing prose. "I have no problem with breaking promises," she says, adding that in any case interviews like this don’t distract her from thinking about fictional writing.

Like the Taliban regime

In contrast to India’s image in the West, Roy sees her country as marching on "a journey into darkness." She is merciless in her criticism. "Somehow all the cruelty is being blurred by talk about Gandhi, and how everybody is meditating and doing yoga, and isn’t it just great, how we have cricket and we have Miss World and Miss Booker Prize and dissent, and aren’t we all a lovely sort of happy bumbling family? "Actually no, it’s dark and cruel and vicious, and you know, unless one is going to see this, it is going to get darker and more cruel and more vicious. India is a country that is comfortable with its killings," she says, offering a partial list: "One million people [the Dalits or Untouchables] are still scavengers of human shit, and the worst tragedy is that they would fight for their right to carry that shit because if they don’t, then what would they do? Each day Dalits are being lynched, and suspects are not brought to justice. Muslims are being murdered all over India. One hundred and thirty seven thousand farmers have committed suicide in the last years. Something like 60 to 80 thousand people have been killed in Kashmir alone. It is the most militarized zone in the entire world — Kashmir — 12 million people, 700,000 soldiers — the army itself says there are 850 militants, so who are they guarding there? This is a society whose engine is the hierarchic division into thousands of castes and sub-castes. A violent society that takes a pride in nonviolence."

She adds that it is a society that is continuing to nurture and apply the perception of "impurity": They talk about the attitude of the Taliban toward women in Afghanistan, but the attitude of the high castes in India toward the untouchables is far worse in her opinion.

Roy relates that in India’s geographical center, a real civil war is going on: "In the states of Orissa and Chhattisgarh, they have now found the bloody bauxite mines [bauxite is used in the production of aluminum], and the corporations are at them, simply raping them. One should see how they take away the whole forest, mountain, the draining off of water, the devastation of the land, the displacement of indigenous people. The government has cleared out something like 400 villages, thousands of people, moved them into police camps and told them, like George Bush does, you are either with us or with the terrorists, the Maoists. The government has set up people’s militias, forcing a tribal fight. And the Maoists are being murdered."

This is what is happening in the heart of the country, whereas in the large cities of Delhi and Bombay, "people celebrate victories in cricket, which come in between the advertisements — they are the major thing — and Bollywood films." People buy products to lighten the skin, she says, "and there is a kind of virulent triumphalism in the air, a nationalism that I have not seen anywhere else."

"Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, [who as finance minister led to economic changes in the spirit of globalization], is more than anything else a nominee of the World Bank. The person who heads the world’s largest democracy is a man who never won an election in his entire life. He went to Oxford or Cambridge or somewhere, and received an honorary Ph.D. He thanked and thanked the British Empire for all the institutions like the courts and universities and police and democracy. It’s probably the first time that a colony thanked a colonizer for every institution of repression."

Roy points to the alliances that are created during the process of the corporate takeover. In India today, she says, "The middle and upper class call themselves the natural allies of Israel and the U.S. And the big irony is that this ‘natural ally’ has a lot to do with India’s anti-Muslim feelings. This is all BJP [the Indian People's Party, which is a Hindu nationalist political body], and the BJP is the political wing of RSS [the National Self-Help Group, a right-wing Hindu cultural guild], which was founded in 1925 along the lines of Italian fascism. And if you read their literature, it goes on about the Muslims of India, the Jews of Germany, that Hitler’s final solution is the only solution."

And after she has delivered all of these remarks, during dinner in Ferrara, over half a glass (and no more) of white wine, Roy said that at times she wished to keep silent. Silence, it seemed, as an existential way of relating to the cruelty all around.

To ignite the anger

But the need to be silent gives way to a warm talk about the other India, that is still other. This talk is accompanied by laughter, even smiles of delight. Because in huge India, anarchy still prevails and the higher castes cannot control it entirely, because they cannot know everything. India is a country made up of numerous small minorities to which the market economy is foreign, and there is the warm hospitality to visitors and the constant resistance to that which is unjust. If India hasn’t become Afghanistan, or Pakistan, she says, "It isn’t because of the government but rather because of us, who fight all the time." She calls herself and those who are following the same path "guerrilla fighters." They are actually part of the mass nonviolent movements that have been active during the past 20 years: fighting the construction of the huge dams, or for the uprooted; they are women’s movements, and groups that are party to the struggle of the Dalits; there are on the one hand intellectuals like herself, who write and nourish the public debate, and on the other, there are the Maoists who do use weapons.

"Activists in India have a double task, to fuel the anger, and then to do something about it. Because there is a huge acceptance."

Where does all the anger come from?

Roy believes that what has shaped her thinking today was a relatively short period, when she was 21: "Every morning I decided I would go and have tea on the street with all the lepers and beggars, just to be a complete vagrant. I used to ride this bicycle in the day, and in the evening when I came back, they would say: So you survived another day. It was if they expected me to have a terrible accident, just like them. They all had horrible deformities."

There she discovered that there is humor even in places like that,-black humor, affection and disrespect of authority. That, she says, was when she discovered the meaning of an individual’s "total vulnerability" vis-a-vis the world.

And now, for the first time in our conversation, Roy begins to talk about herself, and to reveal personal things. "My father died a few months ago. We started to see each other relatively late in my life. Even though he came from a high-caste Brahmin family that owned a tea plantation, he lived his life in poverty, because he was an alcoholic. At first I was put off by him, because of the alcoholism and the neglect. Then I laughed at myself: Would I rather he were a big entrepreneur who evicts thousands of people from their homes? An arms dealer? Of course not. I reconciled with who he was."

It is hard to imagine her father’s end in the context of Roy’s tremendous success, which is manifested not only in her power to influence but also in a lot of money. "My success, in the vulgar sense of the word, is a kind of punishment. To be rich, famous."

You’d rather be a leper?

"That would be a little bit extreme. Let me put it this way: I always wondered whether I would ever regret ‘The God of Small Things.’ I still don’t have an answer to that. I am also having a good time. It’s not something that I accept easily. I would have been happy with one fiftieth or less of the material benefits. I don’t mourn anything and want to starve. But for me it is the kind of obscenity of capitalism, that one person, whatever you do, whatever it is, you are dipped in gold.

As you watch the poor being evicted and living like insects in the cracks of the city, your own bank account just bulges. You are a political person, and you have seen the destructiveness of money."

So why not donate it?

"Going and giving money, as charity — it’s bullshit. It has to be done politically, which I do, but it takes a lot of time and effort, and again it’s a distraction from your work and puts you in the position of a patron, which you hate."

At the same time, she tends to joke with her friends about how in "all the battles that we fight, if the people that we are supporting end up winning, we will be the first ones to be hanged from the nearest tree. The Maoists, the Islamic movement in Kashmir. Sometimes you are fighting on the side of people who have no space for you in their imagination. But that’s okay. Sometimes I think that there are two kinds of people, one that is comfortable with power and one that has a genetically antagonistic relationship to it. For me, it is a question of being a troublesome citizen."

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