As thousands try to cleanse their conscience by shrieking hoarse at India’s biggest reality show, the forests, rivers and the invisible millions die many a death. Paradoxes deepen, doubts arise. Is it still just to dream? Arundhati Roy in conversation with Pritha Kejriwal.
From an architect turned actress turned hippy turned writer turned crusader… is there a method in the anarchy or is that how life unfolded for you?
These are your labels, not mine! Whether there is a method, a link, a consistency in how I have lived my life and written about the world is a matter of interpretation. The work is published and available to beassessed, reacted to, embraced or critiqued…
The persona as screenplay writer as opposed to your persona as fiction/essay writer… was writing the only key… the medium didn’t matter… or they are two different personas?
That’s more or less the same question as your first one, isn’t it? My answer is the same too… look at the work, it should hold the answers.
There’s always this charge against you that your writings on civil liberty always pander to a certain Western notion of human rights… so, what exactly is the South Asian voice construct?
I don’t really see that I’m up for trial before some kind of committee before whom I have to defend myself against ‘charges’. In the fiercely polarized and violent times we live in, when the stakes are as high as they are, making ‘charges’, easy labelling and name-calling are part of battle tactics. Rising to the bait and responding to them would be foolish tactics— so if you will excuse me, I’ll ignore that part of your question for now. But let me say a little about this notion of ‘human rights’. Sometimes, the idea of ‘Human Rights’ morphs into an industry administered by NGOs funded directly and indirectly by those who are violating the human rights in the first place. It’s a narrow way of looking at the world. The notion of ‘human rights’ has come to replace the much grander, more profound idea of Justice. When you restrict yourself to the question of ‘human rights’ violations, you can avoid addressing the structural violence created by policies that actually manufacture the violations of human rights—economic policies that actually could not be implemented without the massive violation of human rights. Without being at all political you can make a lot of noise and occupy yourself and distract everybody around you with your pious atrocity-based analysis that is completely meaningless, in which all sides involved in the conflict are indicted, the reasons for the conflict are elided and the status-quo remains unquestioned.
Your take on the fast?
Do you mean Sharmila Irom’s fast? That a person should have to fast for over a decade to demand the repealing of a law that allows non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion—a law that has led to so much suffering—is in itself a good reason to question how India can continue to call itself a democracy. If by “the fast” you mean Anna Hazare’s dramatic and hugely successful fast, then I think it illustrates what I have been saying for a while. That satyagraha and hunger fasts work as a tool of political mobilization when they have a sympathetic, middle class audience. Anna Hazare has one. Sharmila Irom does not. The adivasis in the forests of Central India do not. An ‘Anti-corruption’ campaign is a catch-all campaign. It includes everybody from the extreme left to the extreme right and also the extremely corrupt. No one’s going to say they are for corruption after all. The debate between the various drafts of the Jan Lokpal bill is healthy. I wonder whether it will go through Parliament though… another storm is gathering over that. The question is- can two oligarchies function together? Of course, I’m not against a strong anti-corruption bill, but corruption is just a manifestation of a problem, not the problem itself.
The largely middle class anger about the 2G scam is a good thing; the scam itself shook people out of their complacency and knocked the halo off the head of the corporate world which has for long been worshipped by India’s middle class. It was like reading a dirty diary that exposed the links between the corporations, politicians, the media and the judiciary—that we’ve been talking about for years. But not surprisingly that ‘2G anger’ does not extend to the daylight robbery that is taking place over what we rather weirdly call ‘natural resources’— the hundreds of secret MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) handing over the county’s rivers, mountains and forests to private corporations for a tiny royalty, resulting in environmental and human costs that are off the charts, seems to be perfectly acceptable. This is a tragedy of unbelievable proportions, even if there was no corruption involved…which there is of course. But that’s not the point. The point is the disaster that this kind of privatization, this gold rush is leading to. After each corruption scandal, when the noise dies down, we see that politicians who have been exposed and arraigned for corruption routinely win elections…perhaps the poor; those millions who live on less than 20 rupees a day don’t see the money that’s been stolen as their money. But when their land and livelihoods are stolen, they fight back, as they are doing all across the country. Then they’re called terrorists, seditionists, they are accused of waging war against the State and thrown in jail. Thousands are in jail as we speak. No mass movement of middle class people will come out in their support, I can assure you.
As for Baba Ramdev’s fast… in case that’s the fast you were referring to — I think it was outrageous the way the government broke it up.
Book fests, book launches, book awards – does it construct an author… do you think it’s imperative for an author to be conscious of this circuit to be a valid international voice… or is it the people’s mandate that matters… for e.g.the much belated recognition to someone like Nagarjun or Muktibodh, even more so?
I think authors will do whatever they can, to be read, to be heard. That’s natural. But now since publishers have become indiscriminate and omnivorous and that has created such a terrific noise, each writer has to work harder to make herself heard over the next one. I doubt very much though, that real talent goes unnoticed these days. Everybody gets ‘discovered’, the great as well as the direly mediocre. What sort of events you choose to do and what you won’t do has to do with what kind of writer you are. Critical recognition, popular acclaim, commercial success… these are complicated and overlapping things. I don’t feel very judgemental about all of it. You can’t be ‘pure’ in this world of murky finance. I try to cut out the ambient noise and reserve my judgement for the work itself.
Do you think that we have come to live in a present paradox of India vs Bharat…How do you see yourself – as India, as Bharat or as a bridge between the two?
I think the most successful secessionist struggle in India has been the secession of the middle and upper classes into outer space where they have joined the rest of the world’s elite. From their kingdom in the sky, they look down at the people left behind in the old country and think: “What’s our bauxite doing in their mountains? What’s our water doing in their rivers? What’s our iron ore doing in their forests?” As they drift further and further apart, they lose the language with which to communicate with each other or understand each other. The only language they share is the language of violence…of perpetrator and victim. Other than that, like all colonials, they have raised native armies… the policeman, the jawan, the CRPF and BSF soldiers… they are only slightly more glorified versions of the Salwa Judum, the ‘peoples militia’ —poor men paid to fight the battles of the rich.
How do I see myself between these two worlds? Does it matter?
Sedition or Writer’s freedom… does it tantamount to a new definition of patriotism?
The idea of Sedition is an obsolete one. Hardly worth getting exercised over.
There is often a thin line between resistance and annihilation. It is true that Azad was encountered, but it is also true that a number of school teachers were also annihilated in Jangal Mahal. So, do you think injustice can sometimes have a fallout in annihilation? Is it a valid discourse?
This debate goes back to what I was saying about the ‘atrocity-based analysis.’ It’s pointless. We can go round and round, accusing each side of committing atrocities— without a full grasp of the facts—and get nowhere. There can be no doubt that both sides do commit crimes… but to try and equate the two, to try and balance the structural violence perpetrated by one side—the side that is responsible for millions of people living in conditions of near famine, of child malnutrition that is worse than anywhere else in the world, of tens of thousands of debt-ridden farmers killing themselves—with the acts of violence (and sometimes the atrocities) committed by those who are resisting this
marauding State, makes for an absurd discourse. As the rift widens and the war spirals out of control, the incidents of violence will only increase. To use this as an excuse to refuse to address the cause of the conflict is, as I said, battle tactics by the side that has huge stakes in delegitimizing the resistance.
Between South Asian job scarcity and globalisation of ecological wealth, how do you see a way out of the paradox?
The ways out are not formulaic and cannot be laid out in an answer in a magazine interview. Our planet is in crisis— ninety percent of the big fish in the seas have disappeared, there’s more plastic than plankton in the oceans, we are losing hundreds of species of animals and insects every day. Meanwhile, we can make sophisticated nuclear weapons but cannot understand how the world might end without the services of the honeybee. This crisis is the result of thousands of decisions that human beings have made, under all kinds of regimes, under all sorts of conditions, while praying to all sorts of gods. The thing to remember is that for every decision that was made, for every dam or major irrigation scheme that was built, for every forest that was destroyed, for every mountain that was mined, there was an alternative that was not considered. Today we have to consider those alternatives. We have to re-imagine the meaning of happiness.
Between pamphlets and writing… is it the death of nuance… protest writing – is it the death of a craft or birth of a craft?
There’s nothing nuanced or artistic about the nature of oppression in India today, nor about all those who write to strengthen the hand of our rulers. They can be as absurd and as crude as they like—no one will use words like ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’ to describe their paeans to the powerful, their carefully worded obeisance to the status quo, their sweeping condemnation of criticism or any kind of effective resistance.
Those are adjectives reserved for those who are seen as traitors to the middle class. If out of ten people in a room, seven are starving and one is a billionaire, you write about the starving you are being ‘negative’, write about the billionaire you are being ‘positive’, forward-looking.
I think there’s something beautiful, strong, direct and clear sighted about pamphleteering, when it’s well done. It throws down the gauntlet and infuriates the comfortable classes. Apart from everything else, it’s great fun to watch them lose their cool.
Do you ever see yourself, writing for children or young adults?
Maybe I will…who knows?
In our times of cholera and globalisation…where do you see love?
Love is at the centre of everything I write and say and do.