City Special – Arundhati Roy in New York City
Delhi-based author in the heart of the empire.
[Photos by Sarahana]
While touring the world’s most dangerous country, author Arundhati Roy, the greatest living Delhiwalla, talked to its hapless citizens at an event hosted at City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Before she took questions, Ms Roy read out a few excerpts from her essay Walking with the Comrades, an account of her stay with the Maoist guerrillas and adivasi villagers in central India. Transcripts:
Ruth Gilmore (CUNY): Thank you Arundhati for that amazing reading and the thoughts that you brought to my mind and all of our minds as you described this war against the forest people. One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot having read some of your work over the years and listening to you read now is how much beauty you put into a story [..? not audible] and I think all the time about how you help people to think about the worst things that are happening in the world so that we can do something about it. And I wonder if you would talk, if you’d be interested in talking, a little bit about the sort of political project and the aesthetic project and finding all of the beauty in moments of the greatest hurt[?].
Arundhati Roy: Well I don’t actively look for it because it’s there. You know if you read the rest of the essay that I read from, actually we spent so much of our time just laughing, you know, inside [the forest], because I always sense that when you’re outside the immediate area of resistance, it’s much easier to feel despair because you have that choice. You can always say, “Okay, doesn’t matter, I won’t study politics, I’ll do interior design” or something whereas people who are in there, they don’t have a choice, you know. Even despair is not a choice because whether you’re a pessimist or whether you’re an optimist, no one is asking you, like you have to fight that battle some way or the other and there’s a sort of clarity there. And a lot of beauty, and a lot of hope.
I think for me it’s not a strategy, the way I write. It’s just the way I write. Or it’s just the way I think. I mean 10, 20, 30 years ago when I began to write about these things, this was at a time when the elite of India was so optimistic about the project of free market and they would say “this woman needs to be sent to have her head examined”, you know, “she’s crazy” and so on. Whether we win or lose or whatever it is, this is the side we’re on. And the truth is if you live in India, or in Kashmir, you will know that there’s so much to be said, there’s so much wilderness, there’s so much imagination that hasn’t been enclosed, and that I think is what makes our battle so ferocious; because there is so much that we love. It’s not that we have to retrieve it, we have it. And it hasn’t been destroyed yet, though the project is on. It hasn’t been destroyed yet. And so I think we only fight if there’s something we love that we have to save, otherwise what’s the point.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): One of the things we do at the center is we have a year-long seminar with faculty fellows and graduate student fellows and coincidentally today we were discussing your work. One of the questions was about audience because I think it surprised many of us reading this work just how little of the state of affairs is actually being discussed within the transnational media conglomerates. And so I guess my question is about whether you see your primary role as bringing these stories, this reporting, as it were, to the world. Or do you see the primary apex of your activism actually within what is extant in the Indian state?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my role in that I think a lot of what I do is not necessarily aimed at trying to persuade people to my point of view or anything. It’s more about… how can I say it. For example, about 2 or 3 months ago, I got a message from the forest. And it said, “Didi, aap ke likhne ke baad, jungle mey khushi ki laher pheilithi,” which means, “After you wrote, a wave of happiness went through the forest.” And for me, that’s why I write, to be part of the resistance because I don’t necessarily see the transnational media or the idea of having to build bridges of solidarity — I did, at one time; I used to say that India’s best export is dissent. But now I feel very much that people really have to fight their own battles. You know, we can’t spend all our energy trying to build transnational solidarities because those are very fragile. If they come, it’s great, but I never… I mean, let’s say when I wrote Walking with the Comrades, a 20,000-word piece, I had no idea who the hell would want to publish it. But you just have to write it. I wrote it, and then it was published in a big magazine, and it really did in some ways change the nature of the discourse because otherwise these were just faceless terrorists and so on.
But I think I always see it as an act of solidarity with the people whose struggle I’m a part of. I never see myself as representing somebody or being the voice of the voiceless or any nonsense like that, you know. I am very much part of the whole thing. I’m just doing my part in it.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): Speaking of solidarity, you mentioned in the piece that you read about the export of ore to China. It must be one of the paradoxes of history, right, that as part of the operation against Moaists in India, ore is going to the Maoists in China.
Arundhati Roy: I was in China some time ago and at some meeting, we were talking about the three gorgeous dams, and I said, you know, if you object to a dam or [?] project in China, then what do you do? They said you write a letter to the Letters & Petitions department, after when you get arrested. I said, “Well clearly you need some Indian Maoists now”.
But China’s interesting isn’t it? That in some ways it’s becoming like a capitalistic economy run by a Communist state. So in India they look to China with a great deal of envy, thinking, you know, “Why are we sagging with this democracy, however tattered it is?”; because you can’t, in India, actually you cannot push through this free market project without militarizing. And yet in order to be the favored finance destination, you have to pretend to be a democracy. So all that is going on.
But, just, since you mentioned China, I recently read Kissinger’s book on China, and there’s a delightful part in it, where he talks about how after Tiananmen Square, the Chinese couldn’t understand the cooling off of the relations with the United States. They couldn’t understand how a country could place human rights at the center of its foreign policy [laughs]. That’s Kissinger’s idea of U.S. foreign policy: human rights at the center.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): On that question of how this situation appears in the foreign press, recently, somebody like Anna Hazare has seen a lot more press than the economic and political crisis in Central India. Do you have an explanation for that?
Arundhati Roy: Anna Hazare [laughs]. I suppose the closest explanation to that movement is the Tea Party here. It’s really very interesting what happened in India. Basically, just before that movement sort of bubbled up to the surface, the government and the corporations and the media were reeling under a scandal, which was known as 2G, which was basically the selling of spectrum for mobile phones, and basically corporations, media lobbyists, the Information Minister, and all the way up to the Prime Minister, people were involved in selling billions of dollars worth of this spectrum to private corporations at very cheap rates, and then they resold them and made huge profits; and a whole lot of phone conversations had been taped; and big media journalists, the major corporations in India, and all these people were involved.
Suddenly, for the first time, the whole gloss of, “Corporates are honest and efficient” fell apart; it was shattered. And suddenly this anti-corruption movement came up, supported by the — surreptitiously supported by the — extreme right, by the fascists, by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Patriotic Organization]; but not really showing their hand. And they only spoke about government corruption and their movement was supported by the corporate media, 24/7. There was not one, single, minor slogan against any corporation. It was all just about… not just even government, but just about the ruling party, which is the Congress, because, you know, there was so much of the right wing behind it.
And this bill itself, which they are trying to pass, very few people have read it, but I have, and it’s crazy; because it basically suggests that there should be a panel of people who are pure and virtuous and picked in quite complicated ways, but they should run a kind of super cop, where there are 40,000 policemen overseeing corruption; how these 40,000 people are not going to be corrupt themselves you don’t know.
And actually eventually what happens in India is that we have a country where it isn’t possible for people to be legal. You have hundreds of thousands, millions of people living in slums, you have roadside vendors, you have everybody who’s just being preyed upon by the state because they are illegal; I mean they are living in illegal places, they are pavement dwellers; and you suddenly have the middle class turning on them and saying “It’s corrupt politicians that are allowing these dirty slums there and these filthy people selling samosas on carts, and everybody should be moved into the malls or moved out of the cities.” Any anti-corruption movement has to be nailed to an accepted legality, and that accepted legality is going to belong to the middle class, and there’s a huge support of the middle class for this anti-corruption movement for this reason.
So you have exactly the opposite of Occupy Wall Street, you know? So you have a huge middle class support of people who are saying that it’s corruption that’s preventing us from becoming a super power, you know? It’s the poor that are getting in the way.
Ruth Gilmore (CUNY): I have a follow-up question to something you said earlier that gets to a question folks here in the audience have put to you. You said earlier in response to what I asked you about that you were maybe skeptical about building bridges and solidarity. And yet the notion of what their [?] means [?] all these different qualities to it, so in some ways they’re going to be a battle of that people in that particular forest [?]. But there’s of course a raid against the hugest global forces imaginable; and while I certainly don’t think that we should put on our green fatigues and run there since there are all these battles to fight here, I’m just curious about how you hope things might turn out in the end if all the battles are [?]. So let me follow with a question here: “Dear Arundhati,” writes one of your admirers, “There was a part in Walking with the Comrades where you cite Gandhi’s ideas on stewardship, which is basically a defense of private property. How does or should the Indian public square away the moral imperatives of non-violence and property when there’s so much violence and dispossession waged in the very name of ‘security’ and ‘development’?” — our writer likes the quotation marks.
Arundhati Roy: Well, I actually got into quite a lot of trouble and quite a few arguments because there’s a part in the essay where I talk about the fact that, just in terms of consumption, the guerilla army is more Gandhian than any Gandhian. And, that one day I should write a play called “Gandhi, get your gun” because, as you can imagine, non-violence, or the idea of non-violence has been co-opted by the elite in ways that suit them. So my question is, to people who — you know, if it’s Anna Hazare who’s on a fast supported by the corporate media and supported by the middle class, that’s fine; but non-violence is a form of political theatre that can be extremely effective provided you have a sympathetic audience; but if you’re deep in the forest, surrounded by 1,000 policemen who are burning your village, I mean you can hardly go on a hunger strike, right?
And, I ask: Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Can people who have no money boycott goods when they don’t have any goods or any money at all? And Gandhi believed in this idea of trusteeship that rich people should be allowed to hold on to what they have and be persuaded to be nice about it, you know? And obviously I don’t believe in that.
I… to come back to the question you were asking about solidarity: see, what I meant was, I didn’t mean that there shouldn’t be solidarity, but I think that those solidarities will happen when people understand what are these battles, what is the connection between Wall St. occupation and the people fighting in the jungle? Right now that might be a little muddled because are we really clear about what we’re asking for, what we’re fighting for? You know, even in the last essay in this book, which I’ll read a part out at the end; the last essay is called “The Trickle-Down Revolution”, in which I say, yes, right now the Maoists are fighting against the corporate takeover, but will they leave the bauxite in the mountain? Do they have a different way of looking at the world? A different development model; because the western world, and particularly the United States, has managed to brainwash everyone into believing that this is progress, this is civilization, this is paradise, you know?; whereas what I’m saying is that really what we’re asking for, and what this battle in the forest is about, is a different idea of happiness, a different idea of fulfillment, a different idea of civilization; and we mustn’t be frightened to articulate our demands, our dreams, our need for change very clearly.
The time really has come for that, and if you think of a society in which 400 people own more than half of all of Americans, clearly, you don’t have to be a philosopher or a huge intellectual to say this has to stop, and that today I think that we have to say that no individual, no corporation can have unlimited amounts of money. There has to be a cap on it, there has to be a lid on it; so we call ourselves capists and liddites, if you like.
But, like for example, in India, there’s a mining company that owns steel plants, it does iron ore mining, it makes millions from it, called the Jindals. And there’s a resistance to their projects all over the place; so when you’re mining iron ore, you just pay a small royalty to the government, and you make all those millions. With all those millions, all these mining companies, they can buy judges, they can buy journalists, they can buy TV stations, they can buy everything. The CEO is a member of the parliament, he’s won the right to fly the national flag on his house with the Chairman of the Flag Foundation. They have a law school — like this beautiful campus in the heart of some kind of squalor outside Delhi — where the faculty comes from all over the world because they are paid so well, and they teach environment law, all kinds of other kindnesses. And, they recently even ran a protest workshop. They had all the activists and poets and singers coming and talking about protest and music. So these guys own everything. They own universities, they own protests, they fund activists, they have the mines, they are in parliament, they have the flag; they have everything. The Tata’s [Indian multinational conglomerate] have mines, they have foundations, they fund filmmakers, they make salt, they make trucks, they make internet cables. You can’t get away from them, and they’re not accountable. So, other than being capists and liddites, we demand that no corporation can have this sort of cross ownership. If you have a mine, stick with the mine, you can’t own a television company and the flag and be in parliament and run the universities, you can’t, you know? So, we need regulations like this, otherwise you end up like Italy where Berlusconi owns 99% of the TV outlets.
Someone in audience: In New York, Mayor Bloomberg.
Arundhati Roy: So there are some pretty simple things. Frankly, I also believe that children shouldn’t inherit their parents’ wealth. There has to be a way of limiting what people can have because we can’t depend on people’s saintliness. [?] Nice people, and eat organic vegetables. It doesn’t work.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): I’ll try to follow that up by combining two questions. Given, again, the situation that you just described, is it possible for this insurgency to win without some form of transformation at the level of government in India as a whole? In other words, can there be a compromise of some sort, or can they only win with a different government?
Arundhati Roy: No, first of all, I think it would be foolhardy to believe that anybody can actually win a military victory against the Indian army. At the same time, we remember that in Kashmir there are 700,000 soldiers who’ve been posted there to deal with what they [?] something like 300 militias. Once a whole population is against you, you can’t hold down, so if 12 million people in Kashmir need 700,000 soldiers, then what do, you know, 600 million need? The math doesn’t work out. In fact, nobody can win that, then there’s just devastation.
I think that is not a question of the government transforming. I think it’s a question of other movements and people in India realizing that it is for their own good that they better stand up for this battle; because, eventually, even in the terms of the free market, even in their own terms, earning a 5% royalty and selling of your mountains, rivers and forests; you’re really paying for other people’s economies with your ecology; it’s only when animals begin to lose their mind do they soil their own nests. So, there is no logic to say that this is good for the country; not even the logic of the free market.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): One of the questions that you’ve filled in many times obviously is that The God of Small Things sold 6 million copies around the world. And then you embark upon a non fiction career of criticizing the government that can imprison you. So, the question basically — I know that you’re not into that kind of careerism which says you must write for the dollar — but do you ever feel that pull, that you could write fiction again? Are you writing fiction?
Arundhati Roy: First you have to rephrase your question, and remove and separate the talk about money from the talk about literature.
Peter Hitchcock (CUNY): I’m a professor at CUNY, I have to.
Arundhati Roy: No, to be honest, I really… I’m even speaking for myself when I say people should not have unlimited amounts of money. I so often have said that it took me 4 years to write The God of Small Things and by the time I finished writing it, I had no idea what I had done; you know, whether it would make any sense to anybody or whatever; and suddenly it became this big success, and I used to feel like every feeling in The God of Small Things had been traded in for a silver coin. It was, you know there’s something ugly about being rewarded in that way. I mean a little bit was okay but it was really too much.
To answer your question about fiction, yes, today I really do feel now that I’ve said, in some urgent sense — there was a sense of urgency about my non fiction; and there’s absolutely no sense of urgency when I write fiction; I just like to really take my time over it. And I feel that I’ve said all I’ve needed to say directly. So I do feel like returning to that other place where I can tell it as a story, you know? But because I’m not a careerist and I’m not particularly ambitious and I’m not going anywhere, I find it difficult, especially if you live in India now, there’s such a lot of horrendous things happening all the time, and I just keep getting sort of dragged into it; and as I’ve said before, fiction is such a delicate thing, such a ambiguous thing; and to do that, to kind of build a sort of steel wall around a very ambiguous thing, is difficult. But I hope it happens.
[These transcripts were originally published here]
In the heart of the empire