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Arundhati Roy wears many hats. She is a Booker Prize-winning novelist; an essayist, publishing her latest collection, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, last year; and a political activist.
She’s also someone to whom her readers often turn to make sense of things, whether that’s politics in India, where she lives; globalisation; or the coronavirus pandemic. Roy has written on all these subjects with a moral clarity and sense of purpose. Perhaps it is more accurate to say she wears one hat – that of a person who tries to clearly articulate what she sees happening in the world around her – in a variety of ways.
Roy participated in an email interview with the New Statesman. We sent her seven questions on India, capitalism, nationalism, literature, and politics. She sent back the following.
I read The Algebra of Infinite Justice somewhat recently (in 2019, I think), and it seemed to me that, though it came out two decades ago, so much of what you wrote about and warned about, in general and particularly with respect to Indian politics, came to fruition. Are there aspects of Indian society today about which you feel you were particularly prescient?
Sorry, but there’s no short answer to this question. To call myself prescient would not only be me complimenting myself, but also going easy on many others. After all, most of the things I wrote about were played out right before our eyes, and, more importantly, were lived and experienced by millions of us.
The essays in the book you mention are about many things, about India’s nuclear tests, big dams and the peoples’ movement against them in the Narmada Valley, the massive push for privatisation of water, electricity and other essential infrastructure, the gradual erosion of independence of the courts, the media and other institutions meant to safeguard democracy, and so on.
And of course, the essay called “Democracy: who’s she when she’s at home?” That was about the anti-Muslim pogrom by vigilante Hindu mobs in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state. It was an event that catapulted him from an ordinary activist of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has in its almost 100 years of existence become the most powerful organisation in India today, to becoming the prime minister of India. He is the prime minister because of it. Not despite it.
The 2002 Gujarat pogrom is a good way to examine the question of prescience. That year, over a few weeks in February and March, following an arson attack on a train compartment in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death, more than a thousand Muslims were slaughtered as revenge by organised mobs in the villages and cities of Gujarat. Women were gang-raped and burned alive, more than a hundred thousand people were driven from their homes. The pogrom was covered live on national television. All of us heard Chief Minister Modi’s unrepentant, provocative speeches. Subsequently Ashish Khetan, a journalist working for the news magazine Tehelka went undercover and, in a sting operation, captured some of the mass killers and rapists boasting of their deeds. Those horrifying tapes were aired on TV, we all saw them. Several of the killers openly expressed their admiration for and gratitude to their brave new chief minister. In a recent book called Under Cover: My Journey into the Darkness of Hindutva, Khetan describes in cool, painstaking detail not just what he filmed, but how the police and the whole legal process from the bottom to the top were compromised and subverted to protect the killers.
This is why in India today we have mass murderers and rapists walking free, even holding high office, while the best activists, lawyers, students, trade unionists, and tens of thousands of ordinary people, Muslims, Dalits and a huge number of indigenous tribespeople are imprisoned for years together, some serving life sentences. For nothing.
How do you unpoison a river? You let it unpoison itself, I guess. The current will do that, eventually. We have to be a part of that current.
The point I am trying to make is this: after Gujarat 2002, it didn’t take prescience to know what Modi is made of, what the RSS represents, what the Bhartiya Janata Party would turn India into, given the chance. None of them – certainly not Modi – were shy about announcing themselves. And yet, soon after the pogrom India’s biggest industrialists endorsed him as a prime ministerial candidate. The media soon began to portray him as a “development chief minister”. Many liberal intellectuals turned on people like myself for refusing to stop criticising him. When he strutted over the red carpet they had rolled out for him and finally took the throne in Delhi, many senior editors, journalists and public intellectuals went into paroxysms of ecstasy. Some of them are now disillusioned and have become courageous critics. But that doesn’t explain how they swallowed and digested the Gujarat pogrom and the part that Modi played in it.
So no, I would not call it prescience on my part. It’s politics. It’s what we choose to see and what we choose to look away from. We need to ask ourselves some serious questions – not because we must search for ideological purity, or function from a position of unimpeachable virtue or subscribe to a worldview in which people are either irredeemable tyrants or unalloyed victims, in fact, quite the opposite. Because real life doesn’t leave room for that. But at least we can be honest about the complexities and contradictions within which we live and work and think. As John Berger wrote, Never again can a single story be told as though it’s the only one. So, some of those serious questions. For instance, am I that lyrical novelist who never noticed that I live in a country which practices the most brutal system of social hierarchy called caste? Or the Indian human rights activist who has nothing to say about the military occupation of Kashmir, the presence of unmarked graves and the tens of thousands of lives that have been lost? Or the one who speaks up for Kashmir but denies the targeted killing of hundreds of Kashmiri Hindus when the uprising began, or the Pakistan Army’s genocide during the war of liberation in Bangladesh? Or the Marxist who denies the Gulag? The Muslim who denies the Holocaust? The Gandhian who obfuscates Gandhi’s views on race and caste? The person who sees class and not caste and vice versa?
Am I that journalist or judge who sucks up to power and shits on the people? Or the lit-fest regular who speaks eloquently about free speech on platforms funded by mining companies that are murdering people in forests? Or the equivocating liberal who makes an equivalence between the genocidal violence of a majoritarian fascist state and the episodic violence of resistance movements? Or the latest, coolest supporter of the farmers’ protest who doesn’t want to know about the ground water crisis, the dangers of monoculture and the fallout of the so-called green revolution in agriculture? Or am I the feminist who believed that feminism could be bombed into Afghanistan?
It’s not just politicians and political parties who are culpable today. It’s not just our messianic leader and his henchmen. That would be too easy. So, my long answer to your question is no, I don’t feel that I was particularly prescient.
On the other hand, are there things that have surprised you? That got worse (or better) faster and more intensely than you thought they would?
Yes. People. People have surprised me in two very different ways. On the one hand, I have been surprised by just how fertile and receptive the ground was when the seeds of hatred were sown and how quickly that dense forest has grown around us. It’s not uncommon for people to feel that this very uniquely Indian form of fascism is a partnership between the political establishment and the “masses”. This leaves out the adoring crowd at the “Howdy Modi” show in Texas, the mainstream media in India that is almost entirely harnessed to the Modi/RSS machine, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the security forces, and the election machinery that have all unhesitatingly stepped up to serve. We are no longer in a situation where a simple critique of a single person or political party is adequate to understand or change the course we are on.
On the other hand, while political parties in the opposition and the various institutions that are meant to serve as checks and balances have abdicated their responsibilities almost entirely, ordinary people have stepped into the breach. The courage and imagination of protestors, just when it seemed that hope was lost, has surprised me. The massive protests against the anti-Muslim citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens, which has resulted in two million people being stripped of their citizenship in the state of Assam alone, and the ongoing protests against the three new farm bills say something about a simmering, brewing rebellion.
Both these protests have been entirely stonewalled by the government. The citizenship law protests ended in a pogrom against Muslims in working-class neighbourhoods in north-east Delhi, for which local Muslims, students and activists are now being blamed. Hundreds are in jail. Hundreds of students from Jamia Millia University, mostly Muslim, are being called in for questioning by the police. The BJP politicians who openly called for violence are, of course, being pampered and rewarded. They have taken their divisive campaign to states like Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where they have not traditionally had great standing. We’ll have to see what happens. Either way, I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate what a dangerous situation India is in right now. How do you unpoison a river? You let it unpoison itself, I guess. The current will do that, eventually. We have to be a part of that current.
There are some who say that the United States, where I am, and the United Kingdom, where the New Statesman is based, should speak out against the BJP and abuses of rights in India today. There are others who say that the US and the UK can only be hypocritical, and that, in any event, the answer can only come from within India. What do you think?
I am not sure that I fully understand your question. When you ask if the US and the UK should speak out, do you mean the governments of the US and the UK? Sure, if they speak out they will be accused of hypocrisy, but so what? It won’t be any less or more than the hypocrisy of the Indian government when it speaks on international affairs. Hypocrisy is coded into all forms of government-speak as well as deed. I mean what was the invasion of Iraq about if not murderous hypocrisy built on fake news disseminated by the most honourable US media? It would be great if the US and UK governments spoke up, but they won’t. At least not clearly, because that’s not how these things work. These relationships are a complex mess of economics, geopolitics and expediency. Of buying and selling goods and weapons, of trading moral cover on the international market – it all goes into the mix. Hypocrisy is the least of anyone’s problems.
Having said that, it is important for governments around the world to at least signal that they are aware of what is going on here. That would strengthen and hopefully somewhat protect the journalists who write for the few online media outlets that are bravely holding out, activists, film-makers, lawyers and protestors who are risking everything by standing up to this regime. As I said, our riverbank, the ground we are standing on, is collapsing, giving way, and not slowly. We are poised to be swept away.
You’ve long been critical of globalisation, of capitalism, of human abuse of the environment, and of nationalism. Do you feel that now there is, finally, an appreciation that these things are connected? Or are we still trying to address one without the rest?
In some quarters, yes, that understanding has dawned. And that took years of relentless work by many people. But it has to be said that massive environmental destruction has been the calling card of both the Soviet Union and the Chinese government too. When it comes to environmental destruction, state-led capitalism has had the same imagination as market-based capitalism. To view the earth as a resource to be mined by human societies in their wars of supremacy against each other, even at the cost of the annihilation of themselves and their habitat – it is very much like the fundamental logic of weapons of mass destruction.
Now capitalism itself has become a weapon of mass destruction. We know that, but it has become almost a universal religion, the God of all Gods. We don’t seem to know how to stop worshipping at its altar. India for example, has become a lab experiment: it’s so clear to see how religion, nationalism and capitalism have merged into a heady elixir. To believe that people will be logical, will look out for their own material interests, their own survival, is not always true, as we have learned from history. I’m still trying to understand the man in my neighbourhood, a friend of a friend. Despite having lost his livelihood after Modi’s demonetisation fiasco and then the brutal Covid lockdown, he was a loyal Modi fan. Even on the day before he hanged himself last week, I’m told he had nothing but praise for his hero. A true blue “die-hard fan”.
There was a conversation here in the United States last year about whether literature should be “political”. What do you think? And since you write both fiction and essays, do you think both can occupy a similar political space, or are there different “rules” for fiction and non-fiction?
There’s nothing new about this debate. It just circles around from time to time. And I’m glad you indicate “political” in quote marks, because who’s to say what is political and what isn’t? After all, in everything we write we make a series of choices – what moves us, what doesn’t, what is important, what isn’t, what to include, what to omit… and thereby emerges our politics. The same applies to publishers. The settled classes, castes, races and genders can afford the luxury of even considering that to be a valid question and meditating upon it. For the rest, there’s no choice – politics intrudes into our lives, homes, beds and bodies.
Anybody who wants to think deeply about this should read Imani Perry’s biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine Hansberry was a writer, as well as a great friend and sometime mentor of James Baldwin. As for your question about whether there are different rules for fiction and non-fiction – I have written about this at some length in my recently published book Azadi. On the whole, I’d say there’s only one rule: they had both better be good. There’s no excuse for bad art. Not even good politics.
You wrote around this time last year that the pandemic is a portal, and that, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” I’m curious which you think we (however you define “we”) have chosen for ourselves? Another way of putting this, I suppose, is: Do you think we have learned anything from the pandemic?
We’re still moving through that portal. We haven’t transitioned. We still don’t know what the fallout of this havoc will be. When I said “we” in that essay, it was a rhetorical “we” – we, the human race. The pandemic has also been like an X-ray showing up the horrific, systemic, institutionalised fault-lines of our egregiously unjust world. I do believe that there is still hope, because the suffering that Covid-19 has brought with it, physical as well as psychic, will make human beings reassess their lives and values, their wants, their desires. I can’t say the same about governments or Big Tech or banks. But if human societies, thus far brainwashed and driven by consumerism, suddenly stop in their tracks and think, it could drive real change. On the other hand, we could zombie-walk into the world of the Amazon Twitter Surveillance State.
Finally, what would it look like in India (or elsewhere) to imagine another world?
We don’t have to imagine it. We have to look for it. We have to find it. Because it already exists.
Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.
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