Arundhati Roy is an award-winning writer of a work of fiction that is rated as one of the best in recent times. Anyone who has read The God of Small Things would also see the roots of her political essays that have followed. The works complement each other and make Arundhati a powerful voice not just in India but across the world.
She has also put her money where her mouth is. In 1998, she donated the Rs 15 lakh Booker prize money for The God of Small Things to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In 2002, the Lannan Foundation gave her a $3,50,000 (Rs 1.67 crore) prize for “her precise and powerful writing highlighting her commitment to social, economic and environmental justice”. She donated the prize money in solidarity to 50 people’s movements, publications, educational institutions, theatre groups and individuals. And as her published books continue to earn royalties, she continues to share her good fortune with movements and individuals.
Arundhati, therefore, embraces a universe that is by definition larger than that of most writers. She spoke for an hour to Saba Naqvi about what shaped her, what moves her, and what gets her to start writing. Excerpts:
You are a writer but you have made some very powerful arguments and interventions on rights issues and movements. How do you see your evolution from a gender perspective?
"In India, we live in several centuries simultaneously. On one side we have female foeticide; we also have the world’s most radical women."
First of all, I should say that I don’t believe that there are only two genders. I see gender as a spectrum and I’m somewhere on that spectrum. According to a Queer friend, my evolution on the gender spectrum has been from ‘Straight’ to ‘Qwicked.’ Second, I don’t see myself as someone who looks at the world through a lens of ‘rights’ and ‘issues’. That is a very narrow, shallow way for a writer to look at the world. If you ask me what is at the core of what I write, it isn’t about ‘rights’, it’s about justice. Justice is a grand, beautiful, revolutionary idea. What should justice look like? If we disaggregate things into “issues”, then they just remain “issues”, problematic areas in an otherwise acceptable scenario. Of course, there isn’t any society in the world that is a just or perfect one—but we cannot ever stop striving towards justice. Today we seem to be running in the opposite direction, striving towards injustice, applauding it as though it’s a worthy dream, a goal, an aspiration, and the terrible tragedy of India is that the caste system has institutionalised injustice, made it a sacred thing. So we are programmed to accept hierarchies and injustice. It’s not that other societies are just. Other societies have been through wars and genocide on an incredible scale. I am just talking about the imagination of our society. What can one do, how do we rail against it? Many of us do what we do, knowing that even if no one’s listening, even if we never win, though we want to, badly, we’d rather go down on the other side than be a part of this victory march that is really a death march.
When you put your mind to it, is it possible to understand why women have been at the forefront of so many contemporary struggles?
Why are women involved? Because, broadly speaking, they are under attack from both ends, from tradition as well as this new market-driven “modernity”. I myself grew up in Kerala, dreaming of escape from a life of ‘tradition’ but then came up against a type of modernity that I wanted to flee from too. So you have to pick through it all and find your own path. In this country we have people who practise female infanticide, female foeticide in which millions of girl children are killed—and not only in traditional rural communities—we have honour killings based on caste, and at the same time we have the freest, strongest, most vibrant women anywhere in the world, the most independent and radical women, original thinkers who are on the frontlines of struggles—in India, we live in several centuries simultaneously.
The attack on every kind of livelihood, the attack on land, all of this affects women fundamentally. So if you look at the Narmada movement, where we are talking about the displacement and destruction of an entire river valley civilisation, hundreds of thousands of people, women who jointly worked and owned land, adivasi women—and I am not saying that adivasi society is some paragon of feminist virtue—but there was a sense in which the women were co-owners, the land was theirs too. But to displace a whole population of women and just give the cash compensation to men who within weeks turn it into drink and motorcycles, to cast the women out on to this ocean of terrifying modernity where all of them are on the market as casual labour or to be exploited in other ways is not always seen as a feminist issue, though it is one. The 90,000-member Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan in Bastar, fighting displacement, is not really thought of as a feminist organisation. But they’re fighting, and how! In the Narmada valley, it is the women who carry the struggle. And in the process of the fight, they change, they strengthen themselves. When I went to Bastar, when I wrote Walking with the Comrades (March 29, 2010), I was taken aback that half of the armed guerrilla fighters were women. I spoke to them at length, over nights and days, about why they made that decision. Of course, many of them had witnessed the horrors of Salwa Judum and the paramilitary forces—the rape and the burning of villages and so on. But a lot of them also saw it as an escape from the chauvinism and violence of the men in their own society. And of course they came up against chauvinism and violence in the “party” too. There was a moment when we all went down to bathe in the river, me and the women comrades. Some of them kept watch while the rest of us had a swim and a bath. Upstream some women farmers were bathing too. And I thought, “Just look at who all are in the water! Look at the women in this flowing water.” What a thing it was. So, to answer your question, I think there is a pretty logical explanation for why women are at the forefront of movements. And there’s something very special about women who can do that, in a society that is so filled with violence against them. And it’s not just the few extraordinary women, whose names we all know, it’s many many women, not just the urban sophisticates—and they are up there not as somebody’s wife or mother or widow or sister. They’re they. They’re magnificent.
What were the influences in your own life that make you what you are?
"For many the family is portrayed as the settled place of safety, but for me it was a dangerous place. I felt humiliated in that space."
My wild and uncommon mother first of all, I guess, in wonderful as well as brutal ways. She can reduce me to a shambling wreck in a few seconds flat. Maybe you should be interviewing her, and not me. She comes from a Syrian Christian family that was not wealthy by any means. Then she married outside, a Bengali, got divorced within a couple of years and came back to the village in Kerala to live with her mother. She...and we...were totally shunned by this very casteist and entitled, wealthy, landed community—now of course she’s celebrated. But back then she often worked off her rage on my brother and me. We understood, but that only made it harder. I have a very complicated relationship with my mother—I left home when I was 17 and returned only many years later. For many people the family is portrayed as the settled place of reasonable safety but as anyone who has read The God of Small Things would know, for me it was a dangerous place. I felt humiliated in that space. I wanted to get away as soon as I could. I grew up in a village where everything was going on. It was a place where great religions coexisted—Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism—we believed the Revolution was coming. It was all red flags and Inquilab Zindabad! And yet somehow it was still so parochial and there was always caste. I found myself trying to understand it all from the time I was very small. It was made very clear to me that I was not a “pure” Syrian Christian and was never going to be part of that great society. And so I grew up desperate to escape from there, there wasn’t any great romance of the village for me, there wasn’t any desire to fit into the community or the family and the community and family held no desire for me to fit into it. I didn’t know my father, I’d seen a couple of photographs, that’s it. I only saw him much later, when I was about twentysomething, so I never had that male figure in my life that was going to look after me and protect me. Emotionally it was a strange and unsafe space in which to grow up. Given all the suffering in the world and what children go through, I can’t claim that I had a tragic childhood. But it was a thoughtful childhood, having to think through things more or less alone. I spent a lot of time fishing on the river, as a writer I cannot assume the clear, raw voice of rage of the ‘pure’ victim of oppression—if indeed there is such a thing. I sort of sit on my somewhat uncomfortable, angular vantage point and write from there.
You have written about so much, the Narmada movement, Kashmir, the Maoists, and capitalism. We just had a hanging in India and you once wrote a very powerful piece arguing about the innocence of Afzal Guru.
"To call someone like me a writer-activist suggests it’s not the job of a writer to write of the society they live in. But it used to be."
When The God of Small Things won the Booker prize, I was trotted out along with the Miss Worlds as a manifestation of a triumphant, newly globalised, free-market India, stepping with confidence on to the world’s stage. I was being used in a way, which is okay. But very soon after that, the BJP came to power and immediately did the nuclear tests to great and vulgar applause from the most unexpected quarters.
I was horrified. I was such a public figure then that keeping quiet was a kind of endorsement of the tests, it was as political as speaking out. And so I wrote The End of Imagination (August 3, 1998). I was immediately kicked off the pedestal—the fairy queen-Miss India-prize-winning writer pedestal. The dumb drumbeat of hatred and abuse began. I believe that those nuclear tests changed the tone of public discourse. It became uglier, more stridently nationalistic and has remained like that. But while I was being trashed by one set of people, I was embraced by others. And that set me off on a journey that still goes on. Soon after the nuclear tests, the Supreme Court lifted its long-standing stay on the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. I travelled to the Narmada valley and wrote The Greater Common Good (May 24, 1999).
Each journey, each essay I wrote deepened my understanding. The Parliament attack, even when it happened, seemed utterly hokey to me. The lawyer Nandita Haksar did a brilliant job of uncovering things. Around that time, I was sent to jail for committing contempt of court. Afsan Guru, wife of Shaukat Guru, one of the accused in the Parliament attack was there too. She was pregnant, wild-eyed, weeping and had no idea why she was in jail. Other prisoners were treating her like some great traitor. I tried to talk to her. I said, “I will be released soon, is there anything I can do for you?” She just looked at me blankly and said, “Can you organise a towel for me? I don’t have a towel.” She was acquitted a few years later but her life was ruined.
"When I won the Booker, I was trotted out, along with Miss Worlds, as a symbol of a triumphant, globalised, free-market India."
Nobody talks about her any more. After that I followed the case carefully. When S.A.R. Geelani was acquitted and Afzal was sentenced to death, I collected all the court papers of the case and I went off to Goa by myself with this suitcase full of papers. It was the monsoon, there were few people there, and I just sat in a shack and read the whole thing. I was appalled. So I wrote ‘...'And His Life Should Become Extinct' (October 30, 2006) about how evidence was manufactured, no process was followed, how Afzal never had a lawyer to represent him. The Supreme Court said confessions extracted in police custody were inadmissible as evidence, but the media used various videos of his various “confessions”, extracted from him by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell. The police videotaped him, right here in Lodi Estate. In one confession he was made to implicate Geelani, in another someone else.
They could pick and choose which confession to show. They decided which one suited them. The media showed them seven years later when he was still alive, and as the video played SMS messages from viewers rolled along the bottom of the screen saying: “Hang him by the balls in Lal Chowk” and so on. It was such bestiality. If one lived in a crazed banana republic, one could accept it but here we go about pretending to be something else. I remember letters to Outlook where the essay was published saying things like, “Spare Afzal Guru but hang Arundhati Roy”. Despite everything, the government—the Congress government—hanged him, knowing fully well that he was innocent. It was a political move, they were trying to curry favour with the mob that was baying for his blood, fishing for votes, it was a terrible, cowardly thing to do. They should be so ashamed.... They can’t even give his body back to his family. The letter that they wrote was deliberately delayed so that it would reach the family after he was hanged. See, things like this are not ‘issues’. The barbarity perpetrated in Kashmir by the Indian government is not an “issue”—it’s life itself. And if as a society we are prepared to digest it, we corrode ourselves. We curse ourselves.
"After I wrote ‘The End of Imagination’, I was kicked off the fairy queen, Miss India, prize-winning writer pedestal immediately."
I have written about two valleys, the Narmada valley and Kashmir valley, and I do sometimes wonder why the ferocious quest for justice in one has not left it time to understand, or leave its mark on the other. Meaning that in the Narmada valley there is such a sophisticated understanding on environmental issues, of what a dam does, of the local economy, of the World Bank, of the grinding poverty, but there is little understanding of what the people of Kashmir suffer. And in Kashmir there is such a sophisticated understanding of what it means to live under a military occupation but very little of what a big dam is and does, very little about the ways in which neo-liberal policies grind people down. I’m just saying the thread of justice that I have followed...that may not be everyone’s thread but it is certainly mine. Together it all adds up to what John Berger calls “A Way of Seeing”. That is what literature is, what poetry is. That’s what it’s meant to be.
In today’s India, where we are located, what troubles you the most?
"I’ve written about two valleys. I’ve often wondered why the quest for justice in one has not left it time to understand the other. "
What we are living through today is something that had to happen at some point, given the history of the RSS. How we get through it will establish what stuff we’re really made of. Today there is a vicious, communal assault on every institution, the judiciary, educational institutions. Universities are being dismantled as places of learning, communal dunderheads appointed as teachers, syllabi are being emptied of scholarship and replaced with idiot-food. Everything is being engineered to this fascist point of view. It’s a short way down. It’s not just about political parties and power. There is tectonic shit going on. It’s an assault on the very soul, the imagination of this country. It’s serious. I have to say that I am encouraged by some of the reactions. People are standing up everywhere—look at the ftii students—wonderful. The attack we are up against is wide and deep and dangerous, but the euphoria around the Modi government has evaporated pretty fast, much before anyone would have expected. I fear that when they get really desperate, they’ll get dangerous. The hanging of Yakub Memon is a step in that direction. They’ll probably ignite communal riots on a big scale before the next election. I worry about false-flag “terrorist” attacks and a war with Pakistan, a nuclear war. That’s the kind of suicidal stupidity some of these maniacs on both sides of the border in the government as well as in the media are capable of.
You are an internationally acclaimed writer but you don’t seem to want to be part of the community of writers, you don’t go to literary festivals although you are part of a community of people who can be called activists.
"People of Narmada have a deep insight of what a dam does but not of Kashmiri suffering, the latter don’t know what a dam can do."
I’m not sure there is a community of writers here. Look, I am not a purist. All I can do is to say what I think. People have to go to festivals, often they’re sponsored by mining corporations and foundations that I have written against—but I am not suggesting I am more pure than them. I am not. I’m just uncomfortable, so I don’t do it. But the world is a tough place to survive in, people have to do things they don’t want to do. I have the privilege to make a choice. So I do. Not everybody has a choice.
As for this term “activist”—I’m not sure when it was coined. To call someone like me a writer-activist suggests that it’s not the job of a writer to write about the society in which they live. But it used to be our job. It’s a peculiar thing, until writers were embraced by the market, that’s what writers did—they wrote against the grain, they patrolled the borders, they framed the debates about how society should think. They were dangerous people. Now we’re told we must attend festivals and get on to bestseller lists and, if possible, try to be good-looking.