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'I'm A Pre-Programmed Optimist'

Full transcript of the interview with Democracy Now! on May 12, 2003  where the celebrated author spoke on a wide range of issues - her childhood, GOST, the court cases against her, Gujarat

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'I'm A Pre-Programmed Optimist'
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'I'm A Pre-Programmed Optimist'

Amy Goodman: Well it's a great pleasure to be able to see you face to face and to talk to you in person. We've spoken to you on the phone many times and I very much look forward to your address tomorrow night. Well your book has come out now in a new edition, War Talk and in it, it includes one of the speeches that we have run a lot here and that is your speech Come September that you gave in Santa Fe. Juan mentioned the issue of media centralization in this country. In India you see the United States through the lens of -- what is it you've said? Fox is what you watch?

Arundhati Roy: Fox and CNN I think, are the two channels you get there.

Amy Goodman: So what do you think? What do you think of America through that lens?

Arundhati Roy: Well you know it's it's true that last year before I came, I was coerced to come to America because I did think that there was no need for me to come here and, you know, be insulted and called names and so on. Because you think of it as a homogenous place in some way, and I was so delighted to find the opposite. I was so delighted to find that we who are protesting against these things on the outside have some of our staunchest allies in America.

And I must say that, it put me in the extraordinary position of defending American citizens against an assault which is absolutely racist sometimes, outside, because of these media channels and because of the policies of the US government, people in America are just seen as a homogenous bunch of rabid, nationalist bullies and that's such a sad thing because I think if we are going to fight to reclaim democracy that fight has to begin here.

And all of us have to acknowledge that it is the people of America who have access to the imperial palace. And so, it was wonderful to come. At the same time, this consolidation of the American media, I mean, I think, one of the good things that happened after September 11th, was that this myth of free speech and the free market crumbled along with the twin towers, you know.

Outside America, the American free press has become the butt of some pretty dark humor and nobody now ... it's contextualized you know. When you watch CNN and FOX news -- anyway, not everybody, but a lot of people just watch it as the boardroom bulletin of the White House you know, and know it for what it is.

Juan Gonzalez: Well in your latest book War Talk, you talk about Empire in a much broader way than perhaps we're accustomed to discussing here in the US, cause we're always centering in on the US Empire and the US's role in world domination but you talk about Empire and all the allies of Empire in all the different countries around the world including your own. I'm wondering if you could expound on that a little bit?

Arundhati Roy: Well, you know there are two ways that Empire spreads its tentacles, one is with the cruise missile and the daisy cutter and so on, and the other is with the IMF checkbook. So you know the argument that is being made across the world is that the people of Argentina and the people of Iraq have been decimated by the same process but by different weapons -- in one case the cruise missile, in the other case, the check book.

And what happened was just like the colonial enterprise which needed the collusion of native elites you know, it wasn't as though Britain had huge armies stationed in India, it had the Indian elite colluding with it. In the same way now, this project of corporate globalization has the collusion of local elites in third world countries you know. And so what happens is that you have a process in which the white man doesn't even have to come to the hot countries and get malaria and diarrhea and die an early death because it is being managed on their behalf by governments like say the government in India or the government in South Africa who are willingly genuflecting to that process.

And a situation in which, very interestingly say you look at a country like South Africa you know, 1994 apartheid officially ended. By 1996, the ANC who had fought so hard and people who had fought so hard for that freedom look what's happened to them. Out of a population of 44 million, 10 million have had their water and electricity cut off and you have the traditional power, the white power in say South Africa, more secure and happier than it's ever been cause it's apartheid with a clean conscience now and it's called democracy.

Amy Goodman: How do you decide when to write fiction and when to write non-fiction?

Arundhati Roy: That's a very, very troubling question, you know because, well, I don't decide, it's somehow decided somewhere else in the ether. But the fact is that for me, fiction is my love. Fiction is what makes me happy. The other writing that I do, each time I write I swear that I'll never do it again. It's sort of wrenched out of me and it ends up -- I end up paying a price for it which I'm not sure that I want to pay.

And that's not just in prison sentences, or criticism or insults which I have my share of, but even the other -- you know it keeps pushing you into this very public place where you know there are times when you don't want to be. You want to be tentative and you want to be uncertain and you don't want to .. to .. to sort of bang your fist on the table and yet I know that there are times in the world when you can't look at it as what you want to do or where you want to be. You have to intervene.

It's like I never, ever decide to write something in terms of my essays, you know. Like if someone asks me, some newspaper asks me, will you write this or someone asks me, I will say no. It's just when something happens and I read about what's happening, and then I know that there's something that hasn't been said which I want to say and it sets up this hammering in my head and I can't keep quiet and I have to do it and I do it and I -- most of the time regret it immediately.

Amy Goodman: We have to break for stations to identify themselves but we will be back with Arundhati Roy here live in our firehouse studios just blocks from ground zero, from where the towers of the world trade center once stood.

Amy Goodman: Arundhati can you talk about where you grew up, where you were born, where you grew up, and on this day after Mother's Day, your mother, Mary Roy.

Arundhati Roy: Well, I was born in a town called Shillong, that is in the north-east of India. You know India is like -- more complicated than the whole of Europe, so you know, My mother was -- is -- from South India in a state called Kerala. My father is from Bengal. I was born in Shillong which at the time was in a state called Assam. But now it isn't. And my parents were divorced when I was about one or something, and I came back with my mother to Kerala, where I grew up in a village called Aymanam, which is the village in which The God of Small Things is set.

She [Mary Roy] comes from a community of Syrian Christians who are Christians who believe they were converted at the time when St. Thomas traveled east after the crucifixion of Christ. But the first real evidence of that is around the 8th century. Anyway it's a very small parochial community and my mother was sort of shunned for being this woman who dared to marry a Hindu outside her community and then got divorced and came back to the village with her children and so on.

So I suppose now that that is behind me I have to look at it as fortunate, because I grew up on the edges of an extremely feudal, suffocating society where ... you know, which was not prepared to assure me ... the assurances that it would hold out to other sort of, you know, children who belonged to that community. One was outside it cause you were not of it. And because I grew up in Kerala which has traditionally been a communist state, it was very interesting because you had Christianity, Hinduism, Muslims, Marxists all sort of rubbing each other down and you lived outside the framework -- I lived outside the framework of all this.

Growing up in a rural area, but at the same time having, the ... being educated in the ways that other people would not have been in a rural area. So I keep saying that as a writer it was a lucky place to be at the top of the bottom of the heap. Somehow, without the perspective, this sort of tunnel vision of the completely oppressed... without the paranoia of the ... completely of the oppressors. Somehow you grew up in ... the cracks between this very complex society.

Juan Gonzalez: And why was it that Kerala, being, as you mentioned, such a feudal and rural place could then develop to have a communist administration so early on? What were the conditions and dynamics that gave rise to that? What kind of impact did that have on your consciousness?

Arundhati Roy: Well, don't make the mistake of assuming that the communists aren't feudal. They... they are more progressive than others, so what they did was to harness that feudalism to, kind of, not challenge it in some way. So the irony of course is that the communists are all upper caste people and very intellectual and so on. But the situation is that's what The God of Small Things is all about, you know, where you have a Kerala [which] is the only place in India where they claim a hundred percent literacy and yet the kind of ... the kind of oppression that you see there or the kind of attitudes towards women that you see there is so suffocating, you know.

My mother is ... I didn't talk about her ... she is the most... she's a remarkable woman. Also someone who I often think kind of escaped from the sets of a Fellini film, but that's a separate thing. And she... she.. really... it was a combination of her being in this place where she was shunned and, you know, ridiculed for who she was, and so I never grew up being told that I should play by the rules, you know, which is very lucky for me.

But I find myself in this really strange position cause so many years of my life I spent fighting to escape the suffocation of tradition as an Indian woman, and I got there only to be up against the bestiality of the modern world which I don't want either, you know, so you're somehow in this narrow alley between these two monolithic, monstrous things and you know sometimes, you don't know where to go with it. Every single decision that you make is a decision and a political one, you know, for that reason.

Amy Goodman: Your mother ran a school and also stood up for women's rights in India?

Arundhati Roy: Yeah, my mother runs a school. I studied there. She started it when she left my father. She started it with seven children, two of whom were her own. It used to be what I called the sliding, folding school cause it used to be in the premises of the Rotary club.

In the evenings the men used to meet and drink and smoke cigarettes and throw the butts and their dirty glasses on the floor. In the morning we would come and clean it all up and, you know, open up the furniture and it used to be the school and then in the evening they would come and dirty it up again.

Now of course it's a beautiful school on the outskirts of this little town called Kotayem and yeah, she still runs it. It's a fabulous place. She became very well known, my mother, because you know, she filed a case, a public litigation case in the Supreme Court of India, challenging a law which said that Syrian Christian women could inherit one fourth of their father's property or five thousand rupees which is about .. which is less than a hundred dollars, whichever is less.

So she challenged that and said it was unconstitutional and the law was changed with retrospective effect giving women equal rights. So that was a very, very big thing then. Not that it has made such a huge difference cause that was a law in case a man didn't leave a will, in case a father didn't leave a will. So now of course they are taking will-making classes on how to disinherit their daughters.

Amy Goodman: And now, like it or not, Arundhati Roy, you've ended up in court yourself on several occasions. One had to do with your own book as people -- men in Kerala called The God of Small Things obscene, or at least in some sections of it. And then in your own activism around the issue of dams in India. Can you talk about both?

Arundhati Roy: In The God of Small Things, I was accused of corrupting public morality which -- the case is still in court actually -- and I keep saying there is a technical legal issue here because at least it should have been "further corrupting public morality" since I can't believe public morality was pure until I came along. But, in India the legal system is like this lumbering thing. It's part, like 75% of it is about harassment. It's not about conviction. It's not about what will happen at the end. It's about court appearances and paying lawyers and disrupting your life and so on. You know it's used for that reason.

For me to go from Delhi to Kerala to appear -- it's almost like going from Delhi to London. It's so far away. And I'll go there and the judge will arrive and he says "everybody is ready to argue the case," and he says "every time this case comes before me I get chest pains and I don't want to decide it." You know cause he knows that everybody is waiting for him to say something and he doesn't want to so, then it's dismissed and it's been going on for years.

The other one is much more serious, was much more serious and is much more serious. Because, you know there are two ways of looking at it. One is just personally -- the court harassing a writer, a famous writer or whatever. But that's not as important as if I can explain an issue of democracy. Because you see people now have begun to think of democracy as elections, you know, that's it. That's the only genuflection you have to make in the direction of democracy.

But, in actual fact, it is a lateral system of checks and balances with various institutions checking each other and balancing each other. Now in India, the Supreme Court is perhaps the most powerful institution in our so-called "democracy". And now it takes decisions which are ... it's a micro-management of Indian society. It decides whether slums should be cleared, whether dams should be built, whether industry should be privatized, whether diesel should be the public fuel or it should be compressed natural gas, whether industry should be moved out of a city or not, whether history text books should contain such and such a chapter or not, whether this mosque should be built or not.

Every single decision is taken today by the Supreme Court of India. Now, there is a law called "contempt of court" which says that you cannot criticize the Supreme Court. You can criticize a judgment, but you can't, say, put a series of judgments together and say "look there's a very distinct politics emerging here." A wide -- you can't question it except in their terms, let's say. So that makes it an institution which is completely undemocratic.

And I was, you know, hauled up on contempt of court. And I was saying: "You can't have this law. You can't have this law and call yourself a democracy. It's a judicial dictatorship." And that's what it is. People are terrified, terrified of the Supreme Court.

Juan Gonzalez: And why do you think that that has evolved in that way, this judicial dictatorship? What in the political development of Indian society has allowed the court to exercise such power?

Arundhati Roy: Well I think the philosophical answer to that is we are still a feudal society which looks to authority somehow, you know. But really what has happened is that, you know, power looks for ways in which to subvert democracy at all times. And so you have a situation where you have a very corrupt political elite. You have a media that is increasingly becoming a corporate media. And so you have this court.

It's like you have a system. You have this contempt of court now, which is a law, which means that the court works like a manhole, like a floor trap. It attracts all the power because it's not accountable and it's able to exercise unaccountable power. Today, if I had documentary evidence of a corrupt judge - say I had evidence of a judge having taken a bribe for making a particular judgment ­ I can't put that evidence before the court because it's contempt of court. Truth is not a defense in contempt of court. So you can imagine the extent of power that is being exercised. It's completely unaccountable.

And now having put me in jail on this, what has happened is that the message has gone out to the Indian media that "Don't mess with us ­ if we can do this to her, you think of what we can do to a journalist in a little town who has no money, who can't hire a lawyer, who doesn't have the protection of, you know, being a public figure." They can just be thrown in jail. They lose their jobs. They lose everything. So they just allow the court this wide berth. And it keeps going.

You know, sometimes it makes judgments which are good. But most of the time, its judgments, at the moment, are retrogressive, you know? And of course those judgments suit the middle class; it suits the Indian elite so the court is a holy cow. So they say "Oh but how can she, you know, like, there should be respect for something," you know? That hierarchical way of thinking.

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