Reportage

The Power of Words

By AMITAVA KUMAR | 1 March 2011
STUART FREEDMAN / IN PICTURES / CORBIS
Author and activist Arundhati Roy at her home in New Delhi.

IN JULY 1986, a young Salman Rushdie visited Nicaragua. The tiny country was under attack by Ronald Reagan and the American-funded Contras. In his travelogue The Jaguar Smile, Rushdie painted a warm portrait of the struggling Nicaraguan people, especially of the poor campesinos and fishermen whom he described as “inventing their own country, and, more than that, themselves”. An image that stayed in my mind was Rushdie’s account of a simple meal he ate in a fishing village: “With the generosity of the poor, they treated me to a delicacy at lunch. I was given an egg and bean soup, the point being that these eggs were the best-tasting, because they had been fertilized. Such eggs were known as ‘the eggs of love.’ When people had so little a fertilized hen’s egg became a treat.”

A quarter-century later, I was reminded of those eggs when I read an op-ed by Arundhati Roy in The New York Times. Roy’s piece had been written after Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010, during which the US president announced that the US would not intervene in Kashmir. In her op-ed, Roy was recounting a visit to Shopian, in Kashmir, in the days following the threat of her arrest on the charge of sedition. Roy was in Shopian at the invitation of Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar—the man whose wife and sister had been found lying in a shallow stream near an army camp the previous summer. The young women’s rape and murder had been the cause of widespread anger and protest in the valley. Roy’s op-ed was full of pathos and yet it also contained her signature wit—while observing the apples being packed in wooden boxes in the orchards, she wrote of her worry that “a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake”. But what reminded me of Rushdie writing about Nicaragua was something else.

As Roy was leaving Shopian, she got a message that Ahangar’s father-in-law was on his way to meet her. Roy couldn’t wait, however. It was late and if they lingered any longer it would be unsafe to drive back. There was also the threat of her arrest. In fact, as they began to drive back from Shopian, a journalist called with the news that the police were typing up the warrant for Roy’s arrest. And, soon enough on the dark highway, a car overtook them and began to wave them down. Two men on a motorcycle asked Roy’s driver to pull over. Roy wrote that she steeled herself for what was coming. A bearded man appeared at her window. He was the father of Ahangar’s murdered wife, Nilofar.

“How could I let you go without our apples?” the man said. The bikers began to load crates of apples in the back of Roy’s car. And then the older man reached into his pocket and brought out a warm egg. He put the egg in our writer’s hand and said, “God bless and keep you.”

The police didn’t arrest Roy, even though, as is well-known, her house was attacked. I have narrated above at length the details of Roy’s op-ed about her visit to Kashmir because it strongly conveys a writer’s vision: a world where people come together often unexpectedly and surprise each other with what, in a language that is clearly inadequate, we call their humanity. Such a vision might draw on politics, but it often exceeds it. The complex emotional effect that such writing produces is not reducible to slogans or political speeches. For me, as a reader, that is the purchase of reading a piece like this: we return to a site of brutal violence, the issue of state policy is broached, and then, like the car being overtaken in the dark by another one, we find ourselves confronting an altogether more complex, and powerful, set of emotions. In the case of this particular op-ed, I found myself thinking not merely of laws or legislation but also about love. And yet, it is not love in the abstract we are talking about here, we are talking about a warm egg carefully carried in the pocket of an old, grieving man’s cloak. It is like the scene in Rushdie: a human being who has suffered a great deal, and whose store of affection has been rudely plundered, nevertheless enacts from a hospitable corner in his soul a gesture that is touching and memorable.

But here, of course, the comparisons end. Rushdie’s report on Nicaragua didn’t draw widespread abuse from Indian readers, calling him a communist sympathiser and abettor of murder or terrorism. His tender affection for the Nicaraguan revolution—and, indeed, for the Nicaraguan people—emphatically didn’t earn him a fatwa from a religious ideologue. But Roy’s writings on India’s disenfranchised have repeatedly angered sections of the Indian elite. Numerous cases have been filed against her. Is it because Nicaragua is a foreign country and Kashmir is not? Nothing enrages middle-class Indians as much as statements made in support of agitating Kashmiris, whose demands for freedom are always suspect. And no statements on the matter incite greater rage than those made by Arundhati Roy. Why is this so?

A part of the reason, I believe, is the willful bigotry practiced by the Hindu right. Consider the October 2010 speech by Roy that led to the threat of arrest for preaching sedition. If you were a visitor from Mars and read only The Pioneer newspaper, you would have learned that Roy told the audience at a seminar in Delhi that Kashmiris had to “decide whether they want to be with or get separated from bhookhe-nange Hindustan where more than 830 million people live on `20 per day only”. But if you read the transcript of the speech or watch the tape on YouTube, you find that something entirely different took place on planet Earth.

What actually happened is that, in the course of her speech, Roy had advised Kashmiris that their struggle should be one for justice—and that in this fight, she said, there should be solidarity among all those struggling elsewhere in India, whether in Manipur or Nagaland or central India: all the poor, the squatters, the vendors, all the slum-dwellers and so on. In contrast to the wildly inaccurate and crass report in The Pioneer, Roy had in fact told her audience that it broke her heart when she heard on the streets of Srinagar the slogan “Nanga Bhookha Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan”. And this, she said, was because “if you are fighting for a just society then you must align yourself with the powerless”. The poor in India, she said, were joined in the struggle for justice, whether in the Kashmir valley or in the Narmada valley. Standing among Kashmiris, she was urging them to ask themselves what kind of Kashmir they were fighting for. In fact, she was critiquing those in Kashmir who had cut themselves off from the suffering of people elsewhere.

But the malice directed at Roy does not come exclusively from the Indian right; among large parts of the liberal, middle-class intelligentsia, she is regarded with considerable scorn. What irks this class? Is it the fact that Roy has no truck with the sober, scholarly, Brahminical discourse of the respectable middle-of-the-road protectors of the status quo? Her critics, among whom are some of my friends, are also serious people, but their objections appear hollow to me because they have never courted unpopularity. They air their opinions in national op-eds, dine at the corporate table, are fêted on national TV, and collect followers on Twitter. They don’t have to face court orders. Her estrangement from this class doesn’t lead Roy to any feeling of isolation, or nothing at least that she will confess to. In fact, her cheerfully confident response has been: “I deploy my writing from the heart of the crowd.”

A lot of Roy’s admiring readers also, of course, belong to the middle class. I wonder whether her supporters are those who appreciate that in the face of the huge disparities and injustice that Roy highlights in her essays, there is often very little space for nuance and detail. That kind of complexity or dwelling on contradiction is fine in fiction, but as bulletins from extreme zones her essays press themselves into a more urgent frame. Let’s also not forget that Roy has always addressed issues before they become acceptable items on the agenda of protest: as a result, she is often writing in a vacuum, and writing alone. I don’t blame her for having to shout just to make herself heard.

I’m speaking as a partisan here, and as an admirer. I will not deny that, as a writer, I thrill more to her writerly voice; at the same time, who can deny the bracing quality of her activist writing? I feel allied most of all to Roy’s sense that she is writing from the middle of the real India. Hers isn’t the India of sprawling malls and luxury hotels, or if it is, it is only in relation to what lies forgotten behind that glitzy image. Of course, India is growing and changing. A major part of this story of change is the impoverishment of hundreds of millions and the destruction of the environment. Roy’s focus on these darker aspects of development pays attention to what has been repressed. It should be regarded, in fact, as a great act of citizenship.

The following interview is a result of my desire to find out from Roy why she does—and how she does—what she does.

AMITAVA KUMAR: Before we begin, can you give me an example of a stupid question you are asked at interviews?

ARUNDHATI ROY: It is difficult to answer extremely stupid questions. Very, very, difficult. Stupidity defeats you in some way. Especially when time is at a premium. And sometimes these questions are themselves mischievous.

AK: Give me an example.

ARUNDHATI ROY:“The Maoists are blowing up schools and killing children. Do you approve? Is it right to kill children?” Where do you start?

AK: Yes.

ARUNDHATI ROY:There was a HARDtalk once, I believe, between some BBC guy obviously, and a Palestinian activist. He was asking questions like this: “Do you believe in killing children?” And any question he asked, the Palestinian just said, “Ariel Sharon is a war criminal.” Once, I was on the Charlie Rose show. Well, I was invited to be on the Charlie Rose show. He said, “Tell me, Arundhati Roy, do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons?” So I said, “I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the United States should have nuclear weapons.” “No, I asked you do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons.” I answered exactly the same thing. About four times... They never aired it!

AK: We are fond of biographical details and must request  one particular story. How old were you when you first became aware of the power of words?

ARUNDHATI ROY:Pretty old I think. Maybe two. I heard about it from my disappeared father who I met for the first time when I was about 24 or 25 years old. He turned out to be an absolutely charming, unemployed, broke, irreverent alcoholic. (After being unnerved initially, I grew very fond of him and gave thanks that he wasn’t some senior bureaucrat or golf-playing CEO.) Anyway, the first thing he asked me was, “Do you still use bad language?” I had no idea what he meant, given that the last time he saw me I was about two years old. Then he told me that on the tea estates in Assam where he worked, one day he accidentally burned me with his cigarette and that I glared at him and said “chootiya”—language I’d obviously picked up in the tea-pickers’ labour quarters where I must have been shunted off to while my parents fought. My first piece of writing was when I was five… I still have those notebooks. Miss Mitten, a terrifying Australian missionary, was my teacher. She would tell me on a daily basis that she could see Satan in my eyes. In my two-sentence essay (which made it into The God of Small Things), I said, “I hate Miss Mitten, whenever I see her I see rags. I think her knickers are torn.” She’s dead now, God rest her soul. I don’t know whether these stories I’m telling you are about becoming aware of the power of words, or about developing an affection for words…the awareness of a child’s pleasure which extended beyond food and drink...

AK: How has that early view changed or become refined in specific ways in the years since?

ARUNDHATI ROY:I’m not sure that what I had then was a “view” about language—I’m not sure that I have one even now—as I said it was just the beginnings of the recognition of pleasure. To be able to express yourself, to be able to close the gap—inasmuch as it is possible—between thought and expression—is just such a relief. It’s like having the ability to draw or paint what you see, the way you see it. Behind the speed and confidence of a beautiful line-in-a-line drawing there’s years of usually discipline, obsession, practice that builds on a foundation of natural talent or inclination of course. It’s like sport. A sentence can be like that. Language is like that. It takes a while to become yours, to listen to you, to obey you, and for you to obey it. I have a clear memory of language swimming towards me. Of my willing it out of the water. Of it being blurred, inaccessible, inchoate…and then of it emerging. Sharply outlined, custom-made.

AK: As far as writing is concerned, do you have models, especially those that have remained so for a long time?

ARUNDHATI ROY:Do I have models—that word, models—maybe I wouldn’t use that word because it sounds like  there are people who I admire so much that I would like to become them...or to be like them…I don’t feel that about anybody. But if you mean are there writers I love and admire? Yes, of course, there are. So many. But that would be a whole new interview wouldn’t it? Apart from Shakespeare… James Joyce and Nabokov…Neruda, Eduardo Galeano, John Berger. Right now, I’m becoming fascinated by Urdu poets who, I am ashamed to say, I know so little about…but I’m learning. I’m reading Hafiz. There are so many wonderful writers, my ancestors that have lived in the world. I cannot begin to list them. However, it isn’t only writers who inspire my idea of storytelling. Look at the Kathakali dancer, the ease with which he can shift gears within a story—from humour to epiphany, from bestiality to tenderness, from the epic to the intimate—that ability, that range, is what I really admire. To me it’s that ease—it’s a kind of athleticism—like watching a beautiful, easy runner—a cheetah on the move—that is proof of the fitness of the storyteller.

AK: American readers got their introduction to you when, a bit before The God of Small Things was published, an excerpt appeared in The New Yorker issue on India. There was a photograph there of you with other Indian writers, including Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai and a few others. In the time since then, your trajectory as a writer has defined very sharply your difference from everyone in that group. Did you even ever want to belong in it?

ARUNDHATI ROY:I chuckle when I remember that day. I think everybody was being a bit spiky with everybody else. There were muted arguments, sulks and mutterings. There was brittle politeness. Everybody was a little uncomfortable, wondering what exactly it was that we had in common, what qualified us to be herded into the same photograph. And yet it was for The New Yorker, and who didn’t want to be in The New Yorker? It was the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence and this particular issue was meant to be about the renaissance of  Indian-English writing. But when we went for lunch afterwards the bus that had been booked to take us was almost empty—it turned out that there weren’t many of us, after all. And who were we anyway? Indian writers? But the great majority of the people in our own country neither knew nor cared very much about who we were or what we wrote. Anyway, I don’t think anybody in that photograph felt they really belonged in the same ‘group’ as the next person. Isn’t that what writers are? Great individualists? I don’t lose sleep about my differences or similarities with other writers. For me what’s more interesting is trying to walk the path between the act of honing language to make it as private and as individual as possible, and then looking around, seeing what’s happening to millions of people and deploying that private language to speak from the heart of a crowd. Holding those two very contradictory things down is a fascinating enterprise. I am a part of a great deal of frenetic political activity here. I’ve spent the last six months travelling across the country, speaking at huge meetings in smaller towns—Ranchi, Jalandhar, Bhubaneshwar, Jaipur, Srinagar—at public meetings with massive audiences, three and four thousand people—students, farmers, labourers, activists. I speak mostly in Hindi, which isn’t my language (even that has to be translated depending on where the meeting is being held.) Though I write in English, my writing is immediately translated into Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Odia…I don’t think I’m considered an ‘Indo-Anglian’ writer any more. I seem to be drifting away from the English-speaking world at high speed. My English must be changing.The way I think about language certainly is.

AK: We are going to entertain the fantasy that you have the time to read and write these days. What have you been reading this past year, for instance?

ARUNDHATI ROY:Apart from the reading list that you can extrapolate from the endnotes in my books, I have for some reason been reading about Russia, post-revolution Russia. A stunning collection of short stories by Varlam Shalamov called Kolyma Tales. The trial of Trotsky in Mexico. Emma Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life. Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg…Troubling stuff. The Chinese writer Yu Hua…

AK: And writing? You have been effective, at crucial moments, as a writer-activist who responds with a strong opinion or protest when faced with an urgent issue. Often, these pieces, which are pretty lengthy, must require a lot of research—so much information sometimes sneaked into a stunning one-liner! How do you go about doing your research?

ARUNDHATI ROY:Each of these pieces I have written, over the last 10 years are pieces I never wanted to write. And each time I wrote one, I thought it would be my last. Each time I write something I promise myself I’ll never do it again, because the fallout goes on for months…it takes so much of my time. Sometimes..increasingly…like of late…it turns dangerous. I actually don’t do research to write the 

pieces. My research isn’t project-driven. It’s the other way around—I write because the things I come to learn of, from the reading and travelling I do and the stories I hear, make me furious. I find out more, I cross-check, I read up and by then I’m so shocked that I have to write. The essays I wrote on the 13 December Parliament attack are a good example—of course, I had been following the case closely. I was on the committee for the free and fair trial for SAR Geelani. Eventually, he was acquitted and Afzal was sentenced to death. I went off to Goa one monsoon, by myself with all the court papers for company. For no reason other than curiosity. I sat alone in a restaurant day after day, the only person there, while it poured and poured. I could hardly believe what I was reading. The Supreme Court judgement that said that though it didn’t have proof that Afzal was a member of a terrorist group, and the evidence against him was only circumstantial, it was sentencing him to death to “satisfy the collective conscience of society”. Just like that—in black and white. Even still, I didn’t write anything. I had promised myself “no more essays”. But a few months later the date for the hanging was fixed. The newspapers were full of glee, taking about where the rope would come from, who the hangman would be. I knew the whole thing was a farce. I realised that if I said nothing and they went ahead and hanged him, I’d never forgive myself. So I wrote ‘And His Life Should Become Extinct’. I was one of a handful of people who protested. Afzal’s still alive. It may not be because of us, it may be because his clemency petition is still pending, but I think between us we cracked the hideous consensus that had built up in the country around that case. Now, at least in some quarters, there is a healthy suspicion about unsubstantiated allegations in newspapers whenever they [the police] pick up people—mostly Muslims, of course—and call them “terrorists”. We can take a bit of credit for that. Now, of course, with the sensational confession of Swami Aseemanand in which he says the RSS was behind the bomb blasts in Ajmer Sharif and Malegaon, and was responsible for the bombing of the Samjhauta Express, the idea of radical Hindutva groups being involved in false flag attacks is common knowledge.

To answer your question, I don’t really do research in order to write. Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life now for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time, if nothing else.

AK: What would it mean for you to write fiction now?

ARUNDHATI ROY: It would mean finding time, carving out a little solitude...getting off the tiger. I hope it will be possible. The God of Small Things was published only a few months before the nuclear tests which ushered in a new, very frightening and overt language of virulent nationalism. In response I wrote ‘The End of Imagination’, which set me on a political journey which I never expected to embark on. All these years later, after writing about big dams, privatisation, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Parliament attack, the occupation of Kashmir, the Maoists and the corporatisation of everything—writing which involved facing down an incredibly hostile, abusive and dangerous middle class—the Radia tapes exposé has come like an MRI confirming a diagnosis some of us made years ago. Now it’s street talk, so I feel it’s alright for me to do something else now. It happens all the time. You say something and it sounds extreme and outrageous, and a few years down the line it’s pretty much accepted as the norm. I feel we are headed for very bad times. This is going to become a more violent place, this country. But now that it’s upon us, as a writer I’ll have to find a way to live, to witness, to communicate what’s going on. The Indian elite has seceded into outer space. It seems to have lost the ability to understand those who have been left behind on Earth...

AK: Yes, but what will you have to do to write new fiction?

ARUNDHATI ROY:I don’t know. I’ll have to find a language to tell the story I want to tell. By language I don’t mean English/Hindi/Urdu/Malayalam—of course not. I mean something else, a way of binding together worlds that have been ripped apart... Let’s see.

AK: Your novel was a huge bestseller, of course. But your nonfiction books have been very popular, too. In places like New York, whenever you speak there is always a huge turnout of adoring fans. Your books sell well here but what I’ve been amazed by is how some of your pieces, including the one published in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, become a sensation on the Internet. We would like you to comment on this phenomenon. Also, is it true that The New York Times refused to publish that piece?

ARUNDHATI ROY:As far as I know, The New York Times has a policy of not publishing anything that has appeared elsewhere. And I rarely write commissioned pieces. But of course, ‘The Algebra of Infinite Justice’, the essay I wrote after 9/11 was not published in any mainstream US publication—it was unthinkable at the time. But that essay was published all over the world, in the US some small radio stations read it out, all of it. And yes, it flew on the Net.

There’s so much to say about the Internet—Wikileaks, the Facebook revolution in places like Kashmir, which has completely subverted the Indian media’s propaganda of noise as well as strategic silence, the Twitter uprising in Iran. I expect the Internet to become a site of conflict very soon, with attempts being made by governments and big business to own and control it, to price it out of the reach of the poor. I don’t see those attempts being successful though. India’s newest and biggest war, Operation Green Hunt, is being waged against tribal people, many of whom have never seen as bus or a train, leave alone a computer. But even there, mobile phones and YouTube are playing a part.

AK: Talking of The New York Times, we have read your recent report from Kashmir. We know that you had been threatened with arrest on the slightly archaic-sounding charge of sedition.

ARUNDHATI ROY:Yes, there was that. But I think it has blown over. It would have been a bad thing for me, but I think on balance, it would have been worse for them. It’s ludicrous because I was only saying what millions of Kashmiris have been saying for years. Interestingly, the whole thing about charging me for sedition was not started by the government, but by a few right-wing crazies and a few irresponsible media channels like Times Now which is a bit like Fox News on acid. Even when the Mumbai attacks happened, if you remember it was the media that began baying for war with Pakistan. This cocktail of religious fundamentalism and a crazed, irresponsible, unaccountable media is becoming a very serious problem, in India as well as Pakistan. I don’t know what the solution is. Certainly not censorship.

AK: Can you give a sense of what a regular day is for you, or perhaps how irregular and different one day may be from another?

ARUNDHATI ROY:My days and nights…actually I don’t have a regular day (or night!). It has been so for years, and has nothing to do with the sedition tamasha. I’m not sure how I feel about this—but that’s how it is. I move around a lot. I don’t always sleep in the same place. I live a very unsettled but not un-calm life. But sometimes I feel as though I lack a skin—something that separates me from the world I live in. That absence of skin is dangerous. It invites trouble into every part of your life. It makes what is public private and what is private public. It can sometimes become very traumatic, not just for me but for those who are close to me.

AK: Your stance on Kashmir and also on the struggles of the tribals has drawn the ire of the Indian middle class. Who belongs to that class and what do you think gets their goat?

ARUNDHATI ROY:The middle-class goat is very sensitive about itself and very callous about other people’s goats.

AK: Your critics say that you often see the world only in black and white.

ARUNDHATI ROY:The thing is you have to understand, Amitava, that the people who say such things are a certain section of society who think they are the universe. It is the jitterbugging elite which considers itself the whole country. Just go outside and nobody will say that to you. Go to Orissa, go to the people who are under attack, and nobody will think that there is anything remotely controversial about what I write. You know, I keep saying this, the most successful secession movement in India is the secession of the middle and upper classes to outer space. They have their own universe, their own andolan, their own Jessica Lal, their own media, their own controversies, and they’re disconnected with everything else. For them, what I write comes like an outrage. Ki yaar yeh kyaa bol rahi hai! They don’t realise that they are ones who have painted themselves into a corner.

AK: You have written that “people believe that faced with extermination they have the right to fight back. By any means necessary.” The knee-jerk response to this has been: Look, she’s preaching violence.

ARUNDHATI ROY:My question is, if you are an Adivasi living in a village in a dense forest in Chhattisgarh, and that village is surrounded by 800 CRPF who have started to burn down the houses and rape the women, what are people supposed to do? Are they supposed to go on a hunger strike? They can’t. They are already hungry, they are already starving. Are they supposed to boycott goods? They can’t because they don’t have the money to buy goods. And if they go on a fast or a dharna, who is looking, who is watching? So, my position is just that it would be immoral of me to preach violence to anybody unless I’m prepared to pick up arms myself. But I think it is equally immoral for me to preach nonviolence when I’m not bearing the brunt of the attack.

AK: We want to share a theory. Macaulay’s rationale for the introduction of English in India, as we all know, was to produce a body of clerks. We have departed from that purpose, of course, but still, in our use of the language we remain remarkably conservative. We wonder sometimes whether your style itself, exuberant and excessive, isn’t for these readers a transgression.

ARUNDHATI ROY:I wouldn’t say that it’s all Macaulay’s fault. There is something clerky and calculating about our privileged classes. They see themselves as the State or as advisors to the State, rarely as subjects. If you read columnists and editorials, most have a very clerky, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ approach. As though they are a shadow cabinet. Even when they are critical of the State they are what a friend once described as ‘reckless at slow speed’.  So I don’t think my transgressions as far as they are concerned has only to do with my style. It’s about everything—style, substance, politics, speed. I think it worries them that I’m not a victim and that I don’t pretend to be one. They love victims and victimology. My writing is not a plea for aid or for compassion towards the poor. We’re not asking for more NGOs or charities or foundations in which the rich can massage their egos and salve their consciences with their surplus money. The critique is structural.

AK: Your polemical essays often draw criticism also for their length. (We are frankly envious of the space that the print media in India is able to grant you.) You have written “We need context. Always.” Is the length at which you aspire to write and explain things a result of your search for context?

ARUNDHATI ROY:I don’t aspire to write at any particular length. What I write could be looked at as a very long essay or a very short book. Most of the time, what I write has everything to do with timing. It’s not just what I say, but when I say it. I usually write when I know the climate is turning ugly, when no one is in a mood to listen to this version of things. I know it’s going to enrage people and yet, I know that nothing is more important at that moment than to put your foot in the door.

AK: But even as we raise the issue of criticism, we are also eager to say that some of these critics who accuse you of hyperbole and other sins are hardly your moral exemplars. I’m thinking of someone like Vir Sanghvi. His editorial about your Kashmir speech was dismissive and filled with high contempt. We’ve discovered from the recent release of the Radia tapes that people like Sanghvi were not impartial journalists: they were errand boys for corporate politicians. Any comments?

ARUNDHATI ROY:We didn’t need the Radia tapes to discover that, and I wouldn’t waste my energy railing against those who criticise or dismiss me. It’s part of their brief. I don’t expect them to stand up and applaud.

AK: May we turn for a moment toward self-criticism? We pride ourselves on having read all your published writing over the past 12 years or more. Is there anything you have written in the past that you don’t agree with anymore, that you think you were wrong about, or perhaps something about which you have dramatically changed your mind?

ARUNDHATI ROY:You know, ironically, I wouldn’t be unhappy to be wrong about the things I’ve said. Imagine, if I suddenly realised that big dams were wonderful…I could celebrate the hundreds of dams that are being planned in the Himalayas…I could celebrate the Indo-US nuclear deal… But there are things about which my views have changed—because the times have changed. Most of this has to do with strategies of resistance. The Indian State has become hard and unforgiving: what it once did in places like Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland, it does in mainland India. So some of the strategies we inherited from the freedom movement are a bit obsolete now.

AK: You have pointed out that the logic of the global war on terror is the same as the logic of terrorism, making victims of civilians. Are there specific works, particularly of fiction, that have arrived close to explaining the post-September 11 world we are living in?

ARUNDHATI ROY:Actually, I haven’t really kept up with the world of fiction, sad to say. I don’t even know who won the Booker Prize from one year to the next. But when you read Neruda’s ‘Standard Oil Co.’ you really have to believe that while things change they remain the same.

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book is A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna.

IN JULY 1986, a young Salman Rushdie visited Nicaragua. The tiny country was under attack by Ronald Reagan and the American-funded Contras. In his travelogue The Jaguar Smile, Rushdie painted a warm portrait of the struggling Nicaraguan people, especially of the poor campesinos and fishermen whom he described as “inventing their own country, and, more than that, themselves”. An image that stayed in my mind was Rushdie’s account of a simple meal he ate in a fishing village: “With the generosity of the poor, they treated me to a delicacy at lunch. I was given an egg and bean soup, the point being that these eggs were the best-tasting, because they had been fertilized. Such eggs were known as ‘the eggs of love.’ When people had so little a fertilized hen’s egg became a treat.”

A quarter-century later, I was reminded of those eggs when I read an op-ed by Arundhati Roy in The New York Times. Roy’s piece had been written after Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2010, during which the US president announced that the US would not intervene in Kashmir. In her op-ed, Roy was recounting a visit to Shopian, in Kashmir, in the days following the threat of her arrest on the charge of sedition. Roy was in Shopian at the invitation of Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar—the man whose wife and sister had been found lying in a shallow stream near an army camp the previous summer. The young women’s rape and murder had been the cause of widespread anger and protest in the valley. Roy’s op-ed was full of pathos and yet it also contained her signature wit—while observing the apples being packed in wooden boxes in the orchards, she wrote of her worry that “a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake”. But what reminded me of Rushdie writing about Nicaragua was something else.

As Roy was leaving Shopian, she got a message that Ahangar’s father-in-law was on his way to meet her. Roy couldn’t wait, however. It was late and if they lingered any longer it would be unsafe to drive back. There was also the threat of her arrest. In fact, as they began to drive back from Shopian, a journalist called with the news that the police were typing up the warrant for Roy’s arrest. And, soon enough on the dark highway, a car overtook them and began to wave them down. Two men on a motorcycle asked Roy’s driver to pull over. Roy wrote that she steeled herself for what was coming. A bearded man appeared at her window. He was the father of Ahangar’s murdered wife, Nilofar.

“How could I let you go without our apples?” the man said. The bikers began to load crates of apples in the back of Roy’s car. And then the older man reached into his pocket and brought out a warm egg. He put the egg in our writer’s hand and said, “God bless and keep you.”

The police didn’t arrest Roy, even though, as is well-known, her house was attacked. I have narrated above at length the details of Roy’s op-ed about her visit to Kashmir because it strongly conveys a writer’s vision: a world where people come together often unexpectedly and surprise each other with what, in a language that is clearly inadequate, we call their humanity. Such a vision might draw on politics, but it often exceeds it. The complex emotional effect that such writing produces is not reducible to slogans or political speeches. For me, as a reader, that is the purchase of reading a piece like this: we return to a site of brutal violence, the issue of state policy is broached, and then, like the car being overtaken in the dark by another one, we find ourselves confronting an altogether more complex, and powerful, set of emotions. In the case of this particular op-ed, I found myself thinking not merely of laws or legislation but also about love. And yet, it is not love in the abstract we are talking about here, we are talking about a warm egg carefully carried in the pocket of an old, grieving man’s cloak. It is like the scene in Rushdie: a human being who has suffered a great deal, and whose store of affection has been rudely plundered, nevertheless enacts from a hospitable corner in his soul a gesture that is touching and memorable.

But here, of course, the comparisons end. Rushdie’s report on Nicaragua didn’t draw widespread abuse from Indian readers, calling him a communist sympathiser and abettor of murder or terrorism. His tender affection for the Nicaraguan revolution—and, indeed, for the Nicaraguan people—emphatically didn’t earn him a fatwa from a religious ideologue. But Roy’s writings on India’s disenfranchised have repeatedly angered sections of the Indian elite. Numerous cases have been filed against her. Is it because Nicaragua is a foreign country and Kashmir is not? Nothing enrages middle-class Indians as much as statements made in support of agitating Kashmiris, whose demands for freedom are always suspect. And no statements on the matter incite greater rage than those made by Arundhati Roy. Why is this so?

A part of the reason, I believe, is the willful bigotry practiced by the Hindu right. Consider the October 2010 speech by Roy that led to the threat of arrest for preaching sedition. If you were a visitor from Mars and read only The Pioneer newspaper, you would have learned that Roy told the audience at a seminar in Delhi that Kashmiris had to “decide whether they want to be with or get separated from bhookhe-nange Hindustan where more than 830 million people live on `20 per day only”. But if you read the transcript of the speech or watch the tape on YouTube, you find that something entirely different took place on planet Earth.

What actually happened is that, in the course of her speech, Roy had advised Kashmiris that their struggle should be one for justice—and that in this fight, she said, there should be solidarity among all those struggling elsewhere in India, whether in Manipur or Nagaland or central India: all the poor, the squatters, the vendors, all the slum-dwellers and so on. In contrast to the wildly inaccurate and crass report in The Pioneer, Roy had in fact told her audience that it broke her heart when she heard on the streets of Srinagar the slogan “Nanga Bhookha Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan”. And this, she said, was because “if you are fighting for a just society then you must align yourself with the powerless”. The poor in India, she said, were joined in the struggle for justice, whether in the Kashmir valley or in the Narmada valley. Standing among Kashmiris, she was urging them to ask themselves what kind of Kashmir they were fighting for. In fact, she was critiquing those in Kashmir who had cut themselves off from the suffering of people elsewhere.

But the malice directed at Roy does not come exclusively from the Indian right; among large parts of the liberal, middle-class intelligentsia, she is regarded with considerable scorn. What irks this class? Is it the fact that Roy has no truck with the sober, scholarly, Brahminical discourse of the respectable middle-of-the-road protectors of the status quo? Her critics, among whom are some of my friends, are also serious people, but their objections appear hollow to me because they have never courted unpopularity. They air their opinions in national op-eds, dine at the corporate table, are fêted on national TV, and collect followers on Twitter. They don’t have to face court orders. Her estrangement from this class doesn’t lead Roy to any feeling of isolation, or nothing at least that she will confess to. In fact, her cheerfully confident response has been: “I deploy my writing from the heart of the crowd.”

A lot of Roy’s admiring readers also, of course, belong to the middle class. I wonder whether her supporters are those who appreciate that in the face of the huge disparities and injustice that Roy highlights in her essays, there is often very little space for nuance and detail. That kind of complexity or dwelling on contradiction is fine in fiction, but as bulletins from extreme zones her essays press themselves into a more urgent frame. Let’s also not forget that Roy has always addressed issues before they become acceptable items on the agenda of protest: as a result, she is often writing in a vacuum, and writing alone. I don’t blame her for having to shout just to make herself heard.

I’m speaking as a partisan here, and as an admirer. I will not deny that, as a writer, I thrill more to her writerly voice; at the same time, who can deny the bracing quality of her activist writing? I feel allied most of all to Roy’s sense that she is writing from the middle of the real India. Hers isn’t the India of sprawling malls and luxury hotels, or if it is, it is only in relation to what lies forgotten behind that glitzy image. Of course, India is growing and changing. A major part of this story of change is the impoverishment of hundreds of millions and the destruction of the environment. Roy’s focus on these darker aspects of development pays attention to what has been repressed. It should be regarded, in fact, as a great act of citizenship.

The following interview is a result of my desire to find out from Roy why she does—and how she does—what she does.

AMITAVA KUMAR: Before we begin, can you give me an example of a stupid question you are asked at interviews?

ARUNDHATI ROY: It is difficult to answer extremely stupid questions. Very, very, difficult. Stupidity defeats you in some way. Especially when time is at a premium. And sometimes these questions are themselves mischievous.

AK: Give me an example.

ARUNDHATI ROY:“The Maoists are blowing up schools and killing children. Do you approve? Is it right to kill children?” Where do you start?

AK: Yes.

ARUNDHATI ROY:There was a HARDtalk once, I believe, between some BBC guy obviously, and a Palestinian activist. He was asking questions like this: “Do you believe in killing children?” And any question he asked, the Palestinian just said, “Ariel Sharon is a war criminal.” Once, I was on the Charlie Rose show. Well, I was invited to be on the Charlie Rose show. He said, “Tell me, Arundhati Roy, do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons?” So I said, “I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the United States should have nuclear weapons.” “No, I asked you do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons.” I answered exactly the same thing. About four times... They never aired it!

READER'S COMMENTS [5]

@ Suspiro Del Moro Detesting a government is what keeps it in check. What do you want her to do? Sing praises of such a corrupt government. And don't even go and deny that most, if not all, of the politicians in India are corrupt. Next, if you think Arun

Perhaps it is a sign of Indian democratic resilience that traitors and agent provocateurs like Arundhati Roy go largely unmolested by the Government that she detests. But then, I can hardly blame Ms. Roy's talent to drop in at truly difficult situations in dramatic ways to claim credit for the lifework for others and parlay that to a career of international attention mongering. Who can cast aspersions on someone's right to make a living as long as it is legal? A very handsome living she makes indeed, selling horror stories and exaggerated fears to adoring Western audiences in town after town, playing to their superiority complexes about secularism by drumming the horror of right-wing Hinduism and making fictitious parallels of India's situation with the most brutal of other countries. I happened to witness such a performance once in UCLA. And legal it is as well, since India, a country she detests so much, actually allows this criticisms. So it was an inspiring read. May you become richer on the backs of the likes of Medha Patkar and by selling your brand of fear mongering!

Powerful, Yes. And also thought provoking. But what is the solution that she proposes apart from enumerating all the problems associated with the modern Nation State. Partha, why should her responsibility extend to that? She fulfils hers by 'Finding out about things, figuring out the real story' -- or at least trying to.

Powerful, Yes. And also thought provoking. But what is the solution that she proposes apart from enumerating all the problems associated with the modern Nation State.

this has already been published in the Guernica - Caravan, I would've thought you were better than this

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