A tragedy worse than a tragedy

Best-selling author Arundhati Roy takes an uncompromising position on capitalist greed, the dark path India has taken, Mohandas Gandhi and the Guptas.

For twenty years after releasing her best-selling debut novel, The God of Small Things, Indian author Arundhati Roy put all thoughts of fiction aside and focused on writing about Indian politics, environmental issues and the effects of capitalist greed on her country and the world.

Author and essayist Arundhati Roy

During that time, she wrote about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and slammed its champion, the country’s prime minister Narendra Modi; she’s condemned India’s military occupation of Kashmir; she’s travelled to India’s “valleys and forests” to try to make sense of huge, sudden changes that have been taking place post-globalisation; she’s been present during police raids at universities and endless student arrests; and she’s listened closely to the struggles of her fellow citizens in a country where the caste system is alive and well, where Muslims are persecuted and Dalits (so-called untouchables) are lynched.

It is also a country in which 300 million people live on less than half a dollar a day and where hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden small-scale farmers have committed suicide, often through drinking pesticide.

Her conclusion, Roy told Noseweek during a recent interview in Cape Town, is that India is a country that’s heading towards “very serious trouble”. The country’s economy is inextricably linked to the massive rise of Hindu nationalism, to the detri-ment of many ordinary Indians.

Roy described the government as “a democratically elected government gone rogue”. The prime ministership of Modi, she added, has been “a tragedy much worse than a tragedy. Today we are living in a world in India where people (Muslims and Dalits) are being lynched every day on the streets, where videos are being put up on the lynchings. Our whole society is having vitriol and poison dripped into its veins…

“You have demonetisation: a year-and-a-half ago, Modi just appeared on television and said 80% of our currency will no longer be legal tender. It is like a form of micro-fascism, where the prime minister can just say something like that and break the spine of every single person with a cricket bat. It’s like an experiment, to see what you can get away with. And he did get away with it. Small businesses are suffering, joblessness has increased and a lot of anger is channelled into this idea of Hindu nationalism.

“But in truth,” Roy said, “the most powerful organisation in India is called the RSS.” (She is referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, translated as the National Patriotic Organisation, a right-wing Indian Hindu Nationalist volunteer group, founded in 1925, which is considered widely as the parent body of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Roy has described the RSS as the “ideological holding company of Hindu nationalism and of the BJP which has set itself the task of making myriad castes, communities, tribes, religions and ethnic groups submerge their identities and line up behind the banner of the Hindu Rashtra”.

“All the institutions of this democracy have been penetrated by this way of thinking. History is being rewritten… and once you start a politics of hatred, based on religious identity, or any kind of identity, then the fires won’t be easy to control in a country that is divided by caste and ethnicity and language and religion. The fires may not go out for a 1,000 years,” she told Noseweek.

The publishing of The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997, coincided with what Roy describes as a “very sharp turn to the right” in Indian politics. “A right-wing Hindu government came to power and one of the first things the government did was conduct nuclear tests. This was at a time when I was on the cover of many magazines as an item of national pride. The nuclear tests marked a turning point in the national public discourse in India and things that were unsayable in public began to be said.

“During this time, I wrote an essay called The End of Imagination which was all about this orgy of nationalism that soon became Hindu nationalism, which saw Muslims as second-class citizens and which celebrated mob violence. In this essay, I said if it is anti-national and anti-Hindu to speak out against having nuclear weapons, then I secede… which was the point at which the nationalists turned against me, feeling betrayed, because at that point I was the poster child for India.

“Subsequently, for the last 20 years I have actually interrogated this idea of nationalism because when you have nationalism it soon becomes a form of a manifesto of hatred, a manifesto of declaring who is the rightful citizen and who is not; who can have the water and who can’t, and every form of violence against the poor – displacement, privatisation and ‘stuctural adjustments’ is done in the name of nationalism, to empower a middle class and disempower a vast mass of people.”

So, since publishing The God of Small Things, Roy has spent most of her time prolifically writing non-fiction, including collections of essays on social issues, not least of which is the effect of globalisation. She’s opposed India’s policies on nuclear weapons, industrialisation and economic development, which she said in Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, is encrypted with “genocidal potential”.

In 2008, following large-scale demonstrations, she voiced her support for the independence of Kashmir from India, which drew strong criticism from the government of India.

She has campaigned against the so-called Narmada Dam project – the construction of the huge Sardar Sarovar Dam near Navagam in Gujarat – because of its displacement of more than half a million small farmers and peasants; and she also voiced strong support for the formerly self-sufficient communities who are taking on the corporate might of the mining company Vedanta Resources in the Niyamgiri mountain, 600km from Bhubaneswar in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), which has started mining for bauxite.

She wrote in 2009: “Vedanta hopes the refinery will produce at least one million tonnes of alumina a year. But the Kondh people – the Dongria, Kutia and Jharania who have lived in the region for centuries – need the bauxite too. It holds water remarkably well and helps feed the perennial streams on which they and the animals that live on the mountain rely. Once the bauxite is gone, they fear, the streams will run dry. And that will be the end of the Kondh.”

She has also sharply condemned US foreign policy: “The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world,” she said in an opinion piece entitled The Algebra of Infinite Justice.

American-style capitalism is also an enemy, including the US arms, oil and media industries which she describes as “all controlled by the same business combines”. In 2015, she met with Edward Snowden in Moscow, accompanied by John Cusack and Daniel Ellsberg.

The flip side of Roy’s massive international fan club has seen her charged with sedition and accused of being anti-Indian. Attacks on her Facebook page include comments like “throw ur Indian passport away… I am ashamed that ur Indian… please leave India” and “I want to slap her”.

“Every few years… starting from after The God of Small Things came out, five male lawyers get together and file a criminal case against me. In God of Small Things it was for corrupting public morality,” she said. The case was dropped about ten years later.

When her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was released, there was, understandably great excitement. That book, although fiction, features many of the real-life issues close to Roy’s heart. She “felt 50 kilos lighter” after writing the book, “because everything that was inside me for ten years is now next to me, not inside…” The book has already been translated into about 49 languages and Roy is still involved with the translations being done in India, which has 35 official languages. “There are 43 more waiting to be called official and 780 recognised languages.”

Roy, who originally qualified as an architect and worked for a while in cinema, said the structure of a novel is “an endlessly fascinating thing”. “When I wrote Ministry after these 20 years of writing overtly political essays, I felt that what I needed to write now couldn’t be contained in non-fiction but the traditional idea of a novel was also somewhat constraining.

“I thought, can I write a story that is like a city, a big metropole like Delhi – huge, bewildering confusing, ancient, modern, planned, unplanned, always inscribing itself in form against the contours of nature, however I felt a story in which you have highways and narrow streets and alleyways where you don’t walk past anybody without stopping to say hello – complicated for a reader but very satisfying for a writer – where you break out of this idea that a novel is just about a few people set against a particular context or background…

“The idea of how cities came to be how they are has always fascinated me. The Ministry begins in the ancient part of Delhi and swirls out and you have these layers of modernity and tradition… superimposed on each other.”

During our interview at the Heritage Hotel in Cape Town, where Roy was staying while promoting her book, we discussed her concerns about Hindu Nationalism and the new economy (“they are joined at the hip”), her interest in South Africa (she knows all about the Guptas), world trends that concern her, and what delights her.

“Fiction and the writing of a beautiful sentence delights me, animals delight me, poetry delights me. So many things delight me.”

In her book of essays, An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire, Roy urges her followers “to read Chomsky”.

Who does she think we should be reading at this time in history and whose voices should we be listening to? “There are many people we should be listening to, some old, some new, but we should be reading fiction too.”

At the time we met, Roy was re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as well as a new biography on Malcolm X and Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

“If I was to say who we should read… we should be reading Naomi Klein and the Dalit leader (Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar), Ghandi’s great enemy (Roy is no fan of Ghandi).

“But I also think we should listen to our own voices of love. A big problem today is that there’s a great effort to trivialise, isolate, divide, preclude any form of solidarity, but I feel the only way we can get over the crisis the world faces today is if we understand how capitalism is not just destroying our imagination, it is destroying the planet – and the idea of profit can’t be the only idea in the world.”

Roy has written at length about places in crisis which “need a writer”. “There are many such places obviously… they are the places where battles are being fought. The reason I put so much store by the battles in the Narmada Valley, and in the forests where people are resisting big corporations, is because these are battles for ideas which are so important right now. They are not just about human beings, capitalism, corporates and profit, they are about the survival of the earth. They are about questioning what we mean by civilisation, progress and happiness.

“Civilisation today has to mean a recalibration of what we think of as progress and what we think of as happiness.

“We are all brainwashed into believing that the European and US way of life is the epitome of civilisation but that way of life is encrypted with doom now. There has to be a moment when you look at the mountain and you don’t just say, ‘oh it has bauxite… I can get this much on the market…’ We have to start understanding something much bigger…”

Roy cites the example of the bauxite mountains, which are flat on the top. “The first idea of mining companies is to go and excavate the bauxite, whereas we know a bauxite mountain is a kind of water tank, its porousness contains water that can irrigate the plains for miles around it. You cannot do the simple equation about ‘there’s this much bauxite, you can get this much money’ because it destroys something you haven’t even begun to understand and cultures you think of as backward have understood it much more deeply and for so much longer.”

Roy voiced deep concern for the way the media currently reflects society: “In India it’s structured economically so that 99% of its revenue comes from advertisements. It is therefore invested in a particular way of seeing, and now, with the coalition between Hindu nationalism and corporate globalisation, the mass media is silent about a lot of things that are happening. So almost no such stories come out except on the internet. There is a kind of overtly fascist agenda which is being disseminated openly by the media.”

Turning to the subject of South Africa, Roy says: “I am very interested in this country and the parallels between what happens here and in India… in that the dispossession and these levels of privatisation keep a form of racism in place.”

Roy has written a small book published in the US and in India, called The Doctor and the Saint about Ghandi’s time in South Africa and how “it’s not really what people made it out to be”.

“He came to South Africa with the legacy of his own understanding of caste and he returned to India with a legacy of a very dubious attitude towards race. He consistently referred to blacks as ‘savages and kaffirs’, he campaigned for separate prisons for Indians.

“It is a very troubling story that has not been written up in the way it should have been because Gandhi, even in India, is not someone you can easily write honestly about because there is an industry that supports a particular version of the man.”

Roy has argued in an essay that the world needs “to change our heroes”. Who are her modern-day heroes?

“In India there are so many people who are unknown but who are fighting the most profound battles, who are understanding of so much. They are not people you necessarily know by name. I’ve written about them a lot.”

Voicing deep wariness about artificial intelligence (AI), Roy says: “I feel we are heading towards a time when human beings as labourers or the working class will not be required anymore, in which case you will have large populations which are not part of economic activity and it won’t be long before the elite think that maybe we don’t need these populations.

“Colonialism needed to move huge populations of people from one place to another, like Indians to South Africa, Africans to America etc in the service of profit and capital. That was then. Now they need to keep them in their countries; they need capital to move and people to stay to drive down wages. With the advent of artificial intelligence, they just do not need people at all. It is terrifying.

“Of course, you see it all around you. You don’t need miners, you don’t need workers, and you have robots that can do things, so when huge populations become surplus to the cause of profit, then what needs to be done with them? It’s a question one must ask because the Left has so constructed itself around the idea of the working class… what if there is no room for the working class?”

Roy said there are three things which contain within themselves the prospect of annihilation: nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical weapons and germ warfare. 

“The idea of positing climate change as some problem with the human race and not a problem related to the economic structures of corporate capital must change. But in India, if you question corporate profits, it’s almost like asking someone to worship another god. The idea of profit has reached religious proportions.”

At the beginning of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Roy quotes Turkish writer Nâzim Hikmet: “I mean it’s all a matter of your heart.”

Why that quote?

“Because eventually it is, you know.”

The book is dedicated to “the unconsoled”.

Who are the unconsoled?

“Everyone who pretends they are happy on Facebook,” she quipped; then more seriously: “The unconsoled are almost the whole world now, in so many ways, including those who pretend they’re not – but there’s something very alienating and very lonely in the world.”

Artist, actor, architect, author

Arundhati Roy was born in 1960 in Shillong in north east India. Her parents were Mary Roy, from Kerala, a Christian of Syrian descent and a women’s rights activist, and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. Her parents divorced when Arundhati was two years old and she moved to Kerala with her mother and older brother Lalith.

Her mother started a school in Kerala and is still involved in education in India. Her mother became known in India for challenging India’s inheritance laws and successfully suing for the rights of Christian women to receive an equal share of their fathers’ estates.

After school, Roy studied architecture at the Delhi School of Architecture where she met architect Gerhard da Cunha. The two lived together in Delhi and then in Goa before separating. Despite her training as an architect, Roy was more interested in a career in writing.

Before starting her novel, she worked as an artist, actress, aerobics instructor and production designer and wrote scripts and screenplays.

In the mid-eighties she met independent filmmaker Pradip Krishen, with whom she collaborated in a number of films. They later married.

The God of Small Things, Roy’s first novel, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. It was an instant bestseller, published in 16 languages and 19 countries. Set in Ayemenem in Kerala, a rural province in southern India, the novel tells the story of the childhood of twins, Estha and Rahel, their reunion after spending 23 years apart, and the effects that India’s “love laws” had on their lives. It has sold over six million copies worldwide.

The book was controversial in India for the description of a love affair between a Syrian Christian and a Hindu “untouchable”.

While the book became an overnight international hit – being named among others as one of The New York Times’ Notable Books for 1997 – the book was slammed in some quarters of India for its descriptions of sexuality and Roy was charged with obscenity in her home state of Kerala.

After The God of Small Things, Roy’s focus shifted to writing political non-fiction aimed largely at the problems in India as a result of global capitalism. Her non-fiction writings include The Cost of Living (1999), an attack on the Indian government for its handling of the contentious Narmada Valley Dam project and other issues; Power Politics (2001), The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic, and Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Most recently she co-wrote with John Cusack, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said.

Her championing of numerous human rights and environmental causes has brought Roy many awards, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom (2002), the Sydney Peace Prize (2004) and the Sahitya Akademi Award (2006) and the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing (2011). She was listed in the 2014 list of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Last year Roy published her second novel and the first in 20 years, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). It has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and, in the US, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The work, with its diverse mix of characters, including a transgender woman who has set up home in a graveyard, blends personal stories with issues facing India today.

Arundhati Roy lives alone in New Delhi.

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