Even social advocates need time off.
Story by Rumnique Nannar; photograph by Sanjay Kak.
Arundhati Roy has just come from shoe-shopping in downtown Vancouver, which makes one wonder whether she went for trainers or slipped into Holt Renfrew to try on some designer labels.
Roy’s career has been an unpredictable ride. Her Booker Prize winning novel, The God of Small Things, propelled her into an instant celebrity and made her the “It Girl” of a new wave of Indian authors in the late 1990s. Billboards plastered across the country claimed her as their beacon of hope. In response, Roy chopped off her gorgeous hair – a rebuff to how she was positioned as a beautiful and photogenic ambassador. Then she did the unthinkable in her unease with her position; she spoke out.
Following up her debut, she wrote “The End of Imagination” a blistering essay at the height of the India-Pakistan nuclear tests. I first read her stirring and oft-criticized essay, “The Greater Common Good” during my undergrad degree, where she critiqued the business and political complicity in the construction of the Narmada dams and the erasure of the homes of Adivasi people in the area.
What marks Roy’s work is its lyricism and her uncompromising stance on critiquing those in power. She is both a watchdog and pariah for critics and intellectuals. She is never far from controversy with her strong views. In 2010, Roy echoed the sentiments of many Kashmiris that Kashmir was not so integral to India, which led to a sedition charge. During this time, she was fighting off a new adversary – social media, where anonymous commentators sent her death threats and campaigned for the BJP to extradite her.
One gets the sense that this firebrand is not going to slow down any time as soon. She is now tackling the ghosts of Gandhi, and her icon Dr. Ambedkar, a vocal opponent of caste. Roy wrote the sterling introduction to a re-issue of Ambedkar’s famous speech, “Annihilation of Caste,” and just published another series of essays, “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” which is a fiery and incisive look at the dark side of democracy. It all stemmed from looking out of a 27-storey building in Mumbai, which was commissioned by India’s wealthiest industrial family, the Ambanis.
We met Arundhati Roy in Vancouver to talk about the current phase of her life and her activism.
How do you see yourself outside of your activism?
I firstly don’t think of myself as an activist, I never have. I always say that, I think this word “activist” is relatively recent one. I don’t remember when people started being called that or what it means. It reduces both writers and activists, it makes it seem as though a writer’s job is to just keep people entertained with bestselling books and the activist’s job to keep on repeating the same thing without a great deal of subtlety and intelligence. I don’t think either is the case. It’s okay just to be a writer, who writes about the society in which he lives and the issues that most important. Now how can that not be a writer, it always was. It’s just recently that writers have been reduced to these playthings of the market.
Did you feel any pressures when you transitioned as a fiction writer to becoming more politically engaged?
I don’t see myself as a spokesperson. This business of only Dalits can write about Ambedkar, only people who have been displaced by dams can write about dams, only nuclear engineers can write about…You know it’s so silly, I keep saying can you give us a list of you know, what can be written and what can’t. The fact is for me, when The God of Small Things came out, it was a time when just before this right-wing BJP government came into power, just at the time when India was emerging, as what they like to think of as, “an emerging power.” There were certain cultural icons who were being sold as this brand of the new India, whether they liked it or not. Some liked it: Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwariya Rai, and Arundhati Roy. And then the nuclear tests happened you know, and that establishment and that elite, most of them, were very celebratory. I was so uncomfortable, I knew that keeping quiet suggested a type of acquiescence and I didn’t accept that. So I wrote “The End of Imagination” which was just met with this section by utter outrage. “This kinda princess has turned around and bitten us,” but it led me onto another journey.
Everything I’ve written since has been, however you want to think of them as long essays or short books. I mean when you collect them together what happens is you see a point, a political point of view, a way of seeing the world. They are not just issues that you randomly pick up, but one leads to the next. But what you don’t see when you read together now is what was happening at the time. They were all written at the windows of being bricked in and to stop that from happening… I don’t think of myself like that, I just do what I think is important at that particular time.
Do you ever miss writing fiction or acting, like you did in “In Which Annie Gives it to Those Ones” and “Massey Sahib”?
(laughs) No I’ve never been that much interested in acting, not for myself, I don’t think I’m such a great actor. Fiction, I keep working on one but I keep getting dragged out on this. You know a lot of my essays have been critiques of state policies so this piece I did on Ambedkar, it comes back to the territory of The God of All Small Things. The fact that sometimes it’s easier to blame the state, of course you have to know the big games in play and you have to know how the economy works. But you also have to see these very very primitive prejudices that are operating in India now, and sometimes the state and the Constitution are more enlightened than society.
Why in this day and age is Dr. Ambedkar’s work so important?
I think it’s always been important, it’s actually pretty distressing. I’m not an academic or a historian, but I think its quite strange how the Indian state has, in quite a clever way, by actually putting him on a certain kind of pedestal, has managed to keep out the real passion that drove him – out of the picture, out of school textbooks, out of history textbooks. It managed to keep going a kind of institutionalized social disparity. Institutionalized is a mild word to use, it really is something that is claimed to be divinely sanctioned and when I was writing about it, I actually did a quick survey of how caste plays out in contemporary India. The idea that democracy and development have in some ways, eroded caste turned out not to be the case, that it has in fact been entrenched and modernized.
What drew you to comparing Gandhi and Ambedkar in your new essay?
What happened was “Annihilation of Caste,” which is the text that I introduced, it’s 80 years old now. It’s the text of the speech that was never given, and Dr. Ambedkar was invited by a kind of progressive but privileged caste Hindu organization in the Punjab to deliver this speech in Lahore. But when they read the text, they were frightened and disinvited him because they realized that he was really going to denounce Hinduism from the platform they’d given him so they disinvited.
He published the text at his own cost, then obviously many people were uncomfortable with it but Gandhi too was one of the people who responded to it. Dr. Ambedkar actually says in his preface that the reason he chose only to respond to Gandhi was because Gandhi is considered this oracle of wisdom. There followed a debate between the two, when I was writing the introduction I obviously started out with that debate. But then I started following the threads of Gandhi’s positions on caste, and then back to South Africa when he arrived there in 1893 and his views on race, which presaged his views on caste. You know, it’s not that people have not written a little bit on these things before but if you look at the body of work through the prism of caste and race you do come out feeling like there’s been some sort of coverup. It’s actually astounding that we call a person like that, who held those views, the “father of the nation” or that embodied the moral coordinates of this nation. It really says a lot the establishment and those opinion-makers who decide who the founding fathers of modern India are, and what the values of modern India are.
I watched your documentary Dam/Age in one of my cultural studies classes. Did your jail time change you within?
I don’t think so, but what it does do, not just jail, but operating in the climate that exists in India, you have to be strategic and you have to be prepared to face a lot of flak, from the most unexpected quarters. So you have to be pretty sure of why you’re doing what you’re doing. You can’t expect everyone to stand up and applaud, it’s not something that is all that easy to. It’s like driving in India you know, (laughs) there are no rules that apply. For example, when I was writing on Kashmir, obviously when people in the outside world say “oh she’s going to be charged with sedition” what is your natural assumption? That the state is charging you with sedition, but it was not the case, in my case it was the media and the TV, which was just howling, a bloodsport for them. “Why don’t you charge her?” In a way, doing something that limits their own freedoms but that is the nature of the pathology over there.
Do you ever feel that the new media and social media aggravate this backlash?
Of course, it does but there is the other side to the new media which allows people to operate outside that corporate area. Today, Reliance India Limited owns 27 media channels, Dainik Bhaskar owns 69 companies and has a readership of 17 million. So the new media and the social media cuts both ways, again it creates all kinds of pathologies. When you read you think there is a disconnect between that world and human beings that are who you meet. When you see them on FaceBook or on the net, like hyenas with insulting, working themselves into a froth.
When you first started out, did you ever feel like a scapegoat when wading into an issue? Since the media was quick to say “Hey what’s Arundhati said now?”
Initially, I couldn’t have anticipated how crazy people would be. I’ll give you a few examples, like when I was writing on Kashmir; I’m in Srinagar there’s a demonstration and I say that the one slogan that broke my heart was “Nanga bhooka Hindustan, jaan se pyara Pakistan” which means ‘naked hungry India, our dearest Pakistan” and [what] I’m talking about is so unpolitical. Then in Hindutva papers it would be “Arundhati says Kashmir should secede from India.” What do you do?
Or if I write on the Narmada, some economist might say “this woman should get her head examined or taken to a psychiatrist because she says that 250,000 are being submerged that the actual figure’s 25,000.” He’s mistaking 5 dams for 1 dam, he’s mistaking the number of families for people but he’s the MAN, and he’s the economist for the World Bank, so you just muddy the whole thing. These people, even though you point out the errors, they keep on saying it, it’s not that they don’t know they are purposely muddying the waters with these false facts and false flag attacks by these false men.
Do you get frustrated when your lyrical style for the long-form essay is met with criticism?
Of course, but there are some people who you’d be embarrassed if they didn’t criticize you (laughs). Of course, one of the great dangers that faces writers is that because first of all there is huge population that doesn’t read anything literate, and then there are these languages. Whichever language you write in, the possibility of people not understanding irony or not understanding. This as a writer is most terrifying! For example, my essay on Gandhi and Ambedkar, where I’m completely exposing Gandhi, that’s called “The Doctor and the Saint.” The saint is what Ambedkar calls him sarcastically. The Dalit population who are traditionally quite suspicious of Gandhi and very suspicious of non-Dalits who praise him, just said “Oh she just called Gandhi a saint” completely misreading and misunderstanding and spreading rumours. That’s a very dangerous territory, because there’s nothing you can say. Someone says “You’ve praised Gandhi” but all I can say is, I’ve also got blonde hair and blue eyes so what can I say?
Arundhati Roy’s new book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, releases in North America later this year, but is now available in India.