Share Your Thoughts

First Published on Oct 10, 2004.

Hearing that the FCC was fining radio stations if they broadcast bad language, Arundhati Roy wanted to know what the forbidden words were. Sitting in her hotel in San Francisco, she was getting ready to address the American Sociologists Association’s annual conference. The event was going to be captured by CSPAN. Her editor said he wasn’t going to give her the forbidden epithet list because he was sure she would then use all of them. “How about I say them in Hindi?” she replied with a chuckle.

It’s obvious she doesn’t submit to censorship, laws, or strictures gracefully. She is the one who wants to bring out the spanners to dismantle the empire. She wades knee-deep into controversy whether it’s mega-dams or nuclear weapons. To those who agree with her politics, Arundhati Roy is the goddess of big issues. For those who disagree with her worldview, she is a polemicist who has parlayed the fame of her Booker-winning The God of Small Things into becoming a patron saint of progressive politics or lost causes, depending on your perspective. Her latest books are The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, a collection of interviews, and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, both from South End Press.

At the World Social Forum in 2003 you famously said, “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. On a quiet day if I listen very carefully I can hear her breathing.” One war later do you still feel that way?

At the last World Social Forum in India I said while we were saying another world is possible, George Bush and his gang were saying the same thing but they were radically different views about what that world should be. It’s hard to see a little further than the present, because the present is so dark and violent.

But only a few years ago when I would come here, I’d feel America was very unpolitical and bland. Today it’s charged and people really want to know what’s going on in the world and what their role in it has been.

For those of us involved with talking about these issues for years, that’s a wonderful thing. I said it won’t be long before empire will have a hard time rallying its own people to itself. And today you see that’s not such an absurd thing to have said. I do think that just the realization of what is going on is a huge part of the battle and that’s being won.

But is it enough? The mammoth global anti-war protests might have been a spectacular display of public morality. But does one not need to win to keep going?

Absolutely. It’s not enough to be right, it’s also important to win. One of the things happening to the movement for global justice and the movement against war is that its symbolic component has somehow unmoored itself from genuine civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is not theater alone, though theater is an essential part of it. When Gandhi did the Salt March in 1931, that was a fantastic piece of political theater. It was a symbolic gesture but backed up by a real gesture, when thousands, maybe millions of Indians started making their own salt and it was a direct strike at the economic underpinnings of the British empire.

The march against the war on Feb. 15, 2003 was spectacular, but we also have to understand that a weekend march is not enough. No one even had to miss a day of work. Governments have learned to wait this out. We have to learn to translate this incredible energy into real political action.

What do you think about the fact that the anti-globalization movement in America is largely led and populated by white people even though the issues they discuss disproportionately affect minority communities?

First, let me get to that word: anti-globalization. I think we are really pro-globalization. We are pro-globalization of justice, nuclear weapons treaties, environmental treaties, the International Criminal Court. Globalization doesn’t mean the free movement of capital and the locking in of human beings. So let’s call it a movement for global justice.

Why is the movement for global justice and the anti-war movement peopled by more white people than others? Who are the people being recruited to sacrifice their lives in Iraq for a victory that will never be theirs? The poor are also in a situation where it’s almost impossible to take time off from work to really come and join issue with something.

In America one must also take seriously the problem of propaganda. Who has the ability to circumvent Fox News and mainstream media and actually go on beneath and find out what these connections are.

But are white liberals stuck in the 1960s civil rights paradigm while immigrants are dealing with economic issues that are not all about affirmative action?

This whole aspect of the liberal view of things as a civil rights issue is quite frightening. One of the problems is that most liberals are not really questioning the entrenched system itself. Take the debate about Bush vs. Kerry. It’s not about whether you buy this detergent or that when both are owned by Procter and Gamble in the end.

When you come to New York and Berkeley you find many people who passionately believe in your causes. But when you were driving across a place like New Mexico how did you find the rest of America?

I am sorry if I sound pedantic but I don’t see what we all do as causes. It’s not like I say let me do this cause today—today it’s child abuse, tomorrow big dams. It’s a way of thinking and questioning. It’s an adversarial relationship with power.

But coming to your question, I remember listening to so many radio stations and some were so far right they were accusing Bush of being a communist for allowing immigrants into the country. A lot of people associate America with Hollywood and investment bankers. But driving across the countryside you see the small lives people are being forced into, the poverty.

I am accused of being anti-American. But the American government and corporate media exploit fear and broadcast fear. Before Iraq and Afghanistan it was Granada and Nicaragua and Cuba, all tiny little countries that were posing a great threat. It wasn’t real politics, it was killer bees or poltergeists or ladies in saris—someone was threatening them.

People on the outside can’t imagine those levels of indoctrination. If you go to the Narmada Valley, you’d be surprised at the sophisticated understanding of what globalization is. People are bearing the brunt of it not just as a little dip in their salaries. Hundreds of farmers are killing themselves because there is no market for their produce and they can’t pay for the pesticide.

In Hindi we have the old song—yeh public hai, yeh sab jaanti hai (this is the public; she knows everything). When you come here you feel Americans don’t know.

But why not, when the rest of the world has a healthy dose of cynicism?

Partly it’s the incredible corporatization of media. That six major corporations own practically all of American media is incredible. That kind of indoctrination is a phase of capitalism other countries haven’t arrived at.

People say you are not just anti-American, you are also anti-Indian. You complain about Muslims being killed in Gujarat but are mum on Hindu pandits being killed in Kashmir.

This is the standard Hindutva line: “You don’t condemn the burning of the train in Godhra where Hindus died.” But when I am a citizen of a democracy, I have to take responsibility for what the state I voted for does. And there is a very big difference between a state-assisted pogrom against a people in a country and something that militants have done.

In your speeches you are very careful about distinguishing between American people and the American government. Now, as we elect a new government in November, can the distinction be preserved?

Look at the logic that underlies an act of terror and look at the logic behind the war on terror—it’s the same. Terrorists hold ordinary people responsible for the actions of their government and the United States, in its war on Afghanistan and Iraq, has held ordinary Iraqis and Afghans responsible for the actions of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

But you have to ask the question: are people in a democracy more responsible for the acts of their elected government? After all, the people of Iraq did not elect Saddam and nobody elected the Taliban. After the 10 million people demonstrated against the war, those democratic governments still went to war. So how is democracy still democratic? Are democratic governments still answerable to the people?

Look at the clash between Bush and Kerry. Kerry has said he supports the war, Kerry has said he would support the war even if he knew WMDs were not to be found, Kerry just wants UN cover. Which means Indians and Pakistanis will go to Iraq and die instead. And French and Germans and Russians can share in the spoils of Iraq. This is a difficult question the anti-war movement has to ask itself. If it openly campaigns for Kerry, is it openly supporting soft imperialism—killing me softly?

We had a similar question in India when the Congress and BJP were up for election. We know the Congress is responsible for carnage, if not genocide. We know it’s doing soft Hindutva. Can you campaign for it? Real public power has to come from outside, from a dissenting public that says, I am sorry but I don’t accept this choice.

What does the dissenting public replace the system with?

The role of being a member of civil society does not mean making the journey from citizen to a politician holding office. It’s about how do you keep power on a short leash, how do you refuse to relinquish your freedoms.

You’ve said that growing up you were the worst thing a girl could be: thin, black, clever. When did you feel the impact of those things?

I felt it ever since I could think because growing up in a small place you are made completely aware of being unwanted in some sense. You always wondered why you are not being offered the protection and assurances that other children in your own supposed class were.

In The God of Small Things there is a scene where the whole family piles into a sky blue Plymouth to go see The Sound of Music. But as a thin, small dark girl in Kerala what did you make of crisp apple strudel and blonde children in Alps?

All that isn’t as remote as people would imagine because there was a tropical, sweaty Santa Claus with cotton wool stuck on his beard, smelling of mosquito repellent, giving you presents. We did live strangely schizophrenic lives. In your imagination you inhabited so many cultures and countries and made them your own. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing but certainly it was a thing.

It’s true that before I could read I knew Kipling and bits of Shakespeare as well as Kathakali and Ramayana. It’s odd growing up in this little village on the river and yet your world was huge. I suppose the similar thing between children and fiction writers is that you don’t acknowledge the boundaries between reality and imagination.

How do you deal with the issue of being a global celebrity? A British filmmaker trying to make a film about the Narmada dam was told she could only get funding if the documentary had you as a focal point.

This is a very difficult issue to juggle. When you are given the kind of attention that I am, it makes me worry about the poverty of the world. I mean, couldn’t you do better? On the other hand, I do what I do. I write. I think. I say what I have to say. I don’t do it because I am a celebrity. And I don’t not do it because I am a celebrity.

Last year I had just come back from Kerala. I got a call from a group of adivasis. They had occupied this forest and police had fired at them. Environmentalists said it was a pristine forest. Actually, it was a eucalyptus plantation. They said, please come. I had a big dilemma. Should I go there? I know I will be a lightning conductor. I know the press will come. They will have to be accountable. On the other hand I’ll also be a celebrity arriving on the scene. I went because you have to realize you can’t always be pristine and say I am the Snow Queen and I will only do what is right for me. You have to take the shit.

You have written that non-fiction has to be wrenched out of you, it’s a hammering in your head. And fiction makes you happy. Since The God of Small Things came out in 1997 have you not been happy for a long time?

Well, I suppose happy is a sort of tinny middle-class word. We think it’s our right to be happy. It comes in unexpected snatches. And, of course, I have been very happy over the years and lived a very intense life, very rewarding and exciting, journeying deep into the heart of things. But still, the delight of writing fiction probably remains my keenest pleasure.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.