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‘In India we are at the moment witnessing a sort of fusion between corporate capitalism and feudalism — it’s a deadly cocktail’

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Amit Sengupta

In Intellectual Engagement: Arundhati Roy
Photos by K. Satheesh
 
fame is also a gruesome kind of capitalism, you can accumulate it, bank it, live off it. but it can suffocate you
I start with an old question: When Tehelka was being cornered you had said there should be a Noam Chomsky in India. Later you had once told me that ‘I am not an activist’. What is this idea of Noam Chomsky in a context like India?

I think essentially that whether it is an issue like Tehelka being hounded or all the other issues that plague us, much of the critical response is an analysis of symptoms; it’s not radical. Most of the time it does not really question how democracy dovetails into majoritarianism which edges towards fascism, or what the connections are between this kind of ‘new democracy’ and corporate globalisation, repression, militancy and war. What is the connection between corruption and power?

At one point when the Tehelka expose happened, I thought, thank God the BJP is corrupt, thank God someone’s taken money, imagine if they had been incorruptible, only ideological, it would have been so much more frightening. To me, pristine ideological battles are really more frightening.

In India we are at the moment witnessing a sort of fusion between corporate capitalism and feudalism — it’s a deadly cocktail. We see it unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes it looks as though the result of all this will be a twisted implementation of the rural employment guarantee act. Half the population will become Naxalites and the other half will join the security forces and what Bush said will come true. Everyone will have to choose whether they’re with “us” or with the “terrorists”. We will live in an elaborately administered tyranny.

But look at the reaction to the growing influence of the Maoists — even by political analysts it’s being treated as a law and order problem, not a political problem — and like militancy in Kashmir and the Northeast, it will be dealt with by employing brutal repression by security forces or arming local people with weapons that will eventually lead to a sort of civil war. That seems to be perfectly acceptable to Indian ‘civil society’.

Those who understand and disagree with the repressive machinery of the State are more or less divided between the Gandhians and the Maoists. Sometimes — quite often — the same people who are capable of a radical questioning of, say, economic neo-liberalism or the role of the state, are deeply conservative socially — about women, marriage, sexuality, our so-called ‘family values’ — sometimes they’re so doctrinaire that you don’t know where the establishment stops and the resistance begins. For example, how many Gandhian/Maoist/ Marxist Brahmins or upper caste Hindus would be happy if their children married Dalits or Muslims, or declared themselves to be gay? Quite often, the people whose side you’re on, politically, have absolutely no place for a person like you in their social, cultural or religious imagination. That’s a knotty problem… politically radical people can come at you with the most breathtakingly conservative social views and make nonsense of the way in which you have ordered your world and your way of thinking about it… and you have to find a way of accommodating these contradictions within your worldview.

In the Hindi heartland, the same terrain that had Munshi Premchand, Muktibodh, Nirala, Kaifi Azmi is still one of the most stagnating, backward, poverty-stricken terrains of India. But in terms of the lilt of the languages here, humour, bawdy jokes, hard politics, there is a vibrant churning going on; there is Dalit churning. This is engagement with reality in a very different manner. There are new theatre, literary, cinema journals; a vibrant culture.

There is a lot of excitement in the air and it is actually happening here in India, an excitement that is in a way absent in the West. If you live in America or Europe it is almost impossible to really believe that another world is possible. Over there, anybody who talks about life beyond capitalism is part of a freak show, they’re just considered nuts and weirdos, going through teenage angst.

But here, it actually still exists, though they are being rapidly destroyed. It is very important, the anarchy of what you were saying, there are magazines, and little pamphlets, all over India, which cannot be controlled by the corporate establishment, and that’s very important, the way communication links are kept alive. We are in a very striking phase. But how powerful are these alternative ways of communication? You can see these mighty structures of capitalism. Can you fight them with these alternatives? The only way you can be optimistic is to insist on being irrational, unreasonable, magical, stubborn, because what you see happening is an inevitable crunching through of these structures.

There is a lot of excitement in the air and it is actually happening here in india, an excitement that is in a way absent in the West. if you live in america or europe it is almost impossible to really believe that another world is possible
Is it possible for anyone to stand up against these structures, as Chomsky has done again and again, or you, and not be hounded out by the entire apparatus?

Until recently, we all hoped that it was the question of getting the facts out, getting the information out, and that once people understood what was going on, things would change. Their consciences would kick in and everything would be alright. We saw it, rather stupidly, as a question of getting the information out. But getting the story out is only one small part of the battle. For example, before the American elections, Michael Moore’s film was in every smalltown cinema hall everywhere; the film was an evidence-based documentary, it was by no means a piece of radical political thought, it was just a fact-based political scandal about the House of Bush, but still, Bush came back with a bigger majority than the earlier elections.

The facts are there in the world today. People like Chomsky have made a huge contribution to that. But what does information mean? What are facts? There is so much information that almost all becomes meaningless and disempowering. Where has it all gone? What does the World Social Forum mean today? They are big questions now. Ultimately, millions of people marched against the war in Iraq. But the war was prosecuted, the occupation is in full stride. I do not for a moment want to undermine the fact that unveiling the facts has meant a huge swing of public opinion against the occupation of Iraq, it has meant that America’s secret history is now street talk, but what next? To expose things is quite different from being able to effectively resist things.

I am more interested now in whether there are new strategies of resistance. The debate between strategies of violence and non-violence…

 
somebody like me runs a serious risk of thinking i am more important than i am. people petition me. they want me to intervene. you think it is in your power to do something
One option is to keep digging, keep digging and there is always the danger of stagnation, becoming self-righteous, dogmatic, moralistic, losing your sense of humour, songs, masti. You stop laughing. As if the poor or the working class don’t laugh…

You are absolutely right on that one. In India particularly, self-righteousness is the bane of activists or public thinkers. It’s also the function of a kind of power that you begin to accumulate. Some activists have unreasonable power over people in their ‘constituencies’, they have adulation, gratitude, it can turn their heads. They begin to behave like mainstream politicians. Somebody like me runs a serious risk of thinking that I’m more important than I actually am — because people petition me all the time, with serious issues that they want me to intervene in… And of course an intervention does have some momentary effect, you begin to think that it is in your power to do something. Whereas actually is it or is it not? It’s a difficult call.

At the end of the day, fame is also a gruesome kind of capitalism, you can accumulate it, bank it, live off it. But it can suffocate you, block off the blood vessels to the brain, isolate you, make you lose touch. It pushes you up to the surface and you forget how to keep your ear to the ground.

I think it is important to retreat sometimes. Because you can really get caught up in fact and detail, fact and detail, and forget how to think conceptually, and that’s a kind of prison. Speaking for myself, I’m ready for a jail-break.

You mean even anti-conformism can become a conformist trap?

There is the danger, especially for a writer of fiction, that you can become somebody who does what is expected of you. I could end up boring myself to death. In India, the political anti-establishment can be socially very conservative (Bring on the gay Gandhians!) and can put a lot of pressure on you to become something which may not necessarily be what you want to be: they want you to dress in a particular way, be virtuous, be sacrificing, it’s a sort of imaginary and quite often faulty extrapolation of what the middle class assumes the ‘people’, the ‘masses’ want and expect. It can be maddening, and I want to say like Bunty in Bunty aur Babli, ‘Mujhe yeh izzat aur sharafat ki zindagi se bachao…’

There are all kinds of things that work to dull, leaden your soul…to weigh you down…

 
sometimes i want to say like bunty from bunty aur babli: ‘mujhe yeh izzat aur sharafat ki zindagi se BAchao...’
I like Jean Paul Sartre. He used to say money must keep circulating. He used to blow his money on taxis, without any purpose. Blow it up on booze. Money should etherise. That does not take away his strange involvement with histories or literature: the Spanish civil war, Stalin. I don’t agree with the term, Intellectual. Anybody with skills and intelligence can be intellectual. A cobbler is an intellectual.

I don’t really want to work out the definitions. It’s just the opposite of what novelists do. They really try to free their thinking from such definitions.

As for money, I have tried to take it lightly. Really, I have tried to give it away, but even that is a very difficult thing to do. Money is like nuclear waste. What you do with it, where you dump it, what problems it creates, what it changes, these are incredibly complicated things. And eventually, it can all blow up in your face. I’d have been happier with Less. Yeh Dil Maange Less. Less money, less fame, less pressure, more badmashi. I hate the f***ing responsibility that is sometimes forced on me. I spent my early years making decisions that would allow me to evade responsibility; and now…

People are constantly in search of idols, heroes, villains, sirens — in search of individuals, in search of noise. Anybody in whom they can invest their mediocre aspirations and muddled thinking will do. Anyone who is conventionally and moderately ‘successful’ becomes a celebrity. It’s almost a kind of profession now — we have professional celebrities — maybe colleges should start offering a course.

It’s indiscriminate — it can be Miss Universe, or a writer, or the maker of a ridiculous TV soap, the minimum requirement is success. There’s a particular kind of person who comes up to me with this star-struck smile — it doesn’t matter who I am — they just know I’m famous; whether I’m the ‘BookerPrizeWinner’ or the star of the Zee Horror Show or whatever is immaterial.

In this freak show, this celebrity parade, there’s no place for loss, or failure. Whereas to me as a writer, failure interests me. Success is so tinny and boring. Everyone is promoting themselves so hard.

You gave your Booker money to the NBA. Your Sydney prize money to aborigine groups. Another award money you gave to 50 organisations who are doing exemplary work. You trusted them. You gave away your money, okay, it’s not your money, the money came from somewhere; but you gave it away. Very few people do that in this world. No one does that. So you can’t stop the society to look at you in a certain way.

Well, I haven’t given it all away. I still have more than I need. If I gave it all away I might turn into the kind of person that I really dread — ‘the one who has sacrificed everything’ and will no doubt, somewhere along the way, extract a dreadful price from everybody around them. I’ve learned that giving money away can help, but it can also be utterly destructive, however good your intentions may have been. It is impossible to always know what the right thing to do is. It can create conflict in strange and surprising places. I am not always comfortable with what I do with my money. I do everything. I give it away extravagantly. I blow it up, extravagantly. I have no fix on it — it comforts me, it bothers me, I’m constantly glad that I can afford to pay my bills. I’m paranoid about its incredible capacity for destruction. But the one thing I’m glad about is that it is not inherited. I think inherited money is a curse.

it is impossible to always know what the right thing to do is. it can create conflict in strange and surprising places
Giving money away is dangerous and complicated and in some ways against my political beliefs — I do not subscribe to the politics of good intentions — but what do I do? Sit on it and accumulate more? I’m uncomfortable with lots of things that I do, but can’t see a better way — I just muddle along. It’s a peculiar problem, this problem of excess, and it’s embarrassing to even talk about it in a land of so much pain and poverty. But there it is…

Last question. There is a conflict within oneself. There is a consistency also, of positions, commitments, knowledge. And there are twilight zones you are grappling with. So why can’t you jump from this realm to another: there is no contradiction in saying, what is that, ‘mujhe izzat…’

I think we all are just messing our way through this life. People, ideologues who believe in a kind of redemption, a perfect and ultimate society, are terrifying. Hitler and Stalin believed that with a little social engineering, with the mass murder of a few million people, they could create a new and perfect world. The idea of perfection has often been a precursor to genocide. John Gray writes about it at some length. But then, on the other hand, we have the placid acceptance of Karma which certainly suits the privileged classes and castes very well. Some of us oscillate in the space between these two ugly juggernauts trying to at least occasionally locate some pinpoints of light.

 

Nov 05 , 2005
 
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