Anj — In Intellectual Engagement: Arundhati Roy

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Compliments of Multitudes List:
`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
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
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
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
Nov 05 , 2005