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Boston Review speaks with Arundhati Roy on censorship, storytelling, and her problem with the term ‘postcolonialism.’
In her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), Arundhati Roy asks, “What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?” This relationship between the imagination and the stuff of real life—violence, injustice, power—is central to Roy’s writing, dating back to her Booker Prize–winning debut novel The God of Small Things (1997). For the twenty years between the release of her first and second novels, the Indian writer has dismayed many—those who preferred that she stick to storytelling and those who were comfortable with the turn of global politics around 9/11—by voicing her political dissent loudly and publicly.
Her critical essays, many published in major Indian newspapers, take on nuclear weapons, big dams, corporate globalization, India’s caste system, the rise of Hindu nationalism, the many faces of empire, and the U.S. war machine. They have garnered both acclaim and anger. In India Roy has often been vilified by the media, and accused of sedi- tion, for her views on the Indian state, the corruption of the country’s courts, and India’s brutal counterinsurgency in Kashmir. She has, on one occasion, even been sent to prison for committing “contempt of court.” In spite of this, Roy remains outspoken. In this interview, she reflects on the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in her work, how to think about power, and what it means to live and write in imperial times.
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Avni Sejpal: In your book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004), you identify a few different pillars of empire: globalization and neoliberalism, militarism, and the corporate media. You write, “The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code of democracy. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder.” How would you update this today?
How long will it be before the world’s elite feel that almost all the world’s problems could be solved by getting rid of that surplus population?
Arundhati Roy: That was fourteen years ago! The updates now would include the ways in which big capital uses racism, caste-ism (the Hindu version of racism, more elaborate, and sanctioned by the holy books), and sexism and gender bigotry (sanctioned in almost every holy book) in intricate and extremely imaginative ways to reinforce itself, protect itself, to undermine democracy, and to splinter resistance. It doesn’t help that there has been a failure on the part of the left in general to properly address these issues. In India, caste—that most brutal system of social hierarchy—and capitalism have fused into a dangerous new alloy. It is the engine that runs modern India. Understanding one element of the alloy and not the other doesn’t help. Caste is not color-coded. If it were, if it were visible to the untrained eye, India would look very much like a country that practices apartheid.Another “update” that we ought to think about is that new technology could ensure that the world no longer needs a vast working class. What will then emerge is a restive population of people who play no part in economic activity—a surplus population if you like, one that will need to be managed and controlled. Our digital coordinates will ensure that controlling us is easy. Our movements, friendships, relationships, bank accounts, access to money, food, education, healthcare, information (fake, as well as real), even our desires and feelings—all of it is increasingly surveilled and policed by forces we are hardly aware of. How long will it be before the elite of the world feel that almost all the world’s problems could be solved if only they could get rid of that surplus population? If only they could delicately annihilate specific populations in specific ways—using humane and democratic methods, of course. Preferably in the name of justice and liberty. Nothing on an industrial scale, like gas chambers or Fat Men and Little Boys. What else are smart nukes and germ warfare for?
As the storm builds, the ethno-nationalists are out harnessing the wind, giving each other courage. Israel has just passed a new bill that officially declares itself to be the national homeland of Jewish people, making its Arab citizenry second class. Unsurprising, but still, even by its own standards, pretty brazen. In the rest of the Middle East, of course, Israel and the United States are working hard at sharpening the Sunni–Shia divide, the disastrous end of which could be an attack on Iran. There are plans for Europe, too. Steve Bannon, a former aide of President Donald Trump, has started an organization, The Movement, headquartered in Brussels. The Movement aims to be “a clearing house for populist, nationalist movements in Europe.” It says it wants to bring about a “tectonic shift” in European politics. The idea seems to be to paralyze the European Union. A disintegrated EU would be a less formidable economic bloc, easier for the U.S. government to bully and bargain with. Yet, at the same time, uniting white supremacists in Europe and the United States is an attempt to help them to retain the power they feel is slipping away from them.
Enough has been said about Trump’s immigration policies—the cages, the separation of infants and young children from their families—all of it just a little worse than what Barack Obama did during his presidency, to the sound of deafening silence. In India, too, the pin on the immigration grenade has just been pulled. In the spirit of the globalization of fascism, U.S. alt-right organizations are good friends of Hindu nationalists. Look to India, if you want to understand the world in microcosm. On July 30, 2018, the state of Assam published a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The register comes in lieu of a virtually nonexistent immigration policy. The NRC’s cut-off date of eligibility for Indian citizenship is 1971—the year that saw a massive influx of refugees from Bangladesh after the war with Pakistan. Most of them settled in Assam, which put enormous pressure on the local population, particularly on the most vulnerable indigenous communities. It led to escalating tensions, which have in the past boiled over into mass murder. In 1983 at least 2,000 Muslims were killed, with unofficial estimates putting the figure at five times that number. Now, at a time when Muslims are being openly demonized, and with the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in power, the unforgiveable policy lapse of half a decade is going to be addressed. The selection process, sifting through a population of millions of people who don’t all have “legacy papers”—birth certificates, identity papers, land records, or marriage certificates—is going to create chaos on an unimaginable scale. Four million people who have lived and worked in Assam for years, have been declared stateless—like the Rohingya of Burma were in 1982. They stand to lose homes and property that they have acquired over generations. Families are likely to be split up in entirely arbitrary ways. At best, they face the prospect of becoming a floating population of people with no rights, who will serve as pools of cheap labor. At worst, they could try and deport them to Bangladesh, which is unlikely to accept them. In the growing climate of suspicion and intolerance against Muslims, they could well suffer the fate of the Rohingya.
The BJP has announced its plans to carry out this exercise in West Bengal, too. If that were ever to happen, tens of millions of people would be uprooted. That could easily turn into yet another Partition. Or even, heaven forbid, another Rwanda. It doesn’t end there. In the Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir, on the other hand, the BJP has declared that it wants to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gives the state autonomous status and was the only condition under which it would accede to India in 1947. That means beginning a process of overwhelming the local population with Israeli-type settlements in the Kashmir Valley. Over the past thirty years, almost 70,000 people have died in Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination. Any move to eliminate Article 370 would be simply cataclysmic.
Meanwhile vulnerable communities that have been oppressed, exploited, and excluded because of their identities—their caste, race, gender, religion, or ethnicity—are organizing themselves, too, along those very lines, to resist oppression and exclusion.While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.
AS: You once wrote that George W. Bush “achieved what writers, scholars, and activists have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.” What did you mean by this, and ten years and two presidents later, is the American empire’s apocalyptic nature still so transparent?
I wonder about the term postcolonial. Is colonialism really post-?
AR: I was referring to Bush’s unnuanced and not very intelligent commentary after the events of 9/11 and in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It exposed the thinking of the deep state in the United States. That transparency disappeared in the Obama years, as it tends to when Democrats are in power. In the Obama years, you had to ferret out information and piece it together to figure out how many bombs were being dropped and how many people were being killed, even as the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was being eloquently delivered. However differently their domestic politics plays out on home turf, it is a truism that the Democrats’ foreign policy has tended to be as aggressive as that of the Republicans. But since 9/11, between Bush and Obama, how many countries have been virtually laid to waste? And now we have the era of Trump, in which we learn that intelligence and nuance are relative terms. And that W, when compared to Trump, was a serious intellectual. Now U.S. foreign policy is tweeted to the world on an hourly basis. You can’t get more transparent than that. The Absurd Apocalypse. Who would have imagined that could be possible? But it is possible—more than possible—and it will be quicker in the coming if Trump makes the dreadful mistake of attacking Iran.
AS: There is a marked stylistic difference between your two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published two decades apart. While both speak of politics and violence, the former is written in a style often described as lyrical realism. Beauty is one of its preoccupations, and it ends on a hopeful note. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, on the other hand, is a more urgent, fragmented, and bleak novel, where the losses are harder to sustain. Given the dominance of lyrical realism in the postcolonial and global novel, was your stylistic choice also a statement about the need to narrate global systems of domination differently? Is the novel an indirect call to rethink representation in Indian English fiction?
AR: The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are different kinds of novels. They required different ways of telling a story. In both, the language evolved organically as I wrote them. I am not really aware of making “stylistic choices” in a conscious way. In The God of Small Things, I felt my way toward a language that would contain both English and Malayalam—it was the only way to tell that story of that place and those people. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a much riskier venture. To write it, I had to nudge the language of The God of Small Things off the roof of a very tall building, then rush down and gather up the shards. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written in English but imagined in many languages—Hindi, Urdu, English... I wanted to try and write a novel that was not just a story told through a few characters whose lives play out against a particular backdrop. I tried to imagine the narrative form of the novel as if it were one of the great metropoles in my part of the world—ancient, modern, planned and unplanned. A story with highways and narrow alleys, old courtyards, new freeways. A story in which you would get lost and have to find your way back. A story that a reader would have to live inside, not consume. A story in which I tried not to walk past people without stopping for a smoke and a quick hello. One in which even the minor characters tell you their names, their stories, where they came from, and where they wish to go.
I agree, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is fragmented, urgent—I love the idea of a novel written over almost ten years being urgent—but I wouldn’t call it bleak. Most of the characters, after all, are ordinary folks who refuse to surrender to the bleakness that is all around them, who insist on all kinds of fragile love and humor and vulgarity, which all thrive stubbornly in the most unexpected places. In the lives of the characters in both books, love, sorrow, despair, and hope are so tightly intertwined, and so transient, I am not sure I know which novel of the two is bleaker and which more hopeful.
There has not been a day since the British left India that the Indian army has not been deployed against its “own people.”
I don’t think in some of the categories in which your question is posed to me. For example, I don’t understand what a “global” novel is. I think of both my novels as so very, very local. I am surprised by how easily they have traveled across cultures and languages. Both have been translated into more than forty languages—but does that make them “global” or just universal? And then I wonder about the term postcolonial. I have often used it, too, but is colonialism really post-? Both novels, in different ways, reflect on this question. So many kinds of entrenched and unrecognized colonialisms still exist. Aren’t we letting them off the hook? Even “Indian English fiction” is, on the face of it, a pretty obvious category. But what does it really mean? The boundaries of the country we call India were arbitrarily drawn by the British. What is “Indian English”? Is it different from Pakistani English or Bangladeshi English? Kashmiri English? There are 780 languages in India, 22 of them formally “recognized.” Most of our Englishes are informed by our familiarity with one or more of those languages. Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam speakers, for example, speak English differently. The characters in my books speak in various languages, and translate for and to each other. Translation, in my writing, is a primary act of creation. They, as well as the author, virtually live in the language of translation. Truly, I don’t think of myself as a writer of “Indian English fiction,” but as a writer whose work and whose characters live in several languages. The original is in itself part translation. I feel that my fiction comes from a place that is more ancient, as well as more modern and certainly less shallow, than the concept of nations.Is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness an indirect call to rethink representation in the Indian English novel? Not consciously, no. But an author’s conscious intentions are only a part of what a book ends up being. When I write fiction, my only purpose is to try and build a universe through which I invite readers to walk.
AS: Toward the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a character asks: “How to tell a shattered story?” The novel is teeming with characters whose lives have, in some way, been curtailed or marginalized by the limits of national imaginaries. And yet their stories are rich with humor, rage, agency, and vitality. How do you approach storytelling at a time when people are constantly being thwarted by the narratives of neo-imperial nation-states?
South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins are in turn humiliating Africans for the very same reason.
AR: National imaginaries and nation-state narratives are only one part of what the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have to deal with. They also have to negotiate other stultified and limited kinds of imaginations—of caste, religious bigotry, gender stereotyping. Of myth masquerading as history, and of history masquerading as myth. It is a perilous business, and a perilous story to try to tell. In India today, storytelling is being policed not only by the state, but also by religious fanatics, caste groups, vigilantes, and mobs that enjoy political protection, who burn cinema halls, who force writers to withdraw their novels, who assassinate journalists. This violent form of censorship is becoming an accepted mode of political mobilization and constituency building. Literature, cinema, and art are being treated as though they are policy statements or bills waiting to be passed in Parliament that must live up to every self-appointed stakeholders’ idea of how they, their community, their history, or their country must be represented. Not surprisingly, bigotry of all kinds continues to thrive and be turned against those who do not have political backing or an organized constituency. I recently saw a Malayalam film in the progressive state of Kerala called Abrahaminde Santhathikal (The Sons of Abraham). The vicious, idiot-criminal villains were all black Africans. Given that there is no community of Africans in Kerala, they had to be imported into a piece of fiction in order for this racism to be played out! We can’t pin the blame for this kind of thing on the state. This is society. This is people. Artists, filmmakers, actors, writers—South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins in turn humiliating Africans for the very same reason. Mind-bending.
Trying to write, make films, or practice real journalism in a climate like this is unnerving. The hum of the approaching mob is like a permanent background score. But that story must also be told.How to tell a shattered story? is a question that one of the main characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Tilo—Tilotamma—who lives in an illegal Guest House in a Delhi graveyard, has scribbled in her notebook. She answers it herself: By slowly becoming everybody? No. By slowly becoming everything. Tilo is an architect, an archivist of peculiar things, a deathbed stenographer, a teacher, and the author of strange, unpublished tales. The scribble in her notebook is a contemplation about the people, animals, djinns, and spirits with whom she has ended up sharing her living quarters. Considering the debates swirling around us these days, Tilo would probably be severely rebuked for thinking in this way. She would be told that “slowly becoming everyone,” or, even worse, “everything,” was neither practical nor politically correct. Which is absolutely true. However, for a teller of stories, perhaps all that doesn’t matter. In times that are as crazy and as fractured as ours, trying “to slowly become everything” is probably a good place for a writer to start.
The essays are always urgent interventions in a situation that is closing down on people. They are arguments, pleas, to look at something differently. My first political essay, “The End of Imagination,” was written after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. The second, “The Greater Common Good,” came after the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. I didn’t know that they were just the beginning of what would turn out to be twenty years of essay writing. Those years of writing, traveling, arguing, being hauled up by courts, and even going to prison deepened my understanding of the land I lived in and the people I lived among, in ways I could not have imagined. That understanding built up inside me, layer upon layer.Had I not lived those twenty years the way I did, I would not have been able to write The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But when I write fiction, unlike when I write political essays, I don’t write from a place of logic, reason, argument, fact. The fiction comes from years of contemplating that lived experience, turning it over and over until it appears on my skin like sweat. I write fiction with my skin. By the time I started to write The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I felt like a sedimentary rock trying to turn itself into a novel.
As for those who are being slowly pulled apart, they have been polarized and are preparing to dismember each other. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the personification of what you could call corporate Hindu nationalism. Like most members of the BJP, he is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist cultural guild that is the most powerful organization in India today. The BJP is really just the political arm of the RSS. The aim of the RSS, which was founded in 1925, has long been to change the Indian constitution and to officially declare India a Hindu nation. Modi began his mainstream political career in October 2001, when his party installed him (unelected) as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. In February 2002 (at the height of post 9/11 international Islamophobia) came the Gujarat pogrom in which Muslims were massacred in broad daylight by mobs of Hindu vigilantes, and tens of thousands were driven from their homes. Within months of this, several heads of India’s major corporations publicly backed Modi, a man with no political track record, as their pick for prime minister. Perhaps this was because they saw in him a decisive and ruthless politician who could ram through new economic policies and snuff out the protests and the restlessness in the country that the Congress Party government seemed unable to deal with (meanwhile delaying the implementation of the hundreds of memorandums of understanding signed by the government with various corporate entities). It took twelve years; in May 2014, Modi became prime minister with a massive political majority in Parliament. He was welcomed onto the world’s stage by the international media and heads of state who believed he would make India a dream destination for international finance.
Although his few years in power have seen his favorite corporations and the families of his close allies multiply their wealth several times over, Modi has not been the ruthless, efficient free marketeer that people had hoped for. The reasons for this have more to do with incompetence than with ideology. For example, late one night in November 2016, Modi appeared on TV and announced his policy of “demonetization.” From that moment, 80 percent of Indian currency notes were no longer legal tender. It was supposed to be a lightning strike on hoarders of “black money.” A country of more than a billion people ground to a halt. Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted by any government before. It was an act of hubris that belonged in a totalitarian dictatorship. For weeks together, daily wage workers, cab drivers, small shop keepers stood in long lines, hour upon hour, hoping to get their meager savings converted into new bank notes. All the currency, almost to the last rupee, “black” as well as “white,” was returned to the banks. Officially at least, there was no “black money.” It was a big-budget, razzle-dazzle flop.
Demonetization and the chaotic new Goods and Services Tax have knocked the wind out of small businesses and ordinary people. For big investors, or for the most ordinary person, this sort of caprice on the part of a government that says it is “business-friendly” is lethal. It’s a bald declaration that its word cannot be trusted and is not legally binding.
India, where it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman, is still being celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Demonetization also emptied the coffers of almost all political parties, since their unaccounted-for wealth is usually held in cash. The BJP, on the other hand, has mysteriously emerged as one of the richest, if not the richest, political party in the world. Hindu nationalism has come to power on mass murder and the most dangerously bigoted rhetoric that could—and has—ripped through the fabric of a diverse population. A few months ago, four of the most senior judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference in which they warned that democracy in India was in grave danger. Nothing like it has ever happened before. As hatred is dripped into peoples’ souls, every day, with sickened hearts we wake up to Muslim-lynching videos put up on YouTube by gloating vigilantes, news of Dalits being publicly flogged, of women and infants being raped, of thousands marching in support of people who have been arrested for rape, of those convicted for mass murder in the Gujarat pogrom being let out of jail while human rights defenders and thousands of indigenous people are in jail on charges of sedition, of children’s history textbooks being written by complete fools, of glaciers melting and of water tables plummeting just as fast as our collective IQ.But it is all OK, because we are buying more weapons from Europe and the United States than almost anyone else. So, India, which has the largest population of malnutritioned children in the world, where hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden farmers and farm laborers have committed suicide, where it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman, is still being celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Let’s face it: the free market is not free, and it doesn’t give a shit about justice or equality.
But what is going on in the world right now is coming from every direction and has already gone too far. It has to stop. But how? I don’t have any cure-all advice, really. I think we all need to become seriously mutinous. I think, at some point, the situation will become unsustainable for the powers that be. The tipping point will come. An attack on Iran, for example, might be that moment. It would lead to unthinkable chaos, and out of it something unpredictable would arise. The great danger is that, time and time again, the storm of rage that builds up gets defused and coopted into yet another election campaign. We fool ourselves into believing that the change we want will come with fresh elections and a new president or prime minister at the helm of the same old system. Of course, it is important to bounce the old bastards out of office and bounce new ones in, but that can’t be the only bucket into which we pour our passion. Frankly, as long as we continue to view the planet as an endless “resource,” as long as we uphold the rights of individuals and corporations to amass infinite wealth while others go hungry, as long as we continue to believe that governments do not have the responsibility to feed, clothe, house, and educate everyone—all our talk is mere posturing. Why do these simple things scare people so much? It is just common decency. Let’s face it: the free market is not free, and it doesn’t give a shit about justice or equality.
AS: The vexed question of violent struggle against domination has come up at different moments in history. It has been debated in the context of Frantz Fanon’s writing, Gandhi, Black Lives Matter, Palestine, and the Naxalite movement, to name a few. It is a question that also comes up in your fiction and nonfiction. What do you make of the injunction against the use of violence in resistance from below?
AR: I am against unctuous injunctions and prescriptions from above to resistance from below. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Oppressors telling the oppressed how they would like to be resisted? Fighting people will choose their own weapons. For me, the question of armed struggle versus passive resistance is a tactical one, not an ideological one. For example, how do indigenous people who live deep inside the forest passively resist armed vigilantes and thousands of paramilitary forces who surround their villages at night and burn them to the ground? Passive resistance is political theater. It requires a sympathetic audience. There isn’t one inside the forest. And how do starving people go on a hunger strike?
In certain situations, preaching nonviolence can be a kind of violence. Also, it is the kind of terminology that dovetails beautifully with the “human rights” discourse in which, from an exalted position of faux neutrality, politics, morality, and justice can be airbrushed out of the picture, all parties can be declared human rights offenders, and the status quo can be maintained.
AS: While this volume is called Evil Empire, a term borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union, there are many who think of empire as the only sustainable administrative and political mechanism to manage large populations. How might we challenge dominant voices, such as Niall Ferguson, who put so much faith in thinking with the grain of empire? On the flipside, how might we speak to liberals who put their faith in American empire’s militarism in a post–9/11 era? Do you see any way out of the current grip of imperial thinking?
AR: The “managed populations” don’t necessarily think from Ferguson’s managerial perspective. What the managers see as stability, the managed see as violence upon themselves. It is not stability that underpins empire. It is violence. And I don’t just mean wars in which humans fight humans. I also mean the psychotic violence against our dying planet.
Capitalism is the new empire. Capitalism run by white capitalists.
I don’t believe that the current supporters of empire are supporters of empire in general. They support the American empire. In truth, captalism is the new empire. Capitalism run by white capitalists. Perhaps a Chinese empire or an Iranian empire or an African empire would not inspire the same warm feelings? “Imperial thinking,” as you call it, arises in the hearts of those who are happy to benefit from it. It is resisted by those who are not. And those who do not wish to be.
Empire is not just an idea. It is a kind of momentum. An impetus to dominate that contains within its circuitry the inevitability of overreach and self-destruction. When the tide changes, and a new empire rises, the managers will change, too. As will the rhetoric of the old managers. And then we will have new managers, with new rhetoric. And there will be new populations who rise up and refuse to be managed.
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