‘Bachchan was the Coolie, but now, in movies, he only lives in villas’
G Sampath Sunday, October 11, 2009
Even Bollywood has turned its back on the poor, says Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning novelist who, over the years has become the most caustic critic of her own class, and of her country’s policies.
In the process, while winning new fans, she’s also alienated many who were drawn to her by her fiction. In an exclusive interview with G Sampath, Roy explains how her politics, as much as her fiction, defines who she is as a person
How would you categorise your politics?
I find it unnecessary for me to classify what my politics are. It’s really time to break out of thinking in so many of the ways in which we have thought. You stop thinking country-wise, then, you stop thinking Left and Right, because now the greatest capitalist nation in the world is Communist China, so all these things get overturned in some way or the other.
I think, now, with what’s happening ecologically, we need a different view. But one thing I do want to say is that, for all the things that are wrong here, the real worry is that there are so many things that are right, which are being dismantled and destroyed. For example, we still have people here who know the secrets of how to live lightly on this planet; people who know that when you challenge a consumerist society, it’s not as if you have to live with less happiness and less satisfaction; people who know that there is the possibility of ecstasy — all this is lost in other countries. It’s here still, and this is what makes one extreme, you know. You’re fighting to protect something, and that is fundamental to what I am– I think, when you fight to protect something, your anger is huge, because you just see this juggernaut of destruction destroying what ought to be at least the seeds of a future way of thinking, and we still have it.
The Financial Times review of your latest book, Listening To Grasshoppers, says, “The danger is that her extreme views… will alienate those whose support will be essential in India’s struggle for social justice in the years ahead.” This is a frequent charged leveled against you even by people who broadly, shall we say, empathise with your critiques. Many say that you “overdo it” and by being needlessly polemical, you harm the very cause that you are supposedly supporting.
When you are engaged in a critique on some very-close-to-the-bone issues, not everyone is going to stand up and applaud, and say, waah, beta, kitna achcha kaam kiya. The people who hold these opinions you mention have a voice, and also belong to a particular class. But millions of people who don’t have a voice, and whose opinions are not polled in these publications, believe just the opposite.
Supposing I was trying to please this lot, I would alienate the others. It’s not as if you can fight these battles and still have everybody on your side. Of course, some people are going to be alienated. Of course, some people are going to have opinions about how I write or don’t write. I can’t please everyone. I don’t have a problem with some people feeling hostile, some people feeling that I should have taken a ‘softly-softly’ approach, but that’s not me. To me, in fact, what finally gets written is after toning down even greater anger. If you go to a place like Dantewada now, even I feel like a moderate. So I am not really polling for popularity. But as a writer, I know who reads my work, and who it alienates.
I have spoken at places where 30,000 people have gathered, so I know what I am doing, and I am okay with the criticism also, because, well, The Financial Times and The Economist — these are the heart of what most people see as ‘the other side’. So there is going to be a conflict. I am not at all saying that I am somebody who makes no mistakes, but I just want to say that I know what I am saying, and I know how I am saying it,and I think about it, and I still do it.
Given the nature of your politics, how come you haven’t dissociated yourself from your big, MNC publisher and shifted to a smaller, perhaps not-for-profit publisher?
Well, I could also write these essays and stand outside the station and distribute photocopies. It’s very complicated. This system doesn’t leave you the option of being pristine. If you write a book, even if it’s a book on political stuff, you get royalties, you put it in the bank; even if you don’t do it, the bank invests the money in the stock market, so none of us can be pure, really. And if you are, then you have to live in your own purity and outside of engaging. In that pursuit of pristineness, you end up being ineffective in some way. I have to live with certain contradictions, as do all of us.
In your book, you speak of an ‘organic relationship’ between genocide and progress. Can there be an idea of progress that does not entail some form of violence?
Today, the idea of progress has come to mean just the western idea of progress and development, and a totally industrialised society. Of course, now with climate change, we have no choice but to imagine a different kind of progress, where perhaps everybody has less but your footprint on the earth is lighter. We have to go back to a totally different way of looking at consumption. Right now, the situation is that, unless you consume, the economy will collapse; but if you consume, the ecology will collapse — if you consume at the current rate. So in a way this is a good time for radical thought, but one doesn’t know if human beings are capable of it as a race, because we have historically seen societies collapse doing things that they know will cause them to collapse.
After the collapse of the Soviet experiment, socialism is today considered a discredited ideology. There seems to be a consensus now that there is no alternative to capitalism.
Capitalism has also equally discredited itself. If you look at the violence that it has unleashed. So both the ideologies have discredited themselves. One, because of a concentration of power — in the socialist countries we saw the concentration of power in the hands of a very few, who then misused it. And in capitalism, the concentration of power [as wealth] has become kind of malignant now. If you see how wealth is being concentrated, we can’t even think of it in terms of countries anymore. You have to think of the coalition of the world’s elite. Apart from the race for minerals like bauxite, etc, there is today a race for land. In places like Pakistan this had already started long ago. In India, we have our own corporate elite who’ll corner the land and start corporate agriculture. You corner the food, you corner the water, and you are back to the old colonial system of unleashing huge wars, which is what’s going to happen. Because you can’t take away the resources of so many millions of people, including water, and not expect there to erupt a war that, maybe you’ll try and contain with your army and the police, which is what India is heading towards.Beyond a certain point, given the number of people, what alternative do they have?
If the corporates have no alternative to capitalism, people also have no alternative to thirst, or to hunger. That’s why you’re seeing this increasing unrest. If it’s not addressed, then it will have to be addressed at some stage. But it will be more difficult to address once there’s a breakdown of the system, which is what we are seeing in Chhattisgarh and Orissa.
I think that it is possible to reverse this process — it’s not even a process — it’s an imagination, to re-imagine something. But at the heart of it will have to lie the idea of justice, and when I say justice, I am not talking about a utopian society in which everybody is equal because we know that it’s a utopia, but you have to indicate that you’re willing to move in that direction. But right now we’re moving in the opposite direction.
Historically, the middle classes have often been at the vanguard of progressive change in society — as in the freedom movement, for example. Are today’s middle classes performing that role?
The role of the middle-class in the freedom movement is a very complicated subject. The middle classes and the industrialists had a lot to gain themselves by stepping into the shoes of the British. But I also don’t subscribe to those who say that it was nothing – I think getting independence from the British was an important stage, but it stopped there, and then it began immediately to move in the other direction — immediately — starting with Kashmir. And the process began of excluding huge numbers of people.
Today, if the middle class could see its way through the noise of propaganda and information that’s been pushed at it, maybe some people will become a vanguard of change that leads to a kind of healing and sustainability. But now, I have to say that in India, particularly, there is kind of rot in the air. Because so many people have just moved into the middle class, it’s new for them, and so it’s very difficult to also expect them to question things — after all, they just got there. But unfortunately, it’s a bad time for them to have just got there. And unless there is a kind of vision and an urgency that sets in, we are heading towards trouble. Because every institution in the country is excluding the poor.
Can you give an example?
Since I am in Bombay, it’s fascinating, if you look at somebody like Amitabh Bachchan. How did he gain the place that he has in the hearts of the people? In many of his early films, he was the poor guy who grew up in the slums. He was like, mein sadak ka kutta hoon, and look at a film like Coolie — he was a Muslim, a coolie, and a trade union leader. There’s a battle against a corrupt minister where the minister holds a trishul and he has a hammer and sickle. And from there, to now, where in the movies, he only lives in villas and is getting out of helicopters, and those movies are only shown in these little cinema halls — multiplexes. Even Bollywood has completely walked away from the poor of this country. The cinema halls have changed and the cinema has changed to accommodate the cinema halls, or the cinema halls have changed to accommodate the cinema, I don’t know. But Amitabh is still adored because of the bank deposits that he made back then. And to me, there’s a terrible poignant tragedy in that.
The arrest of Maoist leader Khobad Ghandy — and before that, the arrest and release of Binayak Sen — has sparked off a renewed debate on the use of violence as a tool of struggle for justice, with many taking the stand that it is not permissible in a democracy. What is your position on this?
The Narmada Movement, the most spectacular non-violent movement of independent India, has been almost completely sidelined, ridiculed, humiliated. Travelling in the Narmada Valley where there’s been a nonviolent movement, or travelling in the Kashmir Valley where there’s been a violent movement, the point is that, every kind of dissent, whether it is violent or nonviolent, democratic or non-democratic, is crushed. So this is the situation that’s been created. You look at what happened in Lalgarh. They’ve arrested Chatrodhar Mahato. He is the leader of what is distinctly not a Maoist movement, but he is being called a Maoist. When I was travelling in Orissa — this was a few years ago — when the mining had just begun, there were no Maoists there. I spoke to many, many people there and they were all very wary of the Maoists, because they knew that if the Maoists come, there’ll be repression. But in every newspaper, they were going on saying ‘Maoists-Maoists’ because, they need to paint everybody as a Maoist in order for the repression to take place.
This debate about violence and nonviolence is an old one. But I think that debate cannot be an absolute one, based on absolute principles, as it becomes another debate over pristineness. Because even in India, if you take the example of our nonviolent movement for independence, you have to look at the context in which it happened. Britain was totally weakened by the war, it couldn’t sustain its control here and it had to leave. But do you think the Jews could have done [non-violent] Satyagraha in Nazi Germany?The Armenians could have done it in Turkey? Do you think the Palestinians could do it now? It’s complicated, and you’ll have to look at the context. I don’t think that whatever the adivasis in Chhattisgarh do, given the amount of bauxite and iron ore and the amount of profits, and the amount of zeroes that are coming out of that number… The violence of the assault by the state increases depending on how much profit there is to be made. This is the problem.
Is India in danger of becoming a police state?
What do you mean, “of becoming”? What do you think it is in Orissa and Chhatisgarh and Kashmir and Nagaland and Manipur and Lalgarh? Maybe it’s not a police state in Bombay though I am sure the surveillance is big time. You know, this Unique Identity Card, even the Conservative Party in English trashed it. Here everybody is saying it’s a great thing. You can’t give people water, you can’t give people schools, you can’t give people healthcare, but you can give them a unique identity card, and if they don’t have it, they don’t exist. So what are those 300,000 people hiding in the forests of Chhattisgarh now going to do? If they come out and get it, their land is gone; if they don’t get it, they don’t exist, and so they can be finished off, and it won’t be on the record.
You are known for your anti-statist views. But many activists, for example in education and healthcare, are working for change from within whatever spaces are available within the democratic framework. Do you believe that the state can serve as an agent of positive change?
I am somebody who talks about the bio-diversity of resistance, so I don’t want to say that working through the state is a ridiculous enterprise. Take NREGA. The same state that’s devastating and destroying and dispossessing people has come up with this Act. A lot of activists spend all their time trying to make sure that this little amount of money — 8,000 rupees a year or so — goes to who it’s meant to go to, and you cannot say that even that should not happen. And yet you know that it’s a way of keeping people busy, just about keeping them alive, and it was passed in order to mitigate a systematic dispossession. So, both things are important. The NREGA is the lifeline for so many people. But you can’t say that the NREGA is the solution to the problem; it’s just throwing some crumbs to the creatures under the table, while the feast goes on.
What are you reading just now?
I’ve just read this extraordinary book on the mill workers of Bombay, One Hundred Years, One hundred Voices by Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar.
Do you follow a fixed writing regimen?
When I write fiction, I have a very regimented schedule. As unregimented as the fiction is, the schedule is regimented. Right now, I’ve been trying to write this book of fiction, but I’ve been extremely worried about what’s happening in the forests, the troop movement, and the growing assault on the poorest people of this country, Operation Greenhunt. I don’t know why, first they called it Red Hunt, now they are calling it Green Hunt. When I am managing to write fiction, it’s regimented, but otherwise, when I’m traveling, I write however and whenever and wherever I can.
How far are you from finishing your second novel?
Courtesy: Daily News Analysis (DNA)