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<nettime> Arundhati Roy on Globalization

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An Interview with Arundhati Roy
by David Barsamian
The Progressive

There is a high-stakes drama playing out in India these days, and the
novelist Arundhati Roy is one of its most visible actors. Multinational
companies, in collusion with much of India's upper class, are lining up to
turn the country into one big franchise. Roy puts it this way: "Is
globalization about 'the eradication of world poverty,' or is it a mutant
variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?"

Roy, forty-one, is the author of The God of Small Things (Random House,
1997), which won the Booker Prize, sold six million copies, and has been
translated into forty languages. Set in a village in the southwestern state
of Kerala, the novel is filled with autobiographical elements. Roy grew up
in Kerala's Syrian Christian community, which makes up 20 percent of the
population. She laughs when she says, "Kerala is home to four of the world's
great religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Marxism." For many
years, Kerala has had a Marxist-led government, but she hastens to add that
party leaders are Brahmins and that caste still plays a strong role.

The success of Roy's novel has brought lucrative offers from Hollywood,
which she takes impish delight in spurning. "I wrote a stubbornly visual but
unfilmable book," she says, adding that she told her agent to make the
studios grovel and then tell them no. In Kerala, the book has become a
sensation. "People don't know how to deal with it," she says. "They want to
embrace me and say that this is 'our girl,' and yet they don't want to
address what the book is about, which is caste. They have to find ways of
filtering it out. They have to say it's a book about children."

Roy lives in New Delhi, where she first went to become an architect. But
she's not working as an architect or even a novelist these days. She's
thrown herself into political activism. In the central and western states of
Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, a series of dams threatens the
homes and livelihoods of tens of millions. A huge, grassroots organization,
the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), has arisen to resist these dams, and Roy
has joined it. Not only did she give her Booker Prize money (about $30,000)
to the group, she has also protested many times with it, even getting

She skillfully uses her celebrity status and her considerable writing gifts
for this effort, as well as in the cause of nuclear disarmament. Her
devastating essay on dams, "The Greater Common Good," and her searing
denunciation of India's nuclear testing, "The End of Imagination," have
literally kindled bonfires. The upper class didn't appreciate her critique
of development, and the nationalists abhorred her for questioning India's
nuclear arsenal. (These two essays comprise her latest book, The Cost of
Living, Modern Library, 1999.)

By now, Roy is used to criticism. "Each time I step out, I hear the
snicker-snack of knives being sharpened," she told one Indian magazine. "But
that's good. It keeps me sharp."

Her most recent essay is called "Power Politics." In it, she takes on Enron,
the Houston-based energy corporation that is a large financial backer of
George W. Bush. In India, Enron is trying to take over Maharashtra's energy
sector. The scale of what is happening, she says, makes California's power
woes look like child's play.

On a cold, mid-February afternoon, Roy gave the annual Eqbal Ahmad lecture
at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, before a huge crowd. It was
a powerful, political talk, and afterward she was besieged by a long line of
mostly young South Asian women, many of whom are studying at one of the five
colleges in the Amherst area. She donated her lecture fee to earthquake
relief in Gujarat.

The next morning, I interviewed her in the back seat of a car taking her
from Amherst to Logan Airport in Boston. The two-hour drive went by in a

Q: You grew up in Kerala. What's the status of women there?

Arundhati Roy: Women from Kerala work throughout India and the world earning
money to send back home. And yet they'll pay a dowry to get married, and
they'll have the most bizarrely subservient relationships with their
husbands. I grew up in a little village in Kerala. It was a nightmare for
me. All I wanted to do was to escape, to get out, to never have to marry
somebody there. Of course, they were not dying to marry me [laughs]. I was
the worst thing a girl could be: thin, black, and clever.

Q: Your mother was an unconventional woman.

Roy: She married a Bengali Hindu and, what's worse, then divorced him, which
meant that everyone was confirmed in their opinion that it was such a
terrible thing to do in the first place. In Kerala, everyone has what is
called a tharawaad [lineage]. If you don't have a father, you don't have a
tharawaad. You're a person without an address. That's what they call you. I
grew up in Ayemenem, the village in which The God of Small Things is set.
Given the way things have turned out, it's easy for me to say that I thank
God that I had none of the conditioning that a normal, middle class Indian
girl would have. I had no father, no presence of this man telling us that he
would look after us and beat us occasionally in exchange. I didn't have a
caste, and I didn't have a class, and I had no religion, no traditional
blinkers, no traditional lenses on my spectacles, which are very hard to
shrug off. I sometimes think I was perhaps the only girl in India whose
mother said, "Whatever you do, don't get married" [laughs]. For me, when I
see a bride, it gives me a rash. I find them ghoulish, almost. I find it so
frightening to see this totally decorated, bejeweled creature who, as I
wrote in The God of Small Things, is "polishing firewood."

Q: Tell me a little more about your mother.

Roy: She is like someone who strayed off the set of a Fellini film. She's
completely nuts. But to have seen a woman who never needed a man, it's such
a wonderful thing, to know that that's a possibility, not to suffer. We used
to get all this hate mail. Though my mother runs a school and it's
phenomenally successful--people book their children in it before they are
born--they don't know what to do with her, or with me. The problem is that
we are both women who are unconventional in their terms. The least we could
have done was to be unhappy. But we aren't, and that's what bothers people.

By the way, my mother is very well known in Kerala because in 1986 she won a
public interest litigation case challenging the Syrian Christian inheritance
law that said a woman can inherit one-fourth of her father's property or
5,000 rupees, whichever is less. The Supreme Court actually handed down a
verdict that gave women equal inheritance retroactive to 1956. But few women
take advantage of this right. And the churches have gone so far as to teach
fathers to write wills that disinherit their daughters. It's a very strange
kind of oppression that happens there.

Q: Since you wrote your novel, you've produced some remarkable political
essays. What was that transition like?

Roy: It's only to people in the outside world, who got to know me after The
God of Small Things, that it seems like a transition. In fact, I'd written
political essays before I wrote the novel. I wrote a series of essays called
"The Great Indian Rape Trick" about a woman named Phoolan Devi, and the way
the film Bandit Queen exploited her, and whether or not somebody should have
the right to restage the rape of a living woman without her consent. There
are issues I've been involved with for a while.

I don't see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works
of nonfiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the
truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that
distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It's very important
for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link
between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived
in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr. Wolfensohn at the
World Bank. That's what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book
where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it's
the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of
the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life,
your house, your bedroom.

Q: Estha, one of the main characters in your novel, is walking "along the
banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought by World Bank
loans." The World Bank scheme for the Narmada River Valley envisioned the
construction of more than 3,000 dams. The bank has since withdrawn from the
project, and the government of India has taken it over. Tell me about the
Narmada Bachao Andolan, the NBA.

Roy: When I first met people from the NBA, they told me, "We knew that you
would be against the dams and the World Bank when we read The God of Small
Things." The remarkable thing about the NBA is that it is a cross-section of
India. It is a coalition of Adivasis [India's indigenous people],
upper-caste big farmers, the Dalits [formerly known as Untouchables], and
the middle class. It's a forging of links between the urban and the rural,
between the farmers and the fishermen and the writers and the painters.
That's what gives it its phenomenal strength, and it's what a lot of people
criticize it for in India, saying, you know, these middle class protesters!
That makes me furious. The middle class urban engineers are the people who
came up with this project! You can't expect the critique to be just Adivasi.
You isolate them like that, and it's so easy to crush them. In many ways,
people try to delegitimize the involvement of the middle class, saying, how
can you speak on behalf of these people? No one is speaking on behalf of
anyone. The point is that the NBA is a fantastic example of people linking
hands across caste and class. It is the biggest, finest, most magnificent
resistance movement since the independence struggle.

Q: One protest you were involved in last year took place at a village on the
banks of the Narmada at the site of one of the proposed dams. You were among
many who were arrested there. What was that like?

Roy: It was absolutely fantastic. I was in a village called Sulgaon. All
night, all over the valley, people started arriving, by tractor, by
motorcar, by foot. By three in the morning there were about 5,000 of us. We
started walking in the dark to the dam site. The police already knew that
the dam site would be captured, but they didn't know from where the people
would come. There's a huge area of devastation there. So we walked in the
dark. It was amazing. Five thousand people, mostly villagers, but also
people from the cities--lawyers, architects, journalists--walking through
these byways and crossing streams in absolute silence. There was not a
person that lit a bidi or coughed or cleared their throats. Occasionally, a
whole group of women would sit down and pee and then keep walking. Finally,
at dawn, we arrived and took over the dam site. For hours, the police
surrounded us. Then there was a baton charge. They arrested thousands of
people, including me. The jails were full.

Q: You say that the government of India is "hell-bent on completing the
project." What's driving it?

Roy: There are many things. First of all, you have to understand that the
myth of big dams is something that's sold to us from the time we're three
years old in every school textbook. Nehru said, "Dams are the temples of
modern India." So they're like some kind of huge, wet national flags. Before
the NBA, it was like, the dam will serve you breakfast in bed, it will get
your daughter married and cure your jaundice. People have to understand that
they're just monuments to political corruption, and they derive from very
undemocratic political institutions. You just centralize natural resources,
snatch them away from people, and then you decide who you're going to give
them to.

The first dam that was built in the Narmada was the Bargi, completed in
1990. They said it would displace 70,000 people and submerge 101 villages.
One day, without warning, the government filled the reservoir, and 114,000
people were displaced and 162 villages were submerged. People were driven
from their homes when the waters rose. All they could do was run up the hill
with their cattle and children. Ten years later, that dam irrigates 5
percent of the land that they said it would. It irrigates less land than it
submerged. They haven't built canals. Because for contractors and
politicians, just building the dam in itself is a lot of money.

Q: What happens to those who are displaced?

Roy: Nobody knows. When I was writing "The Greater Common Good," what
shocked me more than the figures that do exist are the figures that don't
exist. The Indian government does not have any estimate of how many people
have been displaced by big dams. I think that's not just a failure of the
state, but a failure of the intellectual community. The reason that there
aren't these figures is because most of the people that are displaced are
again the non-people, the Adivasis and the Dalits. I did a sanity check
based on a study of fifty-four dams done by the Indian Institute of Public
Administration. According to that study, just reservoir-displaced, which is
only one kind of displacement, came to an average of something like 44,000
people per dam. Let's assume that these fifty-four dams are the bigger of
the big dams. Let's quarter this average. We know that India has had 3,600
big dams built in the last fifty years. So just a sanity check says that
it's thirty-three million people displaced. They all just migrate to the
cities. And there, again, they are non-citizens, living in slums. They are
subject to being kicked out at any minute, anytime the housewives of New
Delhi's upscale areas decide that all these slum people are dangerous.

Q: You've compared this uprooting to a kind of garbage disposal.

Roy: It's exactly like that. The Indian government has managed to turn the
concept of nonviolence on its head. Nonviolent resistance and nonviolent
governance. Unlike, say, China or Turkey or Indonesia, India doesn't mow
down its people. It doesn't kill people who are refusing to move. It just
waits it out. It continues to do what it has to do and ignores the
consequences. Because of the caste system, because of the fact that there is
no social link between those who make the decisions and those who suffer the
decisions, it just goes ahead and does what it wants. The people also assume
that this is their lot, their karma, what was written. It's quite an
efficient way of doing things. Therefore, India has a very good reputation
in the world as a democracy, as a government that cares, that has just got
too much on its hands, whereas, in fact, it's actually creating the

Q: But you say about your own politics that you're "not an anti-development
junkie or a proselytizer for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition."

Roy: How can I be? As a woman who grew up in a village in India, I've spent
my whole life fighting tradition. There's no way that I want to be a
traditional Indian housewife. So I'm not talking about being
anti-development. I'm talking about the politics of development, of how do
you break down this completely centralized, undemocratic process of
decision-making? How do you make sure that it's decentralized and that
people have power over their lives and their natural resources? Today, the
Indian government is trying to present privatization as the alternative to
the state, to public enterprise. But privatization is only a further
evolution of the centralized state, where the state says that they have the
right to give the entire power production in Maharashtra to Enron. They
don't have the right. The infrastructure of the public sector in India has
been built up over the last fifty years with public money. They don't have
the right to sell it to Enron. They cannot do that. Three-quarters of our
country lives on the edge of the market economy. You can't tell them that
only those who can afford water can have it.

Q: Still, I sense some optimism on your part about what you call the
"inherent anarchy" of India to resist the tide of globalization.

Roy: The only thing worth globalizing is dissent, but I don't know whether
to be optimistic or not. When I'm outside the cities I do feel optimistic.
There is such grandeur in India and so much beauty. I don't know whether
they can kill it. I want to think they can't. I don't think that there is
anything as beautiful as a sari. Can you kill it? Can you corporatize a
sari? Why should multinationals be allowed to come in and try to patent
basmati rice? People prefer to eat roti and idlis and dosas rather than
McDonald's burgers. Just before I came to the U.S., I went to a market in
Delhi. There was a whole plate of different kinds of dal, lentils. Tears
came to my eyes. Today, that's all it takes to make you cry, to look at all
the kinds of dal and rice that there are, and to think that they don't want
this to exist.

Q: Talk about the material you covered in "The End of Imagination"
concerning the nuclear testing on the subcontinent.

Roy: It's so frightening, the nationalism in the air. I'm terrified by it.
It can be used to do anything. I know that a world in which countries are
stockpiling nuclear weapons and using them in the ways that India and
Pakistan and America do to oppress others and to deceive their own people is
a dangerous world. The nuclear tests were a way to shore up our flagging
self-esteem. India is still flinching from a cultural insult, still looking
for its identity. It's about all that.

Q: You said that the jeering young Hindu men celebrating the nuclear test
were the same as the ones who were thrilled with the destruction of the
Babri mosque.

Roy: Indian intellectuals today feel radical when they condemn
fundamentalism, but not many people are talking about the links between
privatization, globalization, and fundamentalism. Globalization suits the
Indian elite to a T. Fundamentalism doesn't. It's also a class problem. When
people stop some film from being shot or burn a book, it's not just that
they are saying, this is against Indian culture. They are also saying, you
Westernized, elite, English-speaking people are having too much of a good
time. It's a very interesting phenomenon. I think it has to be addressed
together, not separately. The religious rightwingism is directly linked to
globalization and to privatization. When India is talking about selling its
entire power sector to foreign multinationals, when the political climate
gets too hot and uncomfortable, the government will immediately start
saying, should we build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri mosque?
Everyone will go baying off in that direction. It's a game. That's something
we have to understand. With one hand, you're selling the country out to
Western multinationals. And with the other, you want to defend your borders
with nuclear bombs. It's such an irony! You're saying that the world is a
global village, but then you want to spend crores of rupees on building
nuclear weapons.

Q: You use a metaphor of two truck convoys. One is very large, with many
people going off into the darkness. The other is much smaller and is going
into the light of the promised land. Explain what you mean.

Roy: India lives in several centuries at the same time. Every night outside
my house I pass a road gang of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay
fiber optic cables to speed up our digital revolution. They work by the
light of a few candles. That is what is happening in India today. The convoy
that melts into the darkness and disappears doesn't have a voice. It doesn't
exist on TV. It doesn't have a place in the national newspapers. And so it
doesn't exist. Those who are in the small convoy on their way to this
glittering destination at the top of the world have completely lost the
ability to see the other one. So in Delhi the cars are getting bigger and
sleeker, the hotels are getting posher, the gates are getting higher, and
the guards are no longer the old chowkidars, the watchmen, but they are
fellows with guns. And yet the poor are packed into every crevice like lice
in the city. People don't see that anymore. It's as if you shine a light
very brightly in one place, the darkness deepens around. They don't want to
know what's happening. The people who are getting rich can't imagine that
the world is not a better place.

Q: You made a decision, or the decision was made for you, to identify with,
or to be part of, that large convoy.

Roy: I can't be a part of the large convoy because it's not a choice that
you can make. The fact that I'm an educated person means that I can't be on
that convoy. I don't want to be on it. I don't want to be a victim. I don't
want to disappear into the darkness. I am an artist and a writer, and I do
think that one always places oneself in the picture to see where one fits. I
left home when I was sixteen and lived in places where it was very easy for
me to have fallen the other way. I could have been on the large convoy
because I was a woman and I was alone. In India, that's not a joke. I could
have ended up very, very badly. I'm lucky that I didn't.

I think my eyes were knocked open and they don't close. I sometimes wish I
could close them and look away. I don't always want to be doing this kind of
work. I don't want to be haunted by it. Because of who I am and what place I
have now in India, I'm petitioned all the time to get involved. It's
exhausting and very difficult to have to say, 'Look, I'm only one person. I
can't do everything.' I know that I don't want to be worn to the bone where
I lose my sense of humor. But once you've seen certain things, you can't
un-see them, and seeing nothing is as political an act as seeing something.

Q: Are you thinking about writing any new fiction?

Roy: I need fiction like you need to eat or exercise, but right now it's so
difficult. At the moment, I don't know how to manage my life. I don't know
how I'll ever be able to make the space to say, "I'm writing a book now, and
I'm not going to be able to do x or y." I would love to.

Q: You feel a sense of responsibility to these silent voices that are
calling out to you.

Roy: No, I don't feel responsibility because that's such a boring word.

Q: You're in a privileged position. You are a celebrity within India and
also outside. Roy: But I never do anything because I'm a celebrity, as a
rule. I do what I do as a citizen. I stand by what I write and follow
through on what I write. It's very easy for me to begin to believe the
publicity about myself, whether for or against. It can give you an absurd
idea of yourself. I know that there's a fine balance between accepting your
own power with grace and misusing it. And I don't ever want to portray
myself as a representative of the voiceless. I'm scared of that.

But one of the reasons some people get so angry with me is because I have
the space now that a lot of others who think like me don't. It was a mistake
maybe for so many people to have opened their hearts to The God of Small
Things. Because a lot of dams and bombs slipped in along with it.

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