The Great Danger: A Conversation with Arundhati Roy – Part I

John Freeman

The following is Part I of an Interview with author Arundhati Roy you can read in its entirety in Issue 113, available on our Shop page.

When Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, appeared last year, some reviewers wondered what the writer from Kerala had been up to for two decades. She certainly wasn’t blocked. If you care about climate change, protested the war in Iraq, or have followed resistance to dams anywhere, she has been hard to miss. In fact, since 1995, the year The God of Small Things was published and won the Man Booker, catapulting the then-35-year-old novelist to worldwide fame, Roy has released more than a dozen works of reportage. Nuclear power, the state killing of Muslims in Gujarat, accounts of the 2008 uprising in Kashmir, and the export of democracy in the name of opening markets—she has become an expert on these and other topics. Roy has risked her safety to do so, and has been remarkably sanguine about the need for those risks. In an age supposedly beyond history, she has become one of the world’s leading pamphleteers of historical and social context.

Sitting in a hotel room in Manhattan on a sunny day in April, Roy is hardly the picture of a rabble-rouser. She is a storyteller, first and foremost, and over a short afternoon tea her answers to questions about her past slide quickly into tales of her childhood, about the world she lived in. She has insisted to me this is a different facility from the one that guides her synthesizing mind when she turns it to energy use or the debate between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. But as we speak that seems a claim worth disputing. Roy has identified several of the stories we have told ourselves as a civilization, and all of them are lacking. Most notably, that there can be justice without environmental justice, and that the victims of environmental injustice do not understand what is happening to them. Roy has disproved this time and again, and in her conversation there is a weary sense that time is running out.

JOHN FREEMAN: You’ve written about the Narmada Valley dam project, and you’ve been very vocal on the subject of dams, but I want to get a sense of where your idea of nature comes from, growing up in Kerala. 

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know in Kerala, I grew up in Aymanam, which is the village in The God of Small Things, on the banks of the river. And there, you don’t have to look for where the idea of nature comes from. It’s more like, the other thing: you don’t know anything but nature. So there was no shop, no restaurant, no…nothing. There was just the river and a few houses and it’s how one grew up.

As a child I think I knew every plant, every insect, every smell, every tree, every word. We didn’t even have toys. We used to know how to make things with leaves and sticks, and we entertained ourselves with peculiar habits and various insects and so on.

I used to have a squirrel, which was not caged or anything. It just was a little baby squirrel, and I don’t know who adopted whom but it would come and it would sit on my plate, eat, and then disappear into the wild and then come back whenever it felt like it. We used to fish a lot— when we were age four and five and so on—and even the making of the fishing rod was from whatever was available, except for the plastic thread, which we could get from a fruit shop, and when I say fruit I mean individual bananas hanging from threads and things like that. The rods would be made of bamboo, and I remember the thing that would always delight me was that you couldn’t fish during the rainy months—because it was dangerous and muddy—and you just left the fishing rod outside the house and when you went to it next it was a plant. It had grown roots and shoots and leaves.

JF: One of the experiences of growing up in the West, in the United States, is being aware of the awesome power of the natural world. It was pretty evident and frightening sometimes. Did you ever fear the river? 

AR: It was actually a very small river, although we all always knew people who drowned in it. In fact, I was just rereading a book, which is of course mentioned in A God of Small Things, a very famous Malayalam novel called Chemmeen, which means “prawn.” It was a pretty depressing story about a fishing community and how every time a fisherman goes to sea, his safety is ensured by the virtue of his wife; so if she’s not virtuous, he will drown. There is this image I see of a whirlpool that a fisherman gets sucked in and cannot come out. I actually knew someone who had lost her husband, and four other people, in a whirlpool in a very small river. So, there always was that but it wasn’t terrifying, because it isn’t that kind of landscape, it wasn’t the Himalayas or that kind of thing. The only thing close was the relentless rain of the monsoon.

JF: When you were living in the village, was that when your mother started the school Pallikoodam? 

AR: We were living there when she started the school, but the school was not in the village. It was in the town that was close by. In Kerala, the towns and the villages are not that discrete compared to the rest of India. We used to go by bus to the town and she started the school and it was really that she rented the premises of the Rotary Club and so, in the evening, the men used to meet and smoke and leave their cigarette stubs and whiskey glasses and all that, and in the daytime we would go clean it up—meaning, my mother and seven five-year-olds would go and sweep it and clean it, and we had these folding tables and it would be a school and then in the evening, the men would meet again and distribute their rubbish again and then we would go in and clean it. I remember one five-year-old kid who secretly collected all the stubs and made a little mountain of them in the bathroom and was smoking them.

JF: What did she teach there? What were the subjects?

AR: Arithmetic, English, singing, and painting. I was the guinea pig, I used to be the one who was experimented on so I didn’t actually have any classmates until I was about ten years old.

JF: Did she use the environment around the school?

AR: To teach?

JF: Yeah.

AR: You know, my mother still runs the school, and the school has evolved obviously over so many years and the kids actually learn to plant and to grow things and all that. At the time that she was experimenting on me, the whole agenda was the opposite: how do you get this savage little girl away from the river and from the spiders? So, half my time was spent writing what she used to call impositions, which [forced me to] speak in English.

Now, she doesn’t believe in that but at the time, there was this anxiety that I was going to become a very local character.

JF: Did you feel wild?

AR: Yeah. I was. If you see pictures of me at that time, you can hardly tell me from the plants. Just like, completely part of the landscape. I remember that it took me a long time to understand that people wore slippers and shoes and didn’t run around.

ZYZZYVA Volume 34, #2, Fall 2018

JF: But it also must be, to some degree, a great education as an artist because it seems that one thing that helps a writer or artist in all forms is to have some kind of wildness to you still.  

AR: It’s very interesting that most people in India grew up that way or have grown up that way and they are not the people who are necessarily the artists or the writers because they are more urban. I lived in a village but not one where you didn’t have books to read. Every few months, the British council from Madras would send us a parcel of books—a hundred books. It was just the most exciting moment when this parcel would be opened.

I had a mad Rhodes Scholar uncle who had given up a life of academia to make pickles. It was an incredible convergence of cosmopolitanism and absolutely hardcore rural life. We had pigs, and hens and pickle-making and rivers and fish and—

JF: Did you have to slaughter the pigs?

AR: I never did it. One has seen all that, the slaughter of chickens, and fish—I used to be quite ruthless about that.

JF: Did you experience nature as some form of consciousness?

AR: Sure. Sorry, I just want to complete that thought. Most writers in India who are writing in English would have been urban people. So, I have a very unique sort of upbringing in that sense. You experience the practice of caste as is it is in a village; it’s not like you can actually not notice it, which is possible in cities because of segregating.

JF: Did you experience the categorization of caste in any way that’s similar to the way that people began to, as you got older, think of nature as a resource or as a thing to be categorized and used? Did you ever make that connection?  

AR: Caste was always that. The whole definition of caste is that it’s a hierarchical system of ancestral occupation, so, of course, it’s to be used. It’s a system of management and distribution, not just the division of labor but, as [Gary] Becker says, the division of labor of—

JF: A Treatise on the Family is a great book, by the way. What I was getting to—

AR: You were asking about nature as a resource.

JF: Yes, nature as a resource or just nature as a consciousness.

AR: Well, this didn’t apply to me because my mother was divorced. She didn’t have any property, so we didn’t belong anywhere. The community to which my mother belonged, Syrian Christians, are the elite of Kerala and, basically, estate owners. They grow cinnamon, coffee, rubber, spices, and all that. And all these estates are like monocultures. So the use of land as a—what were we calling it?—a resource is very much of the culture but as a part of the feudal culture. The corporatization of feudalism is what has started now but the interesting thing is that it’s the same thing because of caste. For example, in 1947, after [India’s] independence, there was some gesture toward land redistribution and what was known as the Zamindar System. Zamindar is the word for a landlord who owns huge amounts of land, and then there was something called the Land Ceiling Act, which said that you were only allowed to own a certain amount and the rest would be seized and redistributed. Not that it ever happened, but at least in name it could have happened.

But, now that process has been reversed. Because of corporatization you have the feudals who are now corporations taking back ownership.

JF: When did you become politically aware of the world that you grew up in? Obviously, power is an aspect of every child’s life; they don’t have power, typically, and they become aware of that.  

AR: An “a-ha!” moment? I grew up in the first democratically elected communist government in the world, in Kerala. So I grew up in a sea of protests and the revolution was coming. The ideal of justice, whether it was sincere or not, was the rhetoric of the time. So there was no quiet, idyllic village life. The red flag and the revolution were always there.

I was speaking with Viet Thanh [Ngyuen] and I told him that while in America the propaganda of the Vietnam War was one thing, in Kerala, we were all on the side of the Viet Cong. So, the propaganda was the other way, totally. I remember in the first school debate I was in, I was the Viet Cong talking about the running dogs of imperialism. And out there, there were real dogs! They were really small, but all of that was going on.

JF: How did it change when you got to your teenage years and you were no longer in that school?  

AR: Well, I left that school when I was ten, and I went to a boy’s school and it was the same sort of Kerala crowd there. When I came to Delhi, it changed because I had never seen a big city. And I must say that it was, in a way, a great liberation for me because I grew up in that suffocating atmosphere of completely controlled, conservative, deep-rooted feudal culture where I was constantly being told that you didn’t belong and you’re not ever going to marry one of us and you don’t have any money and you don’t have a family name and blah-blah-blah. They didn’t know that it was a great relief for me to hear all this because I didn’t want to be married to any of them.

So when I went to Delhi, it was fabulous to be a derelict, homeless, a waif. I left home when I was a first year in architecture. I mean I stopped going home. I was sixteen or seventeen and I could already draw and sort of earn my living and I had a boyfriend and we used to somehow manage. Then, we lived on the street, literally, camped outside the hostel because I couldn’t pay the bills. But there was a great liberation, a great anonymity, a great sense of let’s just drop this rock now and just forget it. The city was a great refuge for me.

JF: Did you find other people like you?

AR: No, not lots of them. I had a friend, who is still a very close friend of mine, he’s from Orissa. We couldn’t speak the same language; I couldn’t speak any Hindi, he could only speak Odia. I was from Kerala and could speak English but he couldn’t even speak English. But we just became the best of pals. I made a film about it, a feature film. It was called In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones…which means doing your own usual thing, your usual shit. Annie was actually a man whose name was Anand Grover, a student who was doing his fifth year of college for the fourth time and he’s completely off his head. He sort of had chickens in his hostel room and was selling eggs and everyone was stoned.

It was the first thing that I wrote after architecture school and it won my favorite award of all time, which was called the National Award for the Best Film in Languages Other Than Specified in Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution. It is still a little bit of a cult film; every architecture school shows it. And the students always have screenings.

JF: How did you magic up a film? Was this just the atmosphere at the time?

AR: Oh, no. It was not so easy. That happened much later. I was in the school of architecture, sort of putting myself through college for five years, working on exhibition sites, working in offices during the holidays and all of that. Living on nothing, and getting more and more political about the fact that I didn’t really want to be an architect. But I joined architecture because I needed to be financially independent quickly and this was excellent. I’ve never regretted it. In fact I say that I still practice it when I write.

To me, the structuring of my novels is completely like designing a city or a building. By the time I was in my fifth year, I had a huge argument with the staff—my teachers—because when you’re a fifth year, you have to do a thesis and you have to design a hospital or whatever. I said I’m not going to do that because I’ve done all that in my assignments and now I want to do a written thesis about the city and the postcolonial city and how it came to be and what it is. Finally, I won that argument and I submitted a written thesis, with a lot of illustrations, and then I gave up and left—I didn’t want to work as an architect and so I went off to where I used to live on the beach, a little shack, and sold cake. And then I got fed up with that and went back.

I worked in an office in Delhi, the National Institute of Urban Affairs, and there I met a person who, eventually, I married. He was making a film called Massey Sahib and he was looking to cast someone in it and he came to my office to see his wife at the time and saw me and didn’t know anything about me and asked me whether I would act in this movie. And I was like, “Come on, I don’t act in films,” but then I thought about it and said okay. I thought I would try it, even though I have no interest in acting. But I did it, and then got involved with writing films. I wrote something that never got made although we shot half of it. We worked for two years on a twenty-six-part television thing that I wrote, which was set between 1921 and 1948. We shot quite a lot of it and then the production company crashed. We were completely broke and heartbroken and desperate and couldn’t believe it.

Anyway, then I wrote this film, which was small, cheap, but it was great fun.

Look for Part II of the Q&A on our website next week. Or read the interview in its entirety now by ordering a copy of Issue 113.

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