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

John Freeman

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.

This is the second part of a two-part interview that you can read in its entirety in Issue 113, available on our Shop page.

John Freeman: What was the crux or the thread of your thesis about on the postcolonial city? I’m sure that’s all braided through your nonfiction.

Arundhati Roy: Yeah, but even in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, there’s a part in it that’s straight from my thesis.

JF: Which part?

AR: The thesis was about how the city, the institutions of the city—there’s a city and a noncity— are designed to exclude the poor and how they live in the cracks in the city and how none of the institutions belong to them. It was a very cheeky thesis because it was all about how animals, they have ways of marking their territory by pissing and shitting and spraying stuff. And humans do it by manipulating the buildings and the environment.

JF: I think in some cities it’s more obvious than others.

AR: Of course.

[Reading from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness] “A circle of sleepy women, migrant workers from roadworks nearby, stood around a tiny boy as he squatted like a comma on the edge of an open manhole. The women leaned on their shovels and they waited for their star to perform. The comma had his eyes fixed on one of the women. He made a pool. A yellow leaf. His mother put down her axe and washed his bottom… Nothing in the city belonged to the women. Not a tiny plot of land, not a hovel in a slum, not a tin sheet over their heads. Not even the sewage system. But now they had made a direct, unorthodox deposit, an express delivery straight into the system.”

I remember I said this in my thesis.

JF: One of the places where the divisions between humans and the environment collapse is actually in cities because both the natural world and the poor are being kept out of the cities. It’s usually among the poor where the two start to overlap.

AR: The distance between what you consume and where that is produced, that disconnect is made in the cities. Although in cities like Delhi, they haven’t managed to do this. They still have that sense of cows and buffalo and monkeys and dogs, although the elite are slowly kind of making their little separate communities. But the attack on the environment in a place like India is devastating. And I believe that often what can look like an ethnic or a tribal war or a caste war is actually a struggle for shrinking resources.

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JF: The question of an ethical habitation of space with the environment is often interpreted as, “How can I purchase and consume ethically?,” which seems to be such a rearguard attempt to come to grips with the environmental crisis that we’re living through. At what point did you change your personal behaviors of consumption around the ideas that you’ve written about now?

AR: I grew up in a situation where you’re just eating local food. You don’t have this idea of going to restaurants and what-shall-we-eat-today, you just eat what you eat, your normal food. Obviously, it’s always at the back of one’s mind, “How do you live?” And yet there’s also a reaction to, you know, Gandhi’s sort of joyless way of life. So, in me, there are contradictions; there is a very great fear of piety and piousness. The boutique solution is “Let me just eat organic food while everybody else has to eat the pesticides.” But the fact is that the battle cannot be joined at that level. It’s not about your boutique moralities. It’s about, Let’s stop the dam. Let’s get these mining companies out of there.

What has happened in India is very interesting. Because of Gandhi and because of the pious nature of his politics, unless you’re saying that God’s good and wearing a dhoti loincloth, you can’t be political. It’s a morality competition.

JF: It’s like a morality Olympics.

AR: Yes, a morality Olympics, everyone is blaming everybody for not being moral enough.

I remember when I wrote The Greater Common Good, about the Narmada Valley dam, I wasn’t used to the absolutely confrontational press conference. Half of the journalists there [in Narmada] were placed by the company that was building this first private dam, and they were aggressive with me…about whatever: because I was successful, because of The God of Small Things, blah, blah, blah. They were aggressive because Pradip, my husband, had this small house, just a tiny little house in a village in Panchmarhi, and in their minds it had become a palace. So finally I said to them, Just assume that I have this palace which is stuffed with drugs and bonded tribal labor, you know, working in the basement. But why must you build a dam? What is the connection between whether I’m a nice person or not and building the dam?

And, to me, my inchoate understanding of things because I was someone who grew up in nature was suddenly given this really firm footing and I began to understand what was happening in Narmada when I traveled there. Then I had the arguments. Before I had the poetry, but now I have the arguments. But if you see what’s happening there today…

JF: The dam opened in 2017, in September?

AR: Yeah. Everything we said would happen has come to fruition. The dam has been built and the reservoir has water in it, water that is supposed to be for the farmers in these months before the monsoon season. And now you can see police on the banks of the canal preventing farmers from taking the water. It’s just some small percentage—3 percent or 5 percent—of what they said would be irrigated that has been irrigated. And they’ve spent so much money on that and nothing else in that state [of Gujarat]. It’s just such a huge and monumental failure that you just can’t believe it. You can’t believe it, especially when people were saying this from the time the dam foundation was laid.

JF: We’re living through that right now, watching all the warnings manifest. All the different indicators of climate change that have been set up are being surpassed. Today, its 90 degrees and a couple of days ago it was 45. And you watch The Weather Channel, and it seems like none of this is being discussed.

AR: And people say, you know, [India’s Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is so sensitive to climate change and I say, Really? You know who said this to me? Macron, the French president. So, I said, you know, there’s a video of Modi with school children and you know what he says? “These people say that the climate is changing. The climate is not changing, we are changing. We feel hotter and colder.

JF: It seems like one of the large issues confronting a country like India is that a lot of people are on board with anti-imperial sentiment, but the way forward to progress seems to be about abusing the environment to create power. Do you see a movement to create some kind of alternate path?

AR: That is the movement of the Naxalites. That is the movement of the armed guerrillas in the forest. That is the wisdom of human beings. Everywhere there is a movement; in every place, there is a movement—against every dam, against every power plant, against every nuclear power plant. And it’s not a movement of people who are just trying to protect their own backyard. It’s a movement of people who understand the implications and timing. But the prisons are full. The prisoners are called seditionary, anti-nationalists.

JF: You’ve been called that.

AR: One of the things I often say when I speak, just to give you a sense of how it works, is this: India’s markets were open in 1991. Just after, the Soviet Union fell and the globe became a unipolar world and by the beginning of the ’90s, two locks were opened. One was the lock of the market. The other was the lock of the [demolition of the sixteenth century] Babri Masjid mosque, the disputed mosque. The opening of these two locks unleashed two kinds of totalitarianism: economic totalitarianism and religious totalitarianism. And both those totalitarianisms call up militarization because they manufactured their own terrorists: the Maoists and the Islamism terrorists. So, whether it was a Congress or the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in power, it gave both of them the option to militarize, to create police states, to pass these laws, this constant barrage of these terrorists, these terrorists, these terrorists… Now you have areas that are entirely run by the Rahimia [Institute of Quranic Sciences] or the police or the paramilitaries. And that is the only way that this kind of economic agenda could be implemented. By militarizing. By holding down populations in this way.

JF: Last year, Annie Proulx published a novel called Barkskins and it was about the North American forest and followed a family of timber merchants and a family of Arcadians who cut down the trees through 500 to 600 years of history, overlapping, one generation per chapter. What emerges out of that book is something I feel very strongly about in your fiction work, especially the first novel, a little bit the second—that capitalism has always depended on the destruction of the environment, and that there is no capitalism without doing so.

AR: It’s not that communism didn’t destroy the environment; it also destroyed the environment in the Soviet Union and in China. It destroyed that there on a massive scale. But the point is that eventually the idea of progress, happiness and civilization has to be questioned. You can’t just keep trying to think of ways in which you can buy more bonds in different environmentally friendly ways.

What to me is the great danger— and I see it very clearly in India—is that we are on the cusp of creating a situation through technology, and through economic choices, where labor is not required, farmers are not required. So what you are going to have is a massive population of surplus people who do not contribute to the economy in any way, who will not be required to exist. British colonialism in Africa, like in India, required many people; it was sustained by Indians. It was sustained by the elite, the Indian elite in collusion with the different elites at different times, the Sikhs, etc. But now, even in the last election, it was made clear that Muslims are no longer needed to win elections. The Muslim population, which is basically—what do they do?—are crafts people. They are butchers, they are leather workers, all this has been basically taken away from them.

JF: Whom has it been given to?

AR: Meat exports is one of India’s biggest exports, but that will be done by the centralized, big merchants. All the small butcher shops are run by Muslims and those are being shut, those are threatened. What’s happening on every front—whether it’s the land, whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s seeds, whether it’s irrigation projects, whatever it is—is they’re trying to digitize a country, which was a feudal country, a colonized country, an ocean of diversity of language and ethnicity and of everything, and make everybody legible and that is an incredible violence, because you’re basically going to make everybody illegal.

JF: Within the science of climate change, there are feedback loops that once they begin cannot be stopped. But is our political will to do something about the environment subject to the same kind of critical mass, where you cannot turn something back once started? Do you believe we have reached that point yet?

AR: To be honest, I feel we haven’t. I was reading somewhere that the rich in America are buying themselves nuclear shelters.

But [the reason is] because people are not needed. I was speaking at a meeting of the left in Hyderabad [at the first state congress of the Civil Liberties Committee— Telangana]. I said, You can’t talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat because the proletariat isn’t needed. They don’t need anybody. Artificial intelligence, all of this, is creating a system where human beings are surplus, and surplus is a frightening word.

JF: We talked about mobs at lunch not long ago, and mobs are very scary. There’s a lot of below-the surface rage that can be tapped into or steered.

AR: There’s that whole passage [in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness], “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.” It’s always there. Now, it’s not under the surface, it’s out, now it takes us. The mobs constitute themselves: mobs to defend rapists, mobs to demand the release of people who have been convicted of lynching. Mobs to dictate who will pray where, who will be allowed to wear what they want.

JF: Have you found, by virtue of the global celebrity you achieved with a very lovely novel, that you’ve found lateral partners in movements in India that have helped you? Or is it simply that your celebrity protects you enough to be able to speak the truth?

AR: It protects me and it makes me valuable, they’re both equal. But the protection and the visibility also make me a target. People who want to curry favor with Modi will file a case against me, and things like that. It cuts both ways.

But the other dangerous thing happening in India right now, apart from the rise of Hindu nationalists but connected to that, is this thing called the Aadhaar card, which is this identity card with biometrics. All your private information, your bank account, your medical information, all records, all on one card with a unique [twelve-digit] identity number, stored in this database. So far they’re not making it compulsory, though for many years [the government has] been pretending that it’s compulsory and many people haven’t realized the dangers of it and have already gone and linked up all their private information on it. This would be the greatest database the world has ever known. Once your information is on there, you can’t retract it. You can’t say, now the BPJ is gone, the Congress is gone, so now it’s over. The Supreme Court is hearing the case right now. [Ed. note: a ruling on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar was to have been announced by August.] It’s like digital surveillance, phone surveillance, and the collection of private data, not just through Facebook and so forth but also by governments. It is going to be the way in which human populations are going to be controlled. It is already a way in which humans are controlled but on a scale that you can’t even imagine. It makes you just want to die.

JF: Your book about nuclear power and the development of nuclear warheads, The End of Imagination—you could almost title any book that. It seems as if a lot of the problems we are facing, we can’t grasp them because our imaginations aren’t equipped to understand.

AR: And the problem is that by the time you grasp it, it’s too late. But the whole thing with the dams is that it takes twenty years to build them and you can’t understand what it’s going to do to you until they’re built. And these are indigenous people. They can’t even imagine somewhere far away from where they’ve been, and someone’s pouring concrete into a river and they believe if you fuck with the river you will die. So, that is the problem.

I remember when I wrote The End of Imagination, and some people were ready to go and speak. I can’t, and don’t, want to go talk to people who have never heard of radiation. What do they do if I tell them? They just sit with that.

JF: It’s frightening, because you come to grips with the scale of the lack of knowledge and also the limits of knowledge against power.

AR: Sometimes, it’s just connecting too many facts.

JF: I think that’s a lot of what Americans are feeling watching this president who’s really a symptom of a long game of enrichment and corruption and misogyny.

I don’t really have much more to ask you. I love talking to you. Are you working on another nonfiction book?

AR: I don’t want to work on anything.

 Read this interview in its entirety, along with other great work related to environmentalism and conservation, in Issue 113.

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