Tyee Books

'Another Way of Looking at the World'

Arundhati Roy in conversation on writing, politics and her latest: 'Capitalism: A Ghost Story.'

By Derrick O'Keefe and Jahanzeb Hussain 1 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer, editor and a senior partner with Cause Comms.


Jahanzeb Hussain is a student of political science, co-host of Media Mornings on Coop Radio CFRO 100.5FM, and the editor of a web magazine on South Asia.

It's rare to hear a truly critical view of India, one that presents the vast country in all its complexity. The predominant images we most often see are "India Shining" marketing campaigns or Bollywood extravaganzas, and our governments are for the most part only focused on trade and investment. Booker Prize winning Indian author Arundhati Roy is someone who is not afraid to pierce through this rhetoric to show to the world the reality of the much touted "world's largest democracy."

Even though Roy came to global prominence thanks to her novel The God of Small Things, she is equally masterful with her pen when it comes to demystifying the Indian model of economic development and governance. Haymarket Books has just published her latest collection of incisive, politically charged non-fiction essays, Capitalism: A Ghost Story.

This evening, Arundhati Roy makes her first ever appearance in Vancouver. Writers Derrick O'Keefe and Jahanzeb Hussain sat down with the author and political activist on Monday.

Let's start with the title of your latest book. What, or who, are the ghosts in the story of global capitalism these days?

"My idea of it being a ghost story comes from when I was standing outside the gates of this 27-story skyscraper in Mumbai, the most expensive dwelling ever built -- for Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, who runs Reliance Industries Limited. It has six floors of parking, 900 servants and all of that. After they actually built it, they didn't move into it, because they started to believe it was haunted.

"That really somehow summed it up for me, what was happening in India. I was standing there looking at this building that had a 27-story high vertical lawn on one side, and bits of the lawn had fallen off. And I said, it looked like trickle down hadn't worked, but rush up had.

"In India, 100 people own the equivalent of 25 per cent of the GDP. It gets into the whole debate about capitalism in India -- in some ways what is happening there is a concise version of what has happened in Europe and America in the past. You have a country that is poised on the edge of, and that wants to claim itself as an economic superpower... You have an elite that has sort of seceded into outer space, where it looks down on the land and looks at the bauxite, the iron ore, the water, and the forests in which villagers and Indigenous people live, and it just says, 'What's our bauxite doing in their mountains? What's our water doing in their rivers?' It's an economy of extraction. And there is this war that has been unleashed, and that's what it's about...

"India is a country, since 1947, where there has not been a single year when the Indian army has not been deployed against 'its own people.' It's been at war in Manipur, Nagaland, Kashmir, Junagarh, Punjab, Hyderabad. Now the war for the edges is sort of moving into the heartland. So they can use the army against the poor. There are thousands of people in jail now in those areas, charged with sedition and so on for opposing government infrastructure projects. But how do they deal with the middle class? How do they deal with other thinking people? First of all by redesigning their minds in university, and then by the fact these mining companies are now running film festivals and literature festivals, and slowly brainwashing people into buying into that project."

So it's a cultural project as well?

"It's a cultural and intellectual project, but also a communal project. Basically, what happened is that, in the late 1980s and '90s, when Soviet communism lost its war in the mountains of Afghanistan, India, which had been aligned with the Soviet Union, basically realigned itself with the U.S. and Israel and so on. So from being a regulated economy, it opened its markets to international finance. And simultaneously it opened the lock on the markets, it also opened the lock on this 14th century mosque called the Babri Masjid, which had been a dispute site, because Hindus said the Lord Ram had been born there.

"Opening these two locks ushered in two kinds of conflicts. One was the conflict that came from economic totalitarianism, the free market, and all that, and the other one was the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. And both these conflicts manufactured, created, two kinds of terrorists: the Islamist terrorists and the Maoist terrorists. Whether it was the Congress that was in power, or the more right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), they both jockeyed and gave these two kinds of terrorisms different priorities, but used it to militarize and further militarize."

The Canadian government, like the U.S., is forging closer and closer ties with India. With the BJP under Narendra Modi on the verge of regaining power, why do western leaders like Harper, who constantly warn of the dangers of Islamism, never seem to raise alarm about the rise of Hindu far right nationalism, especially in a parliamentary democracy like India?

"The reason that nobody talks about Hindu fascism is because the rise of Hindu fascism is concurrent with the rise of the Indian market. When you have a market, potentially, of one billion people, you aren't going to get critical or worry about the fine points. The fact that [we] live in a country where 3,000 Sikhs could be just massacred on the streets in 1984, or thousands of Muslims could be massacred, or gang raped, or burned alive on the streets of Gujarat -- it doesn't count for much."

Speaking of the Gujarat massacre, Narendra Modi [who was chief minister of Gujarat at the time] was able to mobilize the Dalits against Muslims. How did he manage to do that and what does it say about the relations between different marginalized communities inside India?

"Well, that is the common trope -- that a lot of the Dalits were involved in the killing of Muslims. It happened at the time of Partition, too. But in this case, there are studies that show that where Muslims and the Dalits were living together, there wasn't any trouble. Dalits are also used as a fallback -- when somebody has to be arrested, the majority of them would be Dalits.  

"This has a long history: the mobilization of Dalits by the Hindutva forces. Just before Partition, this happened a lot in different places. That is the constituency that Hindutva have been trying to woo; it is one of the ways of trying to say you are Hindus as well so why don't you do some killing for us. But it is complicated because they are not always successful. It is also difficult for Dalits because they are the ones to take the wrath in the end. So, when Modi decides in the end to take off his saffron robes and put on his sharp business suit and hug the Muslims and say that he has taken actions against people who have been involved, then action will be taken against the Dalits."

The evidence against Modi, regarding his role in the Gujarat massacres, is overwhelming, so how come the Indian courts have not been able to do anything about it?

"Because they don't want to. You can't deal with people like Modi in legal cases because it is something much bigger, unless they had done so back in the day... India is called a democracy, but when elections approach, it's killing season. That is when people are trying to create their constituencies and commit murder in order to strengthen the idea of 'Us versus Them.' So in 2002, just before the Gujarat elections, Modi was actually losing ground in the municipal elections; but after the massacre, he came roaring back. And now, the same thing has been done in Uttar Pradesh in Muzzafarnagar, and the two politicians who created the massacre of Muslims -- hundreds and thousands have been driven from their villages, their land has been taken over by Hindus and Muslims are living in ghettos and concentration camps with no means of survival -- have been given BJP tickets. So it's all about elections."

You wrote a very successful novel, and are currently working on another one. There must have been pressure on you to write another novel rather than to take these very strong political stances on Kashmir, on the naxalite rebellion, and so forth. Why did you decide to do that despite the commercial success that was there for you? Why have you felt the need to do this kind of writing?

"I never wrote my novels in order to be successful or rich. I wrote a novel because I had a novel to write. It was never my intention to move from one success to the next. It is not as if before I wrote The God of Small Things, I hadn't written political stuff. But, you know, the climate suddenly changed in India. Suddenly the BJP came to power with this filthy, raw language of nationalism. Everything suddenly changed and I couldn't just let myself be bandied about as 'Brand India' along with Sachin Tendulkar and Miss World. So, I had to step out of that hoop and say, 'thanks but no thanks -- I am not with this project.' Then beginning to write led me on a journey, from one thing to the next. The essays I wrote were not just random, individual issues; they are about a worldview, they are about setting out another way of looking at the world."

There is a famous quote of yours, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Stephen Lewis even used this line to conclude his eulogy for Jack Layton. So where do you see optimism coming from, in 2014, with the Arab Spring drowned in blood in Egypt, the rise of the Hindu right in India, the Taliban running riot in Pakistan, and war, occupation and the revival of al-Qaida all across the Middle East?

"My book Field Notes on Democracy is dedicated to those who divorce hope from reason... People understand fully what's going on. The problem is what to do about it. But I think it's a great, collective achievement: the clarity of seeing the world and seeing American policy, al-Qaida, geopolitics and globalization. I remember 12 years ago when I was writing about privatization in India, people were saying take her to a psychiatrist because she is crazy.

"The fact is that there is wisdom among people now in the street, I think. But in places like India, for instance, while it's very depressing when you read the papers, if you look at it from another point of view, the poorest people in the world have managed to stop the richest corporations in their tracks. Why is Narendra Modi being backed by the corporations right now? He is being backed by them because they see him as a man who doesn't blink in the face of bloodshed, that whatever he did in Gujarat -- whatever your moral issues maybe -- the corporations see him as a man who is going to send the army into Chattisgargh, he is going to deal with what they call over-ground supporters, activists, journalists and shut them down, and open the forests up for the mining corporations. That is because since 2004 when all those MOUs were signed, they have not been able to actualize them due to resistance.

"People understand, they know what's going on, what the NGOs are up to, what co-optation is, what the literary and film festivals are doing, what the intellectuals are doing. So, the picture is pretty clear in some ways, but along with that understanding has come increased surveillance, militarization, prisons filling up and increased custodial deaths. If you question me, rationally, I can't tell you where the optimism is but I think it is in one's DNA."

So it is the optimism of the will, as Gramsci would say...

"There is no point in being pessimistic, so never let that get to us."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice,

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