Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

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  • nother

    I believe that Che Guevara would have been endeared with Roy Arundhati.

    75 killed by Maoists

  • Ampat Varghese

    I have always found Ted and the notion of Ted-gurudom distasteful as well as the motif of “India shining” appearing and reappearing in diverse ways. I see daily the divide between rich and poor widening, between the gated and the slummed and the “upwardly mobile” middle class crunched in between via a ruthless relentless price spiral and shortages of water and electricity. For instance, a packet of dosa mix I bought two weeks ago at Rs 24 has suddenly gone up to Rs 30 – so too with other basic food and other commodities. So let’s cut the crap and take the Ted prophets with a pinch of salt and the motif of “India shining” as the motif for emergent fascism. As the municipal elections in Bangalore clearly show!

  • Potter

    Thank you for this conversation. I remember feeling in the past that Roy was much too radical for me and to be honest I forget why. But this time she made a lot of sense to me. Maybe it’s because I have come to see the real evils, the harm, of capitalism. But I just don’t see capitalism ending- nor globalization, it’s sister. This is “progress” and also how we destroy ourselves ultimately ( I fear). But for the time being- we need to be mindful, a lot more mindful of those left out, those suffering, as well as the well being of this planet as much as possible. I am being realistic. I agree those left out are most likely to be guardians as well.

    This is not a new story, but maybe there is just a little more awakening and maybe also not enough in time. Roy’s analysis was not only about India- and I thought it very insightful.

    When you went to Ghana and I had a chance to look into Ghandian economics ( and the “Small is Beautiful” idea again) I was and am convinced that this is a good way to go.

    India would be a great parachute radio destination… and Sri Lanka too.

    I guess, once again, I need another listen.

  • Potter

    Oh- I forgot to say that maybe Tom Friedman would indeed appreciate a tour with A. Roy. let’s not rule it out!

  • Nin Thale

    Why did Arudhati Roy not ask the Maoists about the source of funding for buying all those landmines and assault rifles? Was she afraid they would summarily execute her, as they have a habit of doing with dissenters?

    Or what about the Maoists’ use of child soldiers? Meaningful journalism involves asking tough questions. What Arundhati does best is write fiction; she has written a nice story about this terror group.

  • A piece from my novel

    PS: Sunday, 11 April, 2010

    Oh, I forgot! Harvesters of tendu leaves and “mine contractors” finance your operations by paying taxes of12%! Do the infant soldiers of Salva Judum — the chicks, lambs and calves belonging to the jungli animals — know this secret? Was there a spontaneous anger against you bursting through?

    How can I believe reports: that thousands of villagers march with police against you to retrieve government supporters abducted by you; that fierce gun battle follows; that the villagers run for cover in the forest; that their houses are vandalized by you; and that the village is deserted?

    I know families of Salva Judums have to flee. The Government turns happy when Salva Judums retaliate, vacating the remaining villagers — accusing them of their sympathy with you! And the Government provides them all with refugee camps. It wants mines. How can it uplift the fleeing animals without resources? So it says emphatically,”The refugee camps turn prisons, naturally.”

    Chhattisgarh government alone has signed deals with miners worth one and a half times ten thousand crores of rupees. Hey Kishenji, have you checked whether your Commanders have a share of the thousands of crores of rupees paid to the Congress-BJP-Jungli political combines — by the miners entering through the back doors?

    Kishenji, throw away your gun and plead with your JNU supporters, “March with me this Gandhi to New Heaven And New Earth — not to Dandi.”

    You will become the Planet’s Gandhi of the twenty-first century. Only you from Sindhu — at this moment — can be that Gandhi.

    I am a once-upon-a-time member of the Communist Party of Sindhustan. Treat me as a Govindan Kutty — much older than Govindan Kutty.

    I am not pooh-poohing you.

    If you pooh-pooh me, that clever school girl of Usa will become the Planet’s Gandhi, who asked her President, “Among the ones reincarnated, whom will you eat with?”, for which she got the reply, “I shall eat with Gandhi only, even though he may discourage me from filling my stomach beyond capacity!” — after which only the President proudly proclaimed to his white compatriots, “I’m a black man,” though his mother was white.

    Dear Kishenji, even if you succeed with your gun, and become Napoleon of the Animal Farm of Sindhu, your fate will be different from that of Napoleon of Orwell’s Animal Farm. It will be the fate of Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia where my students gave him full support, where I happened to teach after teaching in Kenya of the President of Usa.

  • athreya

    Christopher, the Maoist uprising is not present in India’s ‘Northeastern’ states. Maoist insurgency cuts through a vast swathe of India from South to North with the most militant fighters probably concentrated in Central India. There are a series of localised insurgencies which are ongoing in the Northeastern states, arising from ethnic rivalries. Hope you check these facts and correct your copy.

  • Moumita De Roy

    Arundhati Roy says how do maoists follow gandhian policy becoz how the hungry maoists go 4 hunger strikes how do moneyless maoists boycot taxes, I ask if they r hungry & moneyless how do they procure such huge coffers of weapons? she says % of negative in india is so much that she doesnt feel like talkn bout the positive bt is everythn bout maoists positive if she is obj she should talk the negatives of maosists also

  • Jeech

    Unfortunately, I don’t find such a genius and real thinker in Pakistan. Arundhaty Roy not only thinks but builds cognetic connections with multiple realites. India must hear her, whatever she’s speaking goes after all, in favor of her mother land India.

    Thanks Christopher Lydon for leting such a great person speak with us.