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.