SINCE WINNING THE BOOKER PRIZE IN 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has been a persistent thorn in the gargantuan but peculiarly sensitive hide of the Indian political establishment. In 1998, when all of India was in the throes of atomic ecstasy, Roy spoke out against the bomb. She has rarely been silent since, becoming one of the world's most eloquent critics of corporate globalization — “The only thing worth globalizing is dissent,” she writes — of militarism, and of the Hindu fundamentalism that now holds sway in Indian government, and that took the lives of 2,000 Muslims in pogroms in Gujarat state last year. She has been an advocate for the rights of India's “untouchable” caste and, perhaps most famously, a fearless opponent of a proposed hydroelectric dam in India's Narmada Valley that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and wreak untold environmental damage. Last March, after a year of torturous legal proceedings on a contempt-of-court charge, the Indian Supreme Court sentenced Roy to one day in jail. She had refused to apologize for her criticism of the court's rulings on the dam project, thereby “scandalizing it and lowering its dignity through her statements.” In the course of the trial, judges chastised Roy for her failure to behave like “a reasonable man.” That, fortunately, she is not.
A small, fine-boned woman with wickedly playful eyes that hum almost audibly with intelligence and curiosity, Roy gave the closing oration at this year's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In a speech that has since been making the rounds on the Internet, Roy brought a packed soccer-stadium audience to its feet, challenging her listeners “not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness.” I spoke to her in Porto Alegre the following morning.
L.A. WEEKLY: In a speech you gave at Amherst a couple of years ago (and that was reprinted in your book Power Politics), you gave two rules for writers. The first was that there are no rules, the second that there is no excuse for bad art. What does “bad art” mean for you?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Bad art for me means feeling that just because you are politically correct, you can be lax on honing the art. I see that happening a lot — in India anyway. It's a pity, because then you misuse both literature and politics. When I write, I don't even think consciously of being political, because I am political. I know that even if I wrote fairy stories, they would be political. Your art is so subliminal; it comes from somewhere you barely understand yourself. I know that for me it's about a way of seeing the world — everything. It's about a way of expressing or sharing your vision of the world. The outside world sees literature and politics as two separate things. I don't. But I think the reason that the establishments have always feared writers, the reason that writers are persecuted or put into jail, is because they have that weapon of clarity, and when they choose to use it, it's deadly.
So it's not so much a question of dodging political responsibilities in art, but of dodging artistic responsibilities?
Yes, of course. I suppose in a way it's a slightly merciless thing to say, but you need to understand that there's a difference between literature and propaganda. When someone asks me, “Are you going to write a book about the dams?” or “Are you going to write a novel about life after capitalism?” it makes me want to laugh, because literature is much more than that — literature is about everything. I don't choose a topic and say, “Now I'm going to write a novel about Iraq.” It's for me a philosophy, a way of being.
Is there a novel coming?
I really hope so, but I'm very, very frightened right now in India. I called a friend of mine last night to sort of squeak with excitement about what happened yesterday. She works in central India, and she said 100,000 RSS people [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist and quasi-fascist group with ties both to massacres of Muslims and to India's ruling party] marched with swords yesterday. Writing a novel requires a kind of calm. You can't be panicked. At the moment I'm panicked. I'm all the time feeling like I have to explain this or I have to bring attention to that, and quickly. I don't know whether to say, “Okay, if you think like this, you will always be finding a situation to worry about,” or think that this is a very, very dangerous, explosive situation, and whether you want to sit back and write a book or whatever, you can't — you really have to be out there. And yet, when you're one person in one life, you don't know whether this is just a terrible time or whether times have been like this before, and maybe you must say, “Okay, I'm retreating now, and I'll come back with another weapon in a while.” It's always a battle between the knowledge of my own insignificance in ecological time and knowing that I do have a voice, and how should I use that best?
In the same speech, you talked about the danger of becoming a sort of palace jester in the free market of the literary world, that there are dangers inherent in freedom of speech. Since then you've had a lot of trouble with the courts because of your writing, and it seems that some of the dangers are far greater than just that.
Yes. I was talking about the fact that free speech is protected in rich countries, in the countries of the North, in a way that it has never been before, and yet that freedom is such an apparent freedom. It's not a real freedom. Now we know, after September 11, that America is one of the most indoctrinated, least free places in the world. I was in Italy in October. I had gone with a group of filmmakers who had made films about issues in India, and I was talking to the press. Everybody knew that I'd been put in jail, and everybody had come there and expected us to be talking about how awful things were in India, but I said, “Look, at least I know that I'm being put into jail. At least my prim little body was taken and put into jail, but you have a prime minister who owns six newspapers and all the television channels, and you don't even know that you're in jail.” There's a big difference.
Just now in India, there's this law for contempt of court. You cannot criticize a judge. You cannot criticize the courts. You can criticize a judgment, but you can't put six judgments together and say, “Look at the political ideology that operated here.” Recently some judges were molesting women in a hotel, and the police were not allowed to register a case because that's contempt of court. Democracy is not just elections — democracy is a whole lot of institutions which have checks and balances. One of those institutions is the courts. If it is not democratic, then all of the garbage flows into that manhole.
The courts in India now make major decisions that affect the lives of millions of people, and you can't criticize them. It's a kind of judicial dictatorship, and nobody can write about it. The press is terrified. Terrified. And what they did to me was a very dangerous thing. What they did was to say, “If you criticize us, we'll go after you.” That I was put into jail for one day was not the issue. It's a very frightening thing that no one has really taken on yet. A judicial dictatorship is as bad as any other kind of dictatorship. As the 21st century goes by, we are evolving different kinds of totalitarianism. We are evolving far more sophisticated forms of totalitarianism. Everywhere, in America too.
Yesterday you talked about depriving an empire of oxygen, through art and literature and sheer stubbornness. What are the strategies by which writers and artists can do that?
To be a writer, you spend a lifetime journeying to a place where you find your own language, you find your own voice, you invent your own tongue. Then you journey back to raise your voice with millions of others in a journey of humility, and when you do that, because you're a writer, your voice is different, because you've been working in that direction, and that should never be confused with the voice of a leader. A lot of people want to push me into being somebody who just keeps going around speaking and going to seminars and being not a writer, but the point is that it's what I do and it's the most important thing for me to be doing. Each person has to find a way of staying on their ground and raising hell, basically. Everyone has to do what they do best.
It's not that all of us have to become professional activists. All of us have to find a way. And when we do that, there will be
another world. When lawyers do it, when doctors do it, when teachers do it, when students do it, when farmers do it, when writers do it, when actors do it — that is the day that there is another world, when all these millions of different kinds of people do it differently, and suddenly they can't count on us anymore to do their bidding, to be obedient. Even things like the corporate media and corporate television will become irrelevant. They'll lift off like scabs.
A lot of people find it very easy to lose hope these days. You've been seeing things get darker and darker in India for quite some time, with horrendous religious violence as well as the rise of ultranationalism and fascism. What keeps you going, and keeps you writing?
There's two things. One is the knowledge of my own insignificance in a way, the knowledge that the Earth is 4,600,000,000 years old and these things have happened and they must pass. It's not having this goal-oriented way of thinking. I also look at happiness as a weapon. If they take that away from me, they've won. So it's very important to search for joy in the saddest places — it's very, very important. Happiness isn't something that somebody comes and gives you. It doesn't come from buying a washing machine. The notion of happiness that is sold to us is so false. For me, there will never be a world where I can't find something to smile about — just the quality of the light on a river. Fascism can't take that away. The fight is as much about patrolling the borders of your own — not your own, but the happiness of humankind, because that is what we're fighting to preserve. If we lose it, there's no point fighting. We can't let it go.