Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy published her debut novel, “The God of Small Things.” It won the ultra-prestigious Man Booker prize and propelled her to international fame. But it was not until last year that her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” was published. Both her novels are beautiful, powerful epic stories.
Jeremy Scahill: Arundhati, welcome to Intercepted.
Arundhati Roy: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: And congratulations on your second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”
AR: Oh, thank you again.
JS: So, I want to begin just by asking you about the dedication. You dedicated this novel to “the Unconsoled” and I’ve seen you in the past say that all of us, in some way, are, “the Unconsoled.” But talk about that dedication.
AR: Well, I guess in some ways, the dedication is to those people who, like the people in the book, don’t fit into the categories that the ruling establishment, as well as, quite often, the radical resistance put people in. So for me, one of the things is about the questioning of these categories, particularly the categories in India, because we are a nation of minorities — a nation that is divided into this tiny little fretwork of caste and ethnicity and language, and each is pitted against the other. And yet, all serve a pretty ancient hierarchy.
So, in some ways, this is dedicated to everybody, but to everybody who, in some real ways, doesn’t fit into that very complex grid that we are asked to fit into, and then jump up and down in, and even be radical in.
JS: Well and one of the themes that really jumped out to me as I read your novel was that sense of disconnected or disenfranchised people finding community with one another. And in the reviews that I read of the book, so many of them get wrong the identity of one of your central characters, Anjum. They identify Anjum as a transgender woman. But, in fact, Anjum, who was born Aftab, was born with both male and female gender organs. I think it would be really interesting if you could sort of explain that character, the reaction of her mother when she’s born and realizes that her child is not simply a male in gender.
AR: Her mother, Anjum’s mother, Jahanara Begum, when she discovers that about her baby, she goes through a series of reactions. But fundamentally and eventually, the problem for her is that her baby is beyond words in her languages. Because Urdu, which is the language that she speaks, gender is everything: chairs, carpets, musical instruments, books — of course, men and women — but everything has a gender, except her baby. And so, the question the book asks is: Is it possible to live outside of language?
But not only that, Jeremy. The issue is that that is not the only identity of Anjum, whether you — I mean, she thinks of herself as a woman, she becomes a woman in the end. But she lives in a place called a Khwabgah, which is called, which means in Urdu, the house of dreams. Inside, Old Delhi near Turkman Gate with a whole lot of other people who belong to indeterminate genders, and they are as complex as the outside world. There are men who became women; there are men who don’t have surgeries, there are Muslims, there are Hindus, there are Christians, they are people who believe in having surgeries, there are people who believe with just living with what you’ve got — it’s a whole range of genders just in that building.
But, Anjum, for example, as a character, who people like to often ask me: Why did you choose to write about her and describe her as transgender? In fact, she has more than just one identity. She’s also born as a Shia Muslim and lives through a time when this is a more dangerous identity in India than being a hijra, which is what — the Urdu word for people like her.
And eventually as you read the book, you see, that she gets caught up in the 2002 massacre of Muslims that took place in Gujarat, and she gets caught up because she is a Shia, not because she’s a hijra. She escapes because she is a hijra, but she escapes in this extremely tragic way: witnessing the massacre that took place around her and left alive because the murderers think that to kill a hijra would bring them bad luck. So she lives on thinking of herself as butcher’s luck. And so she has this incendiary border of gender running through her.
But all the characters in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” [have] some form of incendiary border running through them. There’s a Dalit character, whose name used to be Dayachand, who becomes a Muslim because he too witnesses carnage against his own father. So he has the border of caste and religious conversion running through him.
JS: Well and he takes the name, Saddam Hussein.
AR: He takes the name Saddam Hussein because he has a video in his phone, which he admires, of Saddam Hussein’s execution. And he says, “Even if he was a bastard, I want to be a bastard like him.”
And then, you have another character who everyone calls Garson Hobart, who is actually an intelligence officer, but he is also like a trans person, because half of him is the voice of the sort of erstwhile sophisticated Brahmanical Indian state, and the other half is the shambling lover.
You have Musa, who’s got a national border running through him. You have Tilottama, who has the border of caste running through her. It’s really, I mean it wasn’t something that I planned, but honestly, you know, the sense that we live in a grid here, and these characters are all slightly off-grid, and through them, you shine the light on the grid. But it wasn’t something that I planned in a theoretical way, it’s just the way that I am, I suppose because I grew up off-grid. I am off-grid myself.
JS: So given that I’m familiar with your works of nonfiction, and your essays and various books often written in the midst of a crisis, there’s always an urgency when you write nonfiction, but it’s so clear that the experiences that you’ve had, spending time in Kashmir and with a circle of friends who are Kashmiri, that this runs through this book. And you mentioned Musa, who is fighting on the front lines and also the mothers of the disappeared in Kashmir are represented in your book. Talk about how your real-world experience in Kashmir and the real-world experience of your friends and others in Kashmir made its way into this novel.
AR: See, this thing is that people, I think, especially, quite often writers of fiction, are very, very wary of being seen as being political or partisan people. Although as we know, the elite are partisan and so privileged that they don’t need to appear to be.
But to me, I mean, “The Ministry” is not a book where I had a manifesto or that I wanted to write about the battle in Kashmir or about caste, or about what is happening in the forests of Bastar, but this is the air we breathe, you know? For me, to avoid all this would be like taking some very complicated yoga position to try and write where you don’t look these things straight in the eye. And for me this has been my life for the last 20 years. For me, Kashmir is not some issue that I want to write about. My dearest friends are from there.
Yesterday, I was in Central India in Hyderabad where there was a huge meeting, after a long time, I attended where you see the parents of all the comrades that are fighting battles and dying in Bastar, you know where Comrade Revathy’s letter comes from [at] the end of the book.
And these are the realities of this world. These are not just isolated issues that I’m trying to shed light on. But to me, this is what makes up the air we breathe. This love, this violence, this hopelessness, this hope, this funniness, this bizarre humor — all of it together.
And for Indian intellectuals, for Indian writers to have managed to write for so many years without mentioning caste in any real way, without talking about Kashmir, where, every summer, hundreds of young people are being blinded by pellets. Just [Sunday], there were phone calls between these young boys who are militants, of course, surrounded by the army, calling their parents to say they were going to die now — and die they did.
And all of this is so delicately airbrushed out. And we get our delicate fiction and our sophisticated analysis of identity without mentioning caste, without mentioning Kashmir — the upholding of this nation as the land of Gandhi and yoga and nonviolence, when in fact there has not been a single day since August 15, 1947, when India was declared independent that the Indian Army has not been deployed “within its own borders, against its own people.” Whether it’s Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Hyderabad, Punjab, Goa, Bastar, you know? It’s just a nation that is nailed together by military might, and we try to avoid thinking about it.
And then you do think about it! People like to just make them into little academic issues, or little subjects or studies for their PhDs, but this is the substance of what we live and breathe. When I write fiction, I’m not trying to write subjects. I’m not putting puppets on [the] page, and trying to make them live out some political manifesto of mine. But I’m creating a universe in which I invite people to walk through.
JS: Well, and walking through those universes that you’ve built is both thrilling and engaging in an utterly human way. And I know exactly the phenomenon that you’re talking about, where, if a writer of fiction, if they’re known to have a particular position or a particular passion in their life, in nonfiction then any sort of hint that that is coming into the fiction it’s going to be piled on and criticized.
What’s so amazing, though, about both “The God of Small Things” and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is that your characters, none of them feel forced. They all feel as though they’re borne of real people and real experience and they, there is a realness to your characters that I don’t think anyone who honestly reads your fiction could say, “Ah, what she’s trying to do here is ram through this agenda.” It feels more to me like you’re telling stories of people that you know, in one way or another.
AR: Actually, I mean, to be honest, I don’t feel that anybody has really said that about either of the books. Because there is, for instance, one of the characters, the character of Garson Hobart, he’s such a fascinating person, you know? It would have been tempting to make him easy meat. Just construct some vicious man of the state, and then demolish him. But to me, he is one of the most brilliant and fascinating characters in the book and you have to contend with him. It would be no fun for me if you were not someone who really I had to pit my own wits against and my own beliefs against. And it was like a hunt, almost. And I think it’s wonderful.
And ultimately, I don’t really have an agenda. I write, as I say, I write about this world, and I write about — I mean, one of the characters, Tilottama, she has a little inscription in her notebooks, which says “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”
So, it’s not even just human beings that are in the ministry — there are animals, and trees, and landscapes. The city becomes a character, you know? Sometimes the background becomes the foreground. The book itself, I see as a city — like you have to live inside it and walk through it to understand it. Its not easy, it’s not a story that you can just read and consume and move on. You have to read it many times to really get it, actually.
JS: And Anjum builds her guest house, which is called Jannat, on a cemetery. And you have this event take place within the novel, at this space in Delhi, Jantar Mantar, where activists and misfits and rebels and others would gather, and my understanding is that it’s a historical site that now is going through a totally different phase because of the policing of it. But one evening a baby sort of appears there, and it’s unclear where the child came from. And Anjum ends up wanting to raise the child, and you said that the girl, whose name is Zainab, ends up living with many mothers and fathers. What is the significance of cemeteries in in the book and particularly this cemetery where Anjum builds the guest house?
AR: Well, I started the Jantar Mantar. It’s a place quite close to the center of the city, which was, I mean, I spent many, many nights and days there. And I started writing “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” because it really did happen late one night when I was there, that this baby just appeared on the pavement and nobody knew what to do with it. None of the great political movements, and social movements, and everybody was just stumped [about] what to do with a baby.
And it made me think and think and think about this, and then I know, it’s not the beginning of the book, but that is the nerve center from which the books sort of radiate outwards. But Anjum, she really, after I spoke about the fact that she survives the massacre in Gujarat which is, again, of course, a true event where in 2002, more than 1,500 Muslims were just massacred on the streets of the metropolises and towns and cities and villages of Gujarat, when Modi, the current prime minister was chief minister.
So Anjum returns from Gujarat to Delhi devastated and unable to live the life she lived all these years. And she moves out of the Khwabgah, the place that she shared with this group of hijras, and she moves into a graveyard where she begins — she just lives there like this wild, fearless specter. She is just unmoored grief. And, then slowly she settled down, and she begins to enclose the graves of her relatives. She makes a little shelter for herself. And gradually it turns into the Jannat guest house — Jannat means paradise.
And of course, a cemetery or a graveyard in India is usually a Muslim graveyard. As you know, the Hindus, don’t bury their dead — they cremate their dead. So graveyards have also, in this extreme communalization, in which Muslims have been pushed to the bottom of the economic and social chain, you know? They are now denied housing. They’ve been pushed out of the political arena. They are, you know, lynched on the streets — now openly, and so on. And so graveyards have become a kind of ghetto, you know, where people congregate.
In the last elections in UP, Modi and the current chief minister made big politics out of the fact that all the graveyards are consuming electricity and water — “these Muslims,” in other words.
So, and then this, so there’s the graveyard in Delhi, on which Jannat guest house — Jannat means paradise in Urdu — Jannat guest house is built. And then there’s Kashmir, which is known as Jannat, because it’s such a beautiful valley. But since the 1990s, it’s not a paradise that’s covered with graveyards. So, it’s a strange inversion, you know, a graveyard covered with a guest house, that’s called a paradise guest house, and then a paradise covered with graveyards.
But the whole book, of course it sort of moves back and forth in time, from 1947, and you trace the rise of this communal agenda, which, of course, people like Modi and so on, they belong to a organization called the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the real political power today, not to the BJP. And it’s an organization that was started in 1925. And its ideologues, open admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, have openly said in the past that the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany.
And in the last elections, they proved to the world and to themselves and to the people of this country that you don’t need the Muslim vote. So, the Muslims are somehow disenfranchised. The Dalits have always been disenfranchised, but now the Dalit vote has been courted and there’s a lot of trouble around that, because intrinsically they hate the Dalits too. That is the Hindu caste system, you know? Whatever name you call them.
JS: But now there are millionaire Dalits.
AR: Yeah, but that —
JS: No, no, I know —
AR: If you actually look at the poorest of the poor, the landless, the jobless, they’re all Dalits. And, of course, that is how you neutralize someone. You create a tiny elite and then say, “Look, they’re millionaires.” And even the millionaires, by the way, will not be accepted in society. You know? They will still be Dalits. But it’s a bit like, you know, saying, “Oh look, you have Michael Jordan and you have a few millionaire black actors and therefore there’s no racism in America.” You know?
JS: Arundhati, part of the reason that I brought up the fact that there are some millionaire Dalits now is sort of because we have a similar phenomenon. It’s not a direct analogue, but it’s a similar strand that you’re describing. I mean we had Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States and the narrative about that in sort of mainstream political circles is, “Aha! We’ve shattered this glass ceiling and now we have a black man as president.” And yet you look at the condition that many black people live in in this country, particularly with police violence and economic apartheid and it’s like: Did it really change anything? You can siphon off certain elites and say this represents a new America, but in reality, the same exact issues are facing the very people from the black communities, Native American communities, undocumented immigrant communities, and on, and on.
AR: Yes, I mean the fact is that it applies to having a woman prime minister and so on as well. The same story about — does that change anything for women? I suppose that we can’t say that it didn’t matter at all that Obama was a black man. I think, symbolically it mattered. Similarly, here in India, you have people like Mayawati, who have been the chief minister of the biggest state, you know? Now she’s completely out of power. And whatever she did, or whatever, let’s say, someone like Lalu Prasad Yadav, who represents what is known as a backward caste — we have these horrible terms — because we can’t ever undermine the sense of shame that has been bludgeoned into people.
There is something to be said when something like that happens, but does it change anything on the ground or has it changed anything on the ground, is a big question. I wouldn’t say that nothing at all has ever changed in India on the question of caste, because we are talking about people who used to be forced to walk backwards and sweep away their footprints or hang pots around their necks so that the spit wouldn’t pollute the ground.
But yet, for example, my heart broke the other day because you read about a young Dalit boy who was beaten to death because he dared to ride a horse in Gujarat. And to me, he was Saddam Hussein on his horse, and his horse led the funeral procession. He was beaten to death by the upper castes. Every day you have this kind of bludgeoning, lynching, beating.
And the politics of what is going on here on the caste front is so difficult to explain. Because when you have elections, all you hear about is which caste is going to work for whom and so on, and then when it comes to actually talking about the horrors that are visited upon people because of their caste, there’s a silence. So it’s very, very complicated — I mean, I’ve written a little book, which was published by Haymarket, called “The Doctor and the Saint” where, it’s really about the debate between Dr. Ambedkar, the great Dalit leader at the time of the independence struggle, and Gandhi.
And people completely have no idea about what Gandhi’s attitudes to caste and race were. That falsification of that story is mind-blowing.
JS: Well, explain it.
AR: The dishonesty of it all. No, I mean, for example, most people know the struggle of Indian independence through Richard Attenborough’s film, unfortunately, called “Gandhi.” That film is a piece of fiction. And through the struggle for independence Gandhi’s greatest antagonist was Dr. Ambedkar. He doesn’t even make an appearance in the film. He doesn’t even show up there.
And the debate that Gandhi insisted that he was the representative of all untouchables, as Dalits were called then. And the great confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar happened in 1930, at the second roundtable conference in London, when Ambedkar’s arguing for a separate constituency, temporarily, for Dalits, so that they could develop into a political community. They are scattered. Every village in India has a small settlement of Dalits outside the village. They can never be full political constituency. Gandhi went on a hunger fast to the death until that was withdrawn — the idea of a separate electorate.
Anyway, it’s a very complicated thing. But even when you look at what happened in South Africa, all of us are taught that Gandhi went to South Africa, was thrown off a train and this was his first political education, and from then on he started fighting against segregation. This is complete crap.
The first battle Gandhi fought in South Africa was to have a separate entrance to the Durban post office because he believed that Indians, who he said were descendants of the Aryans, should not share the same entrance with blacks, who he consistently referred to as “kafirs” and “savages.” He fasted in prison to have separate prisons, separate food. And the satyagraha that he started was not for racial equality, it was to allow Indian tradesmen into the Transvaal to trade.
And so the whole story has been completely distorted, which is not to say that Gandhi was not a brilliant politician. I don’t want to take anything away from him. But I do want to say that the amount of deceit and intellectual dishonesty that has gone into the construction of this narrative is shameful.
JS: We, in the United States and on this show, we’ve talked a lot about how powerful people and pop culture have sanitized the legacies of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, to the point where I think many people who have studied Martin Luther King’s life believe or agree that he would never be invited to his own Martin Luther King Day celebrations today because he was too radical. At the same time, you have this sort of systematic white-washing, of all of the crimes of major, American historical figures. The fact that they owned slaves, and some presidents of the United States are known rapists is not taught in schools here.
Talking about your description of Gandhi, who benefited from the creation of that narrative around Gandhi?
AR: Well, I mean, the Indian upper-caste elite, obviously. Because in “The Doctor and the Saint,” what I call him is the saint of the status quo. It was time for the British to give way to this upper-caste elite, who — even this whole preaching of nonviolence as the only revolutionary thing. What does it mean? I keep saying, I traveled to the forests of Central India today, ten years ago, today, now, all the time. You have tens of thousands of paramilitary forces unleashed in those forests because MoUs have been signed with mining companies — 1,000 paramilitaries will go to a village, an indigenous peoples village, four days walk from the main road — surround it, burn it, rape the women, steal the cattle, and go. And then in the television studios, when these people have reacted militantly, violently, with the commandos and guerrilla forces, but in the studios, they’ll start calling them terrorists.
I said: What should those people do, you tell me? Should they go on a hunger strike? They are already starving. Should they boycott foreign goods? They don’t have any goods. They don’t have an audience to do any sort of nonviolent satyagraha. You need a sympathetic audience. You need a superstar.
It has benefitted the elite of all countries. I mean, honestly, Jeremy, if you go traveling to India through the poorest places of India, you will not find a picture of Mahatma Gandhi in any poor person’s house. You will find a picture of Ambedkar. Gandhi will be in the government local collector’s house, or in the government office, or whatever. But you will not find it in a poor person’s house.
JS: I’m sure you’re shattering a lot of peoples’ images here of Gandhi, but we say a lot on this show that history matters and context matters, and I think this is so important for people to hear.
AR: Oh, as I say: History is unpredictable.
JS: Exactly. As I was preparing to talk to you, I was remembering, you and I met back in 2004 at this time, when the streets of, you were in New York, and the streets were sort of around the clock filled with protesters who had come from, really, around the world on the occasion of the Republican National Convention. And George Bush and Dick Cheney were running for re-election.
And you and Amy Goodman and I went into the Republican National Convention, we got you a credential so that you could go past this massive security apparatus. And we stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention just a few feet away from Dick Cheney. And he spoke that night and gave this very belligerent war speech. And I remember you talking about being in sort of this stadium filled with killers, and people egging them on and cheering them on.
Your reflection and where we are now, versus where we were at that moment when you and Dick Cheney were in the same room.
AR: (Laughs.) Yeah, me and Dick Cheney. Obviously, on the face of it, the American Empire seems to be now, you know, your president is somebody who is managing to confuse everybody in the establishment, including the Republicans themselves. You know? Maybe he’s even confusing himself.
But ultimately I still am waiting to see whether it is, in fact, an empire on the wane or not. Because I think the immense you know, economic clout, and the fact that there is a white nation’s agenda, isn’t there, in the world? I mean, Europe and America eventually will hold together, you know? And day-to-day, they are the biggest merchants of death. We are doing the buying and they are doing the selling of all the weapons. And that is the fundamental strength of the economy now — certainly of the European economy. So, there can’t be peace on earth when just to keep these economies going, you need to be at war.
The Middle East, or whatever — I don’t know how we arrived at that term to describe that part of the world — but since 9/11, how many countries have been destroyed? And all of us keep talking about this fundamental Islam, but when you look at the countries that have been destroyed, none of them were really fundamentalist Islamic states. Those ones are, of course, your allies. But now, I don’t even think we can think in terms of countries anymore. Everything has been broken down into militias and it’s hard to keep track of who is weaponizing what and who is running whom and who is turning against whom. That’s just a whole region that has devolved into chaos.
But I feel, I mean right now, a lot of people like to compare Trump to Modi. But to me Trump is like someone who has grown out of the toxic effluent of a system that went very wrong. The Democrats who, for so many years pretended that they were the representatives of the working class, and so on, just forgot what the working class really is in America. Everything was outsourced, and what you are calling flyover America was just forgotten about. Right?
Whereas Modi — so in a way the Democrats created Trump, not the Republicans.
But I see that every elite American institution is against Trump: The media is against him, the military is suspicious of him, the economists are suspicious of him, the White House itself is suspicious of him, he’s blundering around there. But he doesn’t seem to have many friends. But nobody knows what to do because you don’t have any system in place to deal with a lunatic in the White House. So you don’t know what to do.
But in the case of India: Modi is very much the deep state. He is the product of planning from 1925 for this moment when — they’re almost there — when they can change the Indian Constitution, call it a Hindu nation. So, you have a situation here which is the opposite: Where the army, the corporates, the media, the elite, everybody has been supporting him.
And you tell me: Can you imagine a situation where a nation of a billion people wakes up one morning to be told that 85 percent of the currency is now illegal. And accepts it! It’s just like taking a baseball bat and breaking every individual’s spine. He did it.
Today we are looking at a situation where people are being lynched and the people who have been lynched, their families have cases against them. The people who did the lynching have uploaded the horror onto YouTube and people are raising money for the trials. Dalits are being flogged on the streets. You have major, MP BJP’s saying that Muslims should go to Pakistan. You have a chief minister of UP saying that, and counter-killings, as they call them, the police are just shooting down people in cold blood, in the hundreds.
You have a case where a judge was sitting on a murder trial — not exactly a murder trial but there was a series of murders in which the man who is currently the head of the BJP and Modi’s chief lieutenant was suspected to be involved. He was in jail for many years for it. And the judge died a mysterious death. And now, as a magazine called “Caravan” continues to report, you know, he died suddenly, the post-mortem reports are suspicious, the ECG has been made up. There are witnesses saying that he brought in with the injury to the back of the head, but it shows he died of heart attack. Nothing is done.
So, it’s like everything is just frozen. And continuously, this venom is being dripped into people’s brains about: India should be a Hindu country and Muslims should be ghettoized, Dalits should be disenfranchised in some way. There’s an attack on institutions, the history books are being rewritten. I keep saying: It’s not an attack on intellectuals, it’s an attack on intelligence, because you know, we are being told that ICUs should be cleaned with cow urine, and, you know, the Vedas have discovered plastic surgery long ago, that’s why we have an elephant-headed God.
We have been at least educated in institutions that still resemble schools and colleges, but now, the history books are being written by complete cretans, so what’s going to happen to the next generation? They will be unable to think unless they find non-formal ways of going to school and college, you know?
JS: Well, and speaking of not being able to think, Donald Trump, Jr. was not too long ago in India trying to sell more than a billion dollars in these luxury residential units.
AR: Yes. Bought after basically forcing tens of thousands of people who lived in shanties, house, and slums, out, to build these luxury apartments in Bombay, which are going to go to, whatever, 45 families or something. And it’s all a big scam, of course, there were these huge boards up about, I don’t remember what they said, “Are you ready for Trump?” or something like that.
AR: The Trump Towers. Proper, straightforward business interest.
JS: The ads said: “Trump has arrived. Have you?”
AR: (Laughs.) Oh right. “Trump has arrived, have you?” Yeah.
JS: But then you have these scenes, you know there’s this weird phenomenon in a variety of countries, where you have some political factions who really seem to kind of lionize in a cartoonish way Donald Trump and you had that bizarre birthday celebration for Trump.
AR: (Laughs.) That was —
JS: Go ahead, yeah.
AR: Yeah, that was the best. They had a birthday celebration in Jantar Mantar, where they had a cardboard cut-out of Trump and a birthday cake, and then someone asked him, “What are you doing here?” And they said, “We’re here to celebrate the birthday of Donald Duck.”
JS: (Laughs.) And who organized this thing?
AR: Some right-wing Hindu outfit. You know? They are, like Trump said, “I love Hindu and I love India.” I don’t know what he thought Hindu was. Like a language or a —
JS: Have you ever heard him talk about the Bible? He knows one verse of the Bible and he’ll just repeat it at every speech. “Two Corinthians.”
As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about something that you said years ago that I actually think about often. And it deals with the, I think, moral challenge that we often find ourselves in, people who believe in justice, and that is that, you know, we don’t have an ability or even a moral authority to choose the form of resistance that rises up in response to the crimes of the imperial nations around the world, and it was during the Iraq war, and really as the Iraqi armed resistance started to really take a toll on the U.S. occupation, and you said the following:
“You support the resistance, but you may not support the vision that they’re fighting for, and I keep saying I’m doomed to fight on the side of people that have no space for me in their social imagination, and I would probably be the first person that was strung up if they won, but the point is that they’re the ones that are resisting on the ground and they have to be supported, because what is happening is unbelievable.”
I recently was thinking about this in the context of what is happening in Syria and Iraq and in Palestine —
AR: In Kashmir —
JS: — where the Israelis just committed another massacre, and in Kashmir, and then historically the genocidal campaigns against the Kurds.
As we watch a world where ISIS, a lot of people are paying attention to ISIS, and they talk about it, and they have yes, these graphic beheadings and the killing of journalists: Are there any forces of resistance that are worth your support right now, in any of these conflicts? I mean, I’m against what the United States and Russia and all of these powerful nations are doing in Syria. At the same time, who is the resistance in Syria? And I don’t mean, Arundhati, explain the different factions.
AR: Well, honestly, Jeremy I don’t think that, anymore, the way to resist this is for me or you to go to Syria and support some faction or the other. You know because the problem is at your home. The problem is to take it down there in the United States or to take it down here in India. You know I, in many ways, am obviously deeply entrenched here, and deeply grounded here, and here certainly there are many, many, many people and many organizations and many ways in which the resistance that is being raised is wonderful, you know?
I mean starting from the anti-dam protests and ending with what’s going on inside the forests of Bastar, and even in Kashmir, it’s not that every faction has got a vision that I would have a place for. But my issue is, let’s say, when I think about something like Kashmir, is that it’s not my business to think necessarily about what kind of Kashmir is being fought for, but it’s certainly my business as somebody in whose name this violence perpetrated to stand up and say it as it is: which, of which there are, the number of Indians who will do it, you can count on your fingertips, you know?
Which is why when people just denounce the United States, without really being specific about what it is that they are denouncing, I admire so much, you know, some of the resistance that has come out of there. The soldiers who have fought in Vietnam. I mean, there has never been a single conscientious objector here in the army. You know? Whereas people really took a hit when they stood up, you know? In the Civil Rights Movement, in all of that.
I would say we need to do it in the places where things are being done in our names. It doesn’t help for you to go to Syria. It helps for you to be where you are, and to prevent that from happening in whatever way you can. I never take a missionary position on this. For me, I need to know the place where I stand and why I stand there.
JS: Well, I think that’s a really great note to end on. Arundhati Roy, thank you so much for talking with me.
AR: You’re welcome, Jeremy.