A conversation with the 2022 St. Louis Literary Award recipient Arundhati Roy

This year, the Saint Louis University Library Associates will honor writer Arundhati Roy with the annual St. Louis Literary Award. Presented at the Sheldon Concert Hall on April 28 at 7 p.m., the award is granted to the “most important writers of our time” and “celebrates the contributions of literature in enriching our lives.” The award-winning author will also speak at a craft talk on the campus of Saint Louis University the next day, April 29, at 1 p.m.

Roy received the 1997 Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things, and her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. On April 26, Haymarket Books will publish the expanded second edition of her most recent book of essays, Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus, following their publication of My Seditious Heart: Collected Nonfiction (2019), which collects her work of a two-decade period.

We spoke to Roy at her home in Delhi via Zoom ahead of the award ceremony and craft talk.

Will this be your first time in St. Louis?

I’ve been there, years and years and years ago, when The God of Small Things was published. That was just for a night or a day—it was one of those book tours. I do remember enjoying myself a lot.

What did you know of the St. Louis Literary Award before you received news that the committee had selected you?

I didn’t know about it actually. But when I heard from them, and I read about it, and I saw the other people who had gotten it, I was very happy to accept it. Because I don’t, and have never, lived outside of India, it’s always lovely to see work that is so rooted in this place having resonance outside of it. And not just in the big, razzle-dazzle cities of the U.S., but in smaller places.

In your novels, there’s clearly an importance that you place on fellowship with the nonhuman other. Animals, plants, rivers, trees and forests, all inhabit your stories, lending this rich, enlivened texture to the places where your characters live.

It probably has something to do with having grown up in a village. There you just can’t view the world through just the human lens. Because I grew up on the banks of the river where The God of Small Things is set, everything was so much a part of our daily conversations. As children, we knew the insects; we knew where the worms were the juiciest; we knew which part of the river at what point of the day you could catch fish; we knew how to make our own fishing rods; we knew how to make our own toys out of certain leaves and things. It sounds crazy, right? Now, everybody’s got iPhones and iPads.

I was just telling a friend the other day: is it extreme gratitude or extreme pessimism to feel that one has lived perhaps the greater part of one’s life at a time when these things were part of one’s body, the trees and the rivers? Not part of one’s knowledge or information or the subjects of what you want to write about. They were just part of life. The humans were woven into it—the cruelties and the kindnesses and the fact that things just don’t fit neatly into these ideological pockets that we are asked to snuggle into now. I think that never left me.

You’ve mentioned before that writing a novel is like building a city, in layers that stratify upon layers. You’ve also said that writing fiction is the closest thing there is to prayer. Could you say a little more about the architecture and metaphysics of constructing fictive universes?

In my nonfiction, most of it is a kind of argument against a consensus that is continually sought to be built by these news channels and mainstream media, which are just bullying us into a particular kind of ideological space. These nonfiction essays are mostly arguing with that. But as I traveled and wrote, there’s so much complexity beyond those arguments, which somehow settle like sediment in me. With fiction, that’s not the aim of it. You see in, say, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the possibility of a different way of thinking, or relating to each other, or living, or dying for that matter. That, to me, can only be done in fiction, because in fiction, while there are characters who are ideologues, or who are cogs in the machine of the system that works, there are so many who are just people who live outside that grid—especially in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—which Indian society has hammered everybody into.

I’m reminded of your essay “Trickledown Revolution,” in which you described Operation Green Hunt and the war in central India. You wrote, “The first step toward reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination that has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment.” I recognized these differences of imagination here in St. Louis in the variety of responses to the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson eight years ago, when militarized police officers were throwing canisters of tear-gas and shooting rubber bullets into crowds of people protesting Brown’s murder.

Quite a lot of the nonfiction, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and the essays that came out after, start by celebrating the anti-dam resistance and the anti-displacement movement. But then, gradually, things begin to darken here, and now you have, on the street, the opposite of what you had in Ferguson. You have the lynch mobs, you have the people who are literally going around calling for hate, calling for the rape of Muslim women, calling for the killing of anyone who doesn’t agree with this nationalist narrative…all the physical danger that people are being put into. Every now and then that gets exploded by the movement against the new citizenship laws, which were passed in 2019, where basically the Muslims were discriminated against. Then there were the three farm laws that were passed in India, and you had this farmers’ movement that lasted for a year, and finally, they had to be withdrawn.

But again, this right wing regroups. Just today in Delhi there was a man who’s literally calling for genocide, calling for Hindus to be armed. There was a film released recently called The Kashmir Files. The “stormtroopers” are distributed in cinema halls, and they are literally saying that Muslim women should be impregnated, and that non-nationalist Hindus are even more treacherous than the Muslims. The sense of a physical threat has become so real, which, of course, looms up against the great movements like the farmers’ movement or the anti-citizenship law amendment movements.

I’ve read that The Kashmir Files has fomented anti-Muslim sentiment in India, and I’ve seen videos of those men chanting Hindu nationalistic slogans in cinema halls across the country. It’s terrifying. You’ve said before the India has “distinguished itself as a lynching nation.”

When you’re looking at the film, it’s not about facts. It’s interesting that the prime minister came out and said, “This is the truth, and everyone must see it.” And they gave police and government people leave to go and see it. They sent their own “stormtroopers” into theaters to foment trouble. The director said, “This is the truth.” But the film itself starts with a “this is a work of fiction” sort of thing. Basically, it takes a kernel of truth and then just secretes this universe of falsehood around it. The film is not about Kashmiri pundits in the end; it’s about Kashmiri pundits standing in for Hindus in India, and all the Muslims are evil butchers who slaughter and kill. Whereas, in truth, there are Kashmiri pundits who continue to live in Kashmir, who continue to maintain relationships with their Muslim friends and neighbors. And their figures are that in 30 years, 619 people were killed. But in the film, it’s like the whole population was either slaughtered or driven out.

Kashmir is covered with Muslim graveyards. That war has consumed tens of thousands of lives. And all that is just airbrushed out. You take one very tragic thread of an epic tragedy and use it to draw a curtain across everything else, and then turn it into a javelin to drive into the hearts of this very complex country. The only word I can think of to describe that film is radioactive. And, of course, there’s a professor in the film, who the actors go around saying is me. It’s literally trying to get you physically attacked if you go somewhere.

It’s an amalgam of me and another professor who taught in that fictitious university. How do you live with yourself when you make a work of art and the result of it is that people come out and call for women to be raped and killed, for people to be lynched, for Hindus to be armed? It’s radioactive. If a piece of cinema or art could be compared to a weapon, it’s a radioactive weapon that has been dropped, and now its half-life will go on and on and on and on. It’s ripped through the fabric of things.

In your essay “My Post-Lockdown Reverie” from the new expanded edition of Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus (2020), you write that the Indian government’s response to the pandemic has exacerbated caste apartheid. Thinking about the connections between race and caste and imperialism, how do you reckon what you’ve described as a “systematic hollowing out of democratic institutions”?

That whole thing has also turned complicated now. Starting in the 1990s, you had a huge burgeoning of political parties whose self-description was that they were representing Dalits, or they were representing what are called the “other backward castes,” which together do form a kind of majority, although they are so riven and complicated between themselves. But in the last two elections, Hindu nationalism has trumped those caste parties. The Dalit party, which was really modeled on Ambedkarite vision, won one seat—and that, too, was not by a Dalit—in the elections in Uttar Pradesh. This nationalism and this kind of polarization against Muslims has changed the equation completely—despite the lockdown, despite the cruelty, despite demonetization, despite joblessness.

[In my essays,] I was talking about how in the ‘60s there were revolutionary movements, demanding the redistribution of wealth, the redistribution of land. Those were crushed. Then you came to the great anti-displacement movements, like the anti-dam movements in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where people were not asking for anything; they were just asking that their own lands not be taken from them. Those were crushed. Then you came to a situation where people were fighting for what is called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which at least guarantees 90 days of minimum wages every year.

Today, we are witnessing a situation where people are just giving [Prime Minister] Modi votes because they have been given rations—like five kilos of rice, one kilo of sugar, whatever it is. And then you have the whole Citizenship Amendment Bill, where you’re cutting the ground beneath the feet of Muslims. You’re making them feel like they don’t really belong here, that they belong in detention centers, but there are too many of them to put in detention centers. In the imagination of the state, that’s where you belong. You don’t have rights. You’re seeing a situation where there were 300 attacks against Christians just in the last year.

But because of caste, every Indian is a minority—either by caste, or by region, or by ethnicity, or by religion—so trying to form this kind of Hindu nation is actually trying to create a majority out of a non-existent majority. It’s a very cruel process. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation of Caste that caste is not just like racism practiced by white people against Black people. Caste is a different thing in the sense that it’s a very, very carefully calibrated hierarchy, where everybody has someone to oppress and someone to be oppressed by. So, this is the complication, that you create a situation where everyone is implicated in this hierarchical thinking. I keep saying that the communists, or the Maoists anyway, say this famous quote of Mao’s: a single spark can light a prairie fire.

I remember you once saying that Brahminism gave India a labyrinth instead of a prairie.

Yes! The single spark lost in the labyrinth not knowing where the hell to go. Caste is what precludes all forms of solidarity. Even radical people isolate themselves further and further and further.

Where do you locate hope in all of this?

Hope, or happiness, is not an institutionalized thing or a building that you can seek. But I think it’s in understanding, and being able to support, resistance—even if it isn’t exactly the way you visualize it or want it to be. Being able to accept that we do have to live together, and we’re all kinds of people, and we do have to create a space where there is understanding.

The farmers’ movement in India last year was a historic movement, where they camped outside the city of Delhi for a whole year. And there were so many contradictions within that movement. There were people who had been mortal enemies for decades who had come together. There were landless people who had been exploited by landed farmers for centuries, but they found a way of speaking to each other, because they knew everybody was going down. And eventually that spirit of being able to do that without minimizing people, without beheading people ideologically, without narrowing things, without sitting in your silos, is what forced even this most powerful government to withdraw the newfound laws. So that gives people a lot of hope.

In India, certainly, we are looking at a situation where there’s such a powerful ruling party that has changed all the rules, that has set aside the constitution, that has electoral bonds—which is a way of financing itself from corporate houses without being transparent about it—that has so much data on everybody else. When you watch elections, it’s like watching a Ferrari racing a bicycle.

We have to find space—on the streets, in the classrooms, in the universities, in wherever we can. We have to know that maybe we’re not going to see change, because one party is going to lose an election to another. We might have floated far beyond that. We may not be able to turn the ship back and go to shore. We have to find another shore.

Courtesy: St. Louis School Guide

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