The graveyard talks back –I

Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, and her party supporters attend a protest march against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and a new citizenship law, in Kolkata, India, December 16, 2019. Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Fiction in time of fake news. Below is the text of the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature instituted by Trinity College, Cambridge. We are publishing the first part of the lecture first published in the Literary Hub, The Guardian, UK. 

By Arundhati Roy


Thank you for inviting me to deliver this, the Clark Lecture, now in its 152nd year. When I received the invitation, I scrolled down the list of previous speakers, the many “Sirs” and Sir-sounding names who have spoken on topics as varied as “Literary Criticism of the Age of Queen Anne,” “Shakespeare as Criticised in France from the Time of Voltaire,” “The Crowning Privilege: Professional Standards in English Poetry” and “Makers and Materials: The Poetry of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, and Eliot.”

In the cartoon version of this story, at this point, the character playing me would furrow her brow and her speech balloon would say, “Huh?” I was reassured when my eye fell on “Studies in American Africanism” by Toni Morrison, but only momentarily. I asked Dr John Marenbon, who invited me if I could look at the texts of some previous lectures since I couldn’t find them on the Internet. He most helpfully replied that speakers were never asked to deposit their lectures with Trinity, but that T. S. Eliot’s The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry had evolved from his Clark lecture, as had E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

In other words — no pressure.

Graveyards in India are, for the most part, Muslim graveyards, because Christians make up a minuscule part of the population, and, as you know, Hindus and most other communities cremate their dead. The Muslim graveyard, the kabristan, has always loomed large in the imagination and rhetoric of Hindu nationalists. “Mussalman ka ek hi sthan, kabristan ya Pakistan!”—Only one place for the Mussalman, the graveyard or Pakistan—is among the more frequent war cries of the murderous, sword-wielding militias and vigilante mobs that have overrun India’s streets.

As the Hindu right has taken almost complete control of the state, as well as non-state apparatuses, the increasingly blatant social and economic boycott of Muslims has pushed them further down the societal ladder and made them even more unwelcome in “secular” public spaces and housing colonies. For reasons of safety as well as necessity, in urban areas many Muslims, including the elite, are retreating into enclaves that are often hatefully referred to as “mini-Pakistans.” Now in life, as in death, segregation is becoming the rule.

The division in opinions on the use of the term comes down to whether you believe that fascism became fascism only after a continent was destroyed and millions of people were exterminated in gas chambers.

In cities like Delhi, meanwhile, the homeless and destitute congregate in shrines and around graveyards, which have become resting places not just for the dead, but for the living, too. I will speak today about the Muslim graveyard, the kabristan, as the new ghetto — literally as well as metaphorically — of the new Hindu India. And about writing fiction in these times.

In some sense, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, my novel published in 2017, can be read as a conversation between two graveyards. One, a graveyard where Anjum—born as a boy to a Muslim family in the walled city of Delhi—makes her home and gradually builds a guest house, the Jannat (Paradise) Guest House, and where a range of people come to seek shelter. The other, the ethereally beautiful valley of Kashmir, which is now, after 30 years of war, covered with graveyards, and in this way has become, metaphorically, almost a graveyard itself. So, a graveyard covered by the Jannat Guest House, and a Jannat covered with graveyards.

This conversation, this chatter between two graveyards, is and always has been strictly prohibited in India. In the real world, it is considered a high crime, treasonous even. Fortunately, in fiction, different rules apply.

Before we get to the forbidden conversation, let me describe for you the view from my writing desk. Some writers may wish to shut the window or move to another room. But I cannot. So you will have to bear with me, because it is in this landscape that I heat my stove and store my pots and pans. It is here that I make my literature.

Today marks the 193rd day of the Indian government’s shut down of the Internet in Kashmir. After months of having no access to mobile data or broadband, now seven million Kashmiris, who live under the densest military occupation in the world, have been allowed to view what is known as a white list—a handful of government-approved websites. These include a few selected news portals, but not the social media that Kashmiris so depend on, given the hostility to them of the mainstream Indian media, to put out their versions of their lives. In other words, Kashmir now has a formally firewalled Internet, which could well be the future for many of us in the world. It’s the equivalent of giving a thirsty person water from an eyedropper.

The Internet shutdown has crippled almost every aspect of daily life in Kashmir. The full extent of the hardship it has caused has not even been studied yet. It’s a pioneering experiment in the mass violation of human rights. The information siege aside, thousands of Kashmiris, including children, civil society activists and political figures, are imprisoned—some under the draconian Public Safety Act. These are just the bare bones of an epic and continuously unfolding tragedy. While the world looks away, business has ground to a halt, tourism has slowed to a trickle, Kashmir has been silenced and is slowly falling off the map. None of us needs to be reminded of what happens when places fall off the map. When the blowback comes, I, for one, will not be among those feigning surprise.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has passed a new citizenship law that, even if intricately constructed, is blatantly discriminatory against Muslims. I have written about this at length in a lecture I delivered last November, so I will not elaborate on the law now—except to say that it could create a crisis of statelessness on a scale previously unknown. It is for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the wellspring of Hindu nationalism, and the parent of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party—what Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws were for the Third Reich, conferring upon it the power to decide who was a rightful citizen and who wasn’t, based on specific documents that people were expected to produce to prove their heredity. That lecture, “Intimations of an Ending,” is one of the bleakest texts I have written.

Three months on, the bleakness has turned into cautious hope. The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in parliament on December 11, 2019, becoming the Citizenship Amendment Act. Within days, students rose. The first to react were the students of Aligarh Muslim University, and Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. In response, riot police attacked the campuses with teargas and stun guns. Students were ruthlessly beaten, some were maimed, and one was blinded in one eye. Anger has now spread to campuses across the country and spilled over into the streets.

Outraged citizens, led from the front by students and Muslim women, have occupied public squares and blocked roads for weeks together. The Hindu right—which lavishes enormous energy on stigmatizing the Muslim man as a woman-hating, terrorist jihadi, and even offers itself up as the savior of Muslim women—is a little confounded by this brilliant, articulate, and very female anger. In Delhi’s now iconic Shaheen Bagh protest, thousands, tens of thousands, and sometimes a hundred thousand people, have blocked a major road for almost two months. This has spawned mini Shaheen Baghs across the country. Millions are on the street, taking back their country, waving the Indian flag, pledging to uphold the Indian Constitution and reading out its Preamble, which says India is a secular, socialist republic.

Does a country fall into fascism the way a person falls in love? Or, more accurately, in hate? Has India fallen in hate?

The anthem of this new uprising, the slogan that is reverberating through towns and college campuses and crossroads across the country, is a variation of the iconic chant of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, “Hum kya chahtey? Azadi!”—What do we want? Freedom! That slogan is the refrain within a set of lyrics that describes peoples’ anger, their dream, and the battle ahead. This is not to suggest that any one group can claim ownership of the Azadi slogan—it has a long and varied history.

It was the slogan of the Iranian revolution, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and of a section of the feminist movement in our subcontinent in the 70s and 80s. But over the last three decades, it has, more than anything else, become known as the anthem of the Kashmiri street. And now, while Kashmir’s streets have been silenced, the irony is that its people’s refrain, with similar lyrics, rhythm and cadence, echoes on the streets of the country that most Kashmiris view as their colonizer. What lies between the silence of one street and the sound of the other? Is it a chasm, or could it become a bridge?

Let me read you a short elucidation of the Kashmiri chant of “Azadi” from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The “I” in the text is Biplab Dasgupta, known to his friends—for reasons we need not go into here—as Garson Hobart. He is a suave, even brilliant, Indian Intelligence Officer serving in Kashmir. Hobart is no friend of the Kashmiri struggle. It’s 1996—one of the darkest periods of the armed uprising that raged in the valley through the 1990s. Hobart is trapped with the governor’s entourage in a national park on the outskirts of Srinagar. They are unable to return home because the city has been taken over by hundreds of thousands of mourners carrying their most recent batch of martyrs to the graveyard. Hobart’s secretary is on the phone, advising him not to return until the streets are taken back:

Sitting on the verandah of the Dachigam Forest Guest House, over birdsong and the sounds of crickets, I heard the reverberating boom of a hundred thousand or more voices raised together calling for freedom: Azadi! Azadi! Azadi! On and on and on. Even on the phone it was unnerving…

It was as though the city was breathing through a single pair of lungs, swelling like a throat with that urgent, keening cry. I had seen my share of demonstrations by then, and heard more than my share of slogan-shouting in other parts of the country. This was different, this Kashmiri chant. It was more than a political demand. It was an anthem, a hymn, a prayer…

During those (fortunately short-lived) occasions when it was in full cry, it had the power to cut through the edifice of history and geography, of reason and politics. It had the power to make even the most hardened of us wonder, even if momentarily, what the hell we were doing in Kashmir, governing a people who hated us so viscerally.

To be sure, protestors in India are calling for an entirely different kind of Azadi—azadi from poverty, from hunger, from caste, from patriarchy and from repression. “It is not azadi from India, it is azadi in India,” says Kanhaiya Kumar, the charismatic young politician credited with customizing and re-tooling the chant for the uprising in India today. On the streets, every one of us is painfully aware that even an atom of sympathy for the Kashmiri cause expressed even by a single person, even accidentally, will be met by nationalist hellfire that will incinerate not just the protests, but every last person standing. And if that person happens to be Muslim, it would be something exponentially worse than even hellfire. Because when it comes to Muslims, for everything—from parking tickets to petty crime—different rules apply. Not on paper, but effectively. That is how deeply unwell India has become.

At the heart of these massive, democratic protests over the anti-Muslim citizenship laws, therefore, inside this borrowed song from Kashmir, is an enforced, pin-drop silence over crimes committed in the Kashmir valley. That silence is decades old, and the shame of it is corrosive. The shame must be shared not just by Hindu nationalists, not just by India’s entire political spectrum, but also by the majority of the Indian people, including many who are bravely out on the streets today. It’s a hard thing to have to hold in one’s heart.

But perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the cry for justice by the young on India’s streets will come to include a demand for justice for Kashmiris too. Perhaps this is why in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, the chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, seen by many as a Modi in the making, has declared the Azadi slogan to be treasonous.

The government’s response to the protests has been ferocious. Prime Minister Narendra Modi fired the starting gun with his trademark toxic innuendo. At an election rally, he said the protestors could easily be “identified by their clothes”—implying that they were all Muslim. This is untrue. But it serves to clearly mark off the population that must be punished. In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath has, like some kind of gangster, openly vowed “revenge.” More than twenty people have been killed so far.

Kashmir now has a formally firewalled Internet, which could well be the future for many of us in the world.

At a public tribunal a few weeks ago, I heard testimonies of how police in the state are entering people’s homes in the dead of night, terrorizing them and looting. People spoke of being kept naked and beaten for days in police lockups. They described how hospitals had turned away critically injured people, how Hindu doctors had refused to treat them. In videos of the police attacking protestors, the slurs they use against Muslims are unspeakable, their muttered prejudice is almost more frightening than the injuries they inflict. When a government openly turns on a section of its own population with all the power at its disposal, the terror it generates is not easy for those outside that community to comprehend, or even believe.

Needless to say, political support for Yogi Adityanath has been forthright and unflinching. The president of the BJP in the state of West Bengal, who seems to be simultaneously envious and proud of the Uttar Pradesh model, boasted, “our government shot them like dogs.” A union minister in Modi’s cabinet, addressed a rally in Delhi with shouts of “Desh ke gaddaron ko,” and the crowd screamed back, “Goli maaro saalon ko”—What’s to be done with the traitors to the nation? Shoot the bastards!

A member of parliament said that unless the protestors of Shaheen Bagh were dealt with, they would enter homes and “rape your sisters and daughters”—which is an interesting idea, considering that the protestors of Shaheen Bagh are predominantly women. The home minister, Amit Shah, has asked people to choose between Modi, “who conducted airstrikes and surgical strikes on Pakistan,” and the “people who back Shaheen Bagh.”

Modi, for his part, has declared that it would take India only ten days to defeat Pakistan in military confrontation. It might sound like a non sequitur at a time like this, but it’s not. It’s his sly way of conflating the protestors with Pakistan. The whole country is holding its breath, waiting for more bloodshed, and perhaps even war.

As India embraces majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is a polite term for fascism, many liberals and even Communists continue to be squeamish about using that term. This notwithstanding the fact that RSS ideologues are openly worshipful of Hitler and Mussolini, and that Hitler has found his way onto the cover of an Indian school textbook about great world leaders, alongside Gandhi and Modi. The division in opinions on the use of the term comes down to whether you believe that fascism became fascism only after a continent was destroyed and millions of people were exterminated in gas chambers. Or whether you believe that fascism is an ideology that led to those high crimes—that can lead to those crimes—and that those who subscribe to it are fascists. (To be continued)

Due to an ongoing dispute between the Trinity College Board of Trustees and the University of Cambridge’s University and College Union, and in defense of a request by the Union, this lecture was not delivered in person. 

Arundhati Roy is the author of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and has been translated into more than 40 languages. She also has published several books of nonfiction including The End of ImaginationCapitalism: A Ghost Story and The Doctor and the Saint. She lives in New Delhi.

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