Who is the real anti-national
Modis India or: The writer as an enemy of the state
I feel very honored to be able to hold this year's “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” at PEN America. If Arthur Miller and I had belonged to the same generation and if I had been a US citizen, we would have run into each other if we had been summoned to the Un-American Activities Committee. In any case, I have impeccable references in India: My name is high on the A list of “anti-nationalists” - and not because it starts with an A. This list is now so long that it should soon surpass the list of patriots.
Lately, people have quickly become anti-national: if you don't vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you are Pakistani. It would be interesting to know what Pakistan thinks of its growing population.
Here we are now in the legendary Harlem, in the Apollo Theater, the walls of which have heard overwhelming music and perhaps secretly stored it. They're probably buzzing to themselves when no one is listening. A bit of Aretha Franklin, a bit of James Brown, a riff by Stevie Wonder or Little Richard. Could there be a better place than this hall steeped in history to reflect together on the place of literature at this point in time as an era that we believe we understand is drawing to a close?
When many of us dreamed that “another world was possible”, these people dreamed that too. And it is their dream - our nightmare - that is dangerously close to being realized. So while we stumble towards the future in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook likes, fascist marches, fake news beatings and something that looks like a race to ruin - what place does literature have in that?
What counts as literature anyway? And who decides that? Obviously, there is no single edifying answer to these questions. So please excuse me if I speak about my own experiences as a writer in these times - about wrestling with the question of how to be a writer in these times, especially in a country like India, which lives in several centuries at the same time.
Early fighters against climate change
A few years ago I was sitting in a train station reading the newspaper while I waited for my train. I came across a small report of two men arrested on charges of being couriers of the banned underground Communist Party of India (Maoists). Among the "items" seized from the men were, the report said, "some books by Arundhati Roy". Soon after, I met a college lecturer who spent a lot of time organizing legal assistance for detained activists, including many young students and villagers arrested for "anti-national activities". Most of the time, that meant they protested against commercial mining and infrastructure projects that are driving tens of thousands from their lands and homes. She told me that in various "confessions" made by these prisoners - which were usually obtained under duress - my writings often had the merit of leading them further "astray," as the police call it. "They're laying a trail - to construct a case against you," the lecturer told me.
The writings in question were not my novels (at that time I had only written “The God of Little Things”), but my non-fiction books. However, in some ways these are also stories, a different kind of story, but stories nonetheless. They are stories about the massive attack by corporations on forests and rivers, on seeds and grain, on land and farmers, on labor rights and politics. And about the attacks by the USA and NATO on one country after the other in the wake of September 11th. Mostly they are stories about people who defend themselves against these attacks - concrete stories about specific rivers and mountains, specific companies and specific protest movements, all of which were concretely smashed. It's about the real fighters against climate change, local people with a global message who understood the crisis before it was recognized as such. Yet they were constantly portrayed as villains - the anti-national obstacle to progress and development. A former Indian prime minister, a free market evangelist, called the guerrillas - mostly Adivasi indigenous peoples who fight mining corporations in the central Indian forests - the "greatest internal security problem". War was declared on them under the name "Operation Green Hunt". The forests were flooded with soldiers whose enemies were the poorest people in the world. It was no different in many places - in Africa, Australia, Latin America.
And now - ironically - a consensus is emerging that climate change is the world's biggest security problem. It is increasingly being negotiated in a military language. And undoubtedly, its victims will very soon become "enemies" in a new, endless war.
Well-intentioned calls to declare a “climate emergency” could accelerate a process that has already begun. There is already pressure to move the debate from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to the UN Security Council - in other words: to exclude most of the world and turn decision-making back to the usual suspects. Once again, the Global North - who caused the problem - will see to it that it benefits from the solution it is proposing. A solution, the spirit of which will undoubtedly lie deep in the heart of the “market”, consisting of more buying and selling, more consumption and more profit for fewer and fewer people. In other words: more capitalism.
A literature that protects
When my essays were first published (first in mass newspapers, then on the Internet and finally in book form), they were viewed with great suspicion, at least in certain circles, who often did not even necessarily reject my political stance. My writings were at odds with what conventionally counts as literature. The rejection was understandable, especially among those to whom systematics mean a lot. You didn't know what exactly these texts were supposed to be: pamphlets or polemics, scientific or journalistic writing, travelogues or mere literary adventurism? For some, it didn't even count as writing, “Oh, why did you stop writing? We are waiting for your next book? ”Others imagined that I was just a rental pen. I received all kinds of offers: "Darling, I liked this piece that you wrote about the dams, could you write me one about child abuse?" (I actually did.) I was taught strictly (mostly by men of a higher class.) Caste), how to write, what topics to choose and what tone to use.
But in other places, let's call them the places off the highways, the essays were quickly translated into other Indian languages, printed as pamphlets and distributed free of charge: in forests and river valleys, in endangered villages and at universities, where the students no longer lied wanted to be. Because those readers, out there on the front lines, who were already scorched by the wildfire, had a very different idea of what literature is or should be. I mention this because it taught me that the place of literature is built by writers and readers. This place is in some ways fragile, but indestructible: if it's broken, we rebuild it. Because we need protection. I really like the idea of a literature that is needed. A literature that offers protection. All kinds of protection.
In time you ended up with an unspoken compromise: I was called a "writer-activist". This category implied that my literature was not political and my essays were not literary.
Once I was sitting in a college classroom in Hyderabad in front of an audience of five or six hundred students. On my left sat the host of the event, the vice-chancellor of the university, and on my right a professor of poetics. The Vice Chancellor whispered in my ear: “You shouldn't spend any more time on literature. Concentrate on the political writings. ”The poetics professor whispered:“ When will you start again with literature? That is your real calling. Your other stuff is just ephemeral. ”I never saw literature and factual texts as opposing factions fighting for supremacy. They are certainly not the same, but pinpointing the difference between them is harder than I thought. Factual texts and literature are not strictly opposites. Some are not necessarily truer, more factual, or more real than the other. All I can say is that I can physically feel the difference as I write.
As I sat between the two professors, I enjoyed their conflicting advice. I smiled and thought of the first message I had received from John Berger. It was a beautiful handwritten letter from a writer who had been my hero for years: "Your literature and your factual texts, they carry you across the world like your two legs." That settled the conflict for me.
The Hindu Nationalist Network
Whatever case was constructed against me, it has - at least until now - borne fruit. I am still here, on my two legs, speaking to you. But the lecturer friend is in prison on charges of taking part in anti-national activities. India's prisons are filled to the brim with political prisoners - mostly under the accusation that they are either Maoists or Islamist terrorists. These terms are so broadly defined that they encompass almost anyone who disagrees with the government.
Teachers, lawyers, activists and writers were arrested ahead of the recent elections for allegedly plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. The supposed conspiracy sounds so ludicrous that a six-year-old could have done better. The fascists should take some good literary writing courses.
According to Reporters Without Borders, India is the fifth most dangerous country for journalists in the world, only behind Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Mexico. At this point I have to thank the PEN for the work it is doing to protect writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, persecuted and censored. From one day to the next, any of us could be in the field of fire. Knowing about an organization that is looking after us is a consolation.
In India, the prisoners are still among the lucky ones. The less fortunate are dead. Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, all critics of the Hindu extreme right, were murdered. And those were the known murders. A host of other activists who used the Right to Information Act to expose massive corruption scandals have been killed or found dead under suspicious circumstances. Over the past five years, India has stood out as the land of lynching. Dalits - the “untouchables” in the Indian caste system - and Muslims were publicly whipped by Hindu mobs and beaten to death in broad daylight. The "lynch videos" were then happily uploaded to YouTube. The violence is blatant, open and certainly not spontaneous. Although violence against Muslims is not new and violence against Dalits is ancient, these lynchings have clear ideological underpinnings.
The lynchers know that they are protected by the highest authorities, not just the government and prime minister, but above all the organization that controls both: the far-right, proto-fascist Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the most secretive and powerful organization in India. The ideologues who founded it in 1925 were heavily influenced by European fascism. They openly praised Hitler and Mussolini and compared the Indian Muslims with the German Jews. The RSS has been working continuously for 95 years to have India formally declare itself a Hindu nation. She describes Muslims, Christians and communists as her enemies.
The RSS runs a shadow government that operates across the country with tens of thousands of Shakhas (branches) and other ideologically affiliated organizations under other names - some of which are astonishingly violent. Traditionally, the RSS is controlled by a brahmin sect from the west coast, the Chitpavan brahmins. Today they are also circling supporters of white supremacy and racists from the US and Europe who praise the centuries-old caste system of Hinduism. More precisely, it is about Brahmanism, a brutal system of social hierarchy that these Americans and Europeans envy for its sophisticated, institutionalized cruelty and that has survived more or less intact since ancient times.
But Brahmanism also has followers from whom one would least have expected it. One of them - you will be saddened to hear this - is Mahatma Gandhi, who believed the caste system to be the "spirit" of Hindu society. I have written extensively about Gandhi's stance on caste and ethnicity in my book, The Doctor and The Saint, so I will not delve into this topic now. Just this much: Speaking at a missionary conference in Madras in 1916, he said: “The vast organization of the caste not only responded to the religious needs of the community, it also responded to its political needs. The villagers ran their affairs through the caste system, and with its help they responded to oppression from the ruling powers. One cannot deny the organizational abilities of a nation that was able to produce the caste system and its wonderful organizational power. "
Surveillance Capitalism in Indian
Today the RSS boasts a trained militia of 600,000 members who call themselves swayam sevaks (volunteers) and which include the prime minister and most of his cabinet. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) acts as the parliamentary department of the RSS, of which its general secretary Ram Madhav is a member. Many Indian and international journalists, as well as many self-proclaimed seculars and liberals in India, insist that the BJP is an independent entity, an ordinary right-wing conservative party. Involuntarily or deliberately, they play down the BJP's organic connection to the RSS - and in doing so have paved the way for it to take power.
Modi's political career happened (or maybe not) just two weeks after September 11th when he was appointed Chief Minister of Gujarat despite not being a member of the local parliament. A few months later, a pogrom against Muslims broke out under his eyes in Gujarat, in which 2,000 people were murdered in broad daylight. Shortly afterwards he called new elections, which he won. At a large gathering of businessmen and industrialists in Gujarat, the CEOs of some of India's largest corporations openly endorsed him as their future candidate for prime ministeriality. Fascism and capitalism took wedding vows in a rather noisy ceremony and moved in together. After three terms as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014. Liberal commentators greeted him like a hero. All over the world, he hugged top global politicians - and was hugged by them. Among them were Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron. And Donald Trump, of course, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. None of them are ignorant of who Modi really is, but they all have something to sell to over a billion people in his “market”.
Another dangerous development emerged recently in a public speech by Maneka Gandhi, who is part of Modi's cabinet. She said villages are classified according to the degree to which they voted for the BJP. Then they will be rewarded or punished by allocating or withholding funds in proportion to their loyalty. She is by no means the only one who openly suggests that the party knows who voted for it and who did not. And that retribution would follow on the heels. And it is by no means the first to suggest that political parties can access data from a purportedly secret ballot - data that they can dangerously use to their advantage, undermining elections and democracy itself. In the era of surveillance capitalism, a few people will know everything about us and use that information to control us.
India is fighting for its soul.The RSS is like a chameleon and moves on millions of legs. She can change her color if necessary and wear a mask of sanity and inclusivity. It has proven that it works in the underground as well as in the open. She is a patient, hard-working beast that has carved its way into every institution in the country: courts, universities, media, security forces, intelligence agencies. Much of it has been part of my writings for years, in literature as well as in factual texts.
The inviolable caste system
My novel “The God of Little Things”, which appeared in the summer of 1997, resulted from the search for language and form to describe the world in which I grew up, to myself and to my loved ones, to whom Kerala was partly completely unknown. I had studied architecture, written scripts, and now I wanted to write a novel. A novel that could only be a novel - not a novel that really wanted to be a film or a manifesto or some kind of sociological treatise. I was amazed when some critics described it as a work of magical realism. How could that be? The location of the book is a harsh reality to me: the old house on the hill in Ayemenem, my grandmother's canning factory where I grew up (I still have some jars and labels), the Meenachal River. To Western critics this seemed exotic and magical. Alright But I reserve the right to think that way about New York and London.
At home in Kerala, the reception was pretty unmagical. The Communist Party of India (Marxists), which had ruled Kerala from time to time since 1959, was upset because they wanted the book to be a criticism of the party. I was labeled an anti-communist, a crying-talking-sleeping-walking imperialist conspiracy.
It's true, I was critical. And the point of my criticism was that the left, i.e. the various communist parties in India, not only took an opaque stance towards the caste system, but mostly supported it openly. Hence, the cross-border relationship in the novel between Ammu (a Syrian Orthodox Christian) and Velutha (a Dalit) caused dismay. This was just as much a result of my dealings with the caste system as with gender roles. The depiction of the relationship of one of the main characters, Comrade K.N.M. Pillai, to his wife Kalyani and that of Ammu, a divorced woman who "combined the infinite tenderness of motherhood with the ruthless rage of a suicide bomber", "who loved the man at night whom her children loved by day" did not meet with applause and Hallelujahs. Five lawyers jointly filed lawsuits against me, accusing me of profanity and "violating public morals."
There were also things that had nothing to do with the novel. My mother, Mary Roy, won a case in the Supreme Court that toppled a law granting Syrian Orthodox Christians "a quarter of their father's property, or 5,000 rupees [$ 70], whichever is less". Now women could inherit in equal parts. This caused a lot of trouble. There was a palpable feeling that mother and daughter had to be taught a lesson. But by the time the case reached its third or fourth day of trial, "The God of Little Things" had won the Booker Prize. That split public opinion. A Malayali woman from the area who had won a prestigious international literary award was not that easy to dismiss. So should she be avoided or hugged? I attended the trial with my lawyer, who had confidently told me that he found parts of my book "quite obscene". But, he said, the law says that a work of art should be viewed as a whole, and since my book isn't entirely obscene, we stand a fair chance. The judge said, "Every time this case comes to me, I get a sting in the chest." He adjourned the trial. His successors followed suit. Meanwhile, the non-borderline aspects of the book were celebrated: the language, the evocation of childhood. Many still find it difficult to look at Ammu and Velutha's relationship without wincing. It took almost ten years for the case to drop.
Words for the Kashmir conflict
In May 1998, barely a year after the publication of “The God of Little Things”, a BJP-led coalition took over government for the first time. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a member of the RSS. A few weeks after taking office, he fulfilled a long-cherished dream of the RSS by conducting a series of nuclear tests. Pakistan immediately responded with its own tests. This marked the beginning of the crazy rhetoric of nationalism that has become a normal form of public speech in India today.
I was dismayed by the jubilation orgies with which the nuclear tests were greeted - even from very unexpected corners. It was then that I wrote my first essay, The End of Imagination, in which I condemned the tests. I said entering into a nuclear race would colonize our imaginations: “If it's anti-Indian and anti-Hindu to have an atomic bomb planted in my brain,” I wrote, “then I split off. I hereby declare myself a mobile republic. ”You can imagine the reactions to it.
This was the beginning of my now twenty years of essay writing. During these years India changed at lightning speed. For each essay, I looked for form, language, structure, and narrative. Was it just as compelling to write about watering as I was about love and loss and childhood? About the salinization of the soil? About dams? Crops? About structural adjustment and privatization? About things that affect ordinary people's lives? Not as a report, but as stories? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? In literature for everyone - even for people who cannot read and write, but who taught me to think and who can be read to? I tried. And as the essays appeared, the five lawyers returned (not the same as the first time, but they seem to hunt in packs). And the lawsuits, mostly for disregard of the court. One of them ended with a very short prison sentence and another is pending. The debates were often bitter. Sometimes brutal. But always important.
Almost every essay got me so troubled that I vowed not to write another one. But inevitably there were situations where trying to remain still resulted in such noise in my head, such pain in my blood that I gave in and wrote. When my publisher published a collection of all of my essays last year, I was shocked to find that the volume was a thousand pages.
After 20 years of writing, traveling to the heart of the rebellions, and meeting the most extraordinary as well as the exceptionally ordinary people, literature returned to me. Only a novel could encompass what built up within me, wriggled up from the landscapes I had traveled and merged into a universe of stories. I knew it would be unabashedly complicated, unabashedly political, and unabashedly intimate. "The God of Little Things" was about a house with a heartbroken family at its center. On the other hand, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” had to begin after the roof was blown off the house and the broken heart shattered and scattered its shards over war-torn valleys and the streets of cities. It had to be a novel, but the universe of stories refused to be tamed or conventioned by a novel. The book would be like a big city in my part of the world that the reader enters as an immigrant: a little scared, a little intimidated, and very excited. The only way to get to know it would be to walk through it, get lost and learn to live in it, learn to meet people big and small. To learn to love the crowd. It had to be a novel that says what cannot be said otherwise. Especially about Kashmir, where only fiction can be true because you can't speak the truth. In India, it is impossible to speak even reasonably honestly about Kashmir without risking bodily harm.
On the history of Kashmir and India, India and Kashmir, I would best quote James Baldwin: "And they did not believe me precisely because they knew I was telling the truth." The history of Kashmir is not the sum of the human rights reports. It is not just about massacres, torture, disappearances and mass graves or about victims and their oppressors. Some of the most terrible things that happen in Kashmir would not necessarily qualify as human rights violations. Kashmir offers significant lessons on the essence of man to a writer. About power, powerlessness, betrayal, loyalty, love, humor, faith ... What happens to people who have been under military occupation for decades? What negotiations are there when the air itself is filled with horror? What happens to language?
And also: What happens to people who enforce, process and justify the horror? What happens to people who let it go on on their behalf? The cashmere narrative is a puzzle with jagged pieces that don't fit together. There is no finished picture.
Strange people have found their way into my website. First and foremost, Biplab Dasgupta, an intelligence officer. I was annoyed when he arrived and spoke in first person. I believed I was in his head and later realized that maybe it was in mine. What was creepy about him was not his wickedness, but his reasonableness, his intelligence, his wit, his self-irony, his vulnerability. Yet all of Dasgupta's sophistication and learned political analysis escapes what the contractor DD Gupta, a minor character in my novel, easily notices. Gupta has returned to India from Iraq, where he made his living for years building splinter barriers, the photos of which he proudly keeps on his cell phone. Disgusted by what he saw and experienced in Iraq, he looks at the place he has understood as his home. His well-considered assessment is that his home country will probably create a market for splinter protection walls in the long term.
Novels can drive their authors to the brink of madness. But novels can also protect their authors.
As a writer, I protected the characters in The God of Little Things because they were vulnerable. Many of the characters in The Ministry of Extreme Happiness are usually even more vulnerable. But they protect me. Above all Anjum, who was born as Aftab and becomes the owner and manager of the Jannat Guest House, in an abandoned Muslim cemetery just outside the walls of Old Delhi. Anjum softens the boundaries between men and women, between animals and humans, and between life and death. I go to her when I need protection from the tyranny of hard borders in this increasingly hardening world.
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