The softness is startling; when I call up Arundhati Roy to talk about her new book, there is no blare of car horns, none of the construction clatter that typically backgrounds a call to New Delhi. The COVID-19 pandemic has stilled the city’s cacophony. And Roy’s voice is soft as she mourns her silent city, where shopkeepers flick dust off their wares in empty markets, while the virus spreads unchecked and the economy has contracted by at least 24 per cent.
But there is nothing soft in Roy’s furious assessment of the state of her country.
COVID-19 barely makes the list of the crises she enumerates. There is a hair-trigger standoff with China, another nuclear power, on the border in Ladakh; a war on dissenters by the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi that has caused outbreaks of brutal violence and seen writer and activist friends of hers imprisoned; an anti-Muslim citizenship law that threatens to strip millions of their nationality; and a telecommunications siege in which seven million Kashmiris remain cut off after Modi unilaterally stripped the region of its political status and severed its connection to the outside world in August, 2019.
The new book is called Azadi: Freedom, Fiction, Fascism. Azadi is the Urdu word for “freedom”; long the rallying cry in the contested territory of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the chant has recently been taken up in other mass protest movements in different parts of the country. But the collection of essays, which range from indignant to mourning to scornful, is, in Roy’s own assessment, unlikely to have much impact on what she characterizes as India’s steady slide into totalitarianism.
“We put it down, we tell the story,” she said. “It’s not really utilitarian in terms of, I’m expecting this or that [outcome]. But these things – I need to explain it to myself. It’s like, you have to tell the story. Maybe we don’t have the power to change it. But we know. We will write it.”
Outside India, Roy, 58, remains best known for her Man Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things. Published in 1997, it was her first-ever book, and it left a global audience eager for her next novel. But it was 20 years before she published another, and she slipped from public consciousness abroad. When I moved to Delhi in 2008, I was surprised to discover that Roy was in fact a prolific writer – of books and essays and magazine pieces; she was one of the louder voices in the national conversation.
Roy was a fierce critic of the then-Congress Party government of Manmohan Singh, at a time when the dominant narrative about India was that it was “shining” and “incredible” and rocketing into a tech-sector-led shiny new future. Roy was having none of it. She wrote sympathetic accounts of travels with Maoist rebels and chronicles of protest movements against mass displacement for dams and infrastructure projects, and she earned the contempt of much of the emerging Indian middle class. When she denounced the curfews, torture and other human-rights abuses meted out by the Indian military in its occupation of Kashmir, she cemented her reputation as “anti-national.”
“In India it is not possible to speak of Kashmir with any degree of honesty without risking bodily harm,” she writes in Azadi. Roy got around it by putting it in a novel; published two decades after her first, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness centres on the liberation struggle in Kashmir, specifically, and violence against Muslims and Dalits broadly. That has intensified since Modi was first elected in 2014 by a country fed up with Congress ineffectiveness and eager to believe he might bring new prosperity; instead, he launched a Hindu nationalist project that has diminished the country and relentlessly hunted those who would criticize.
The new book is something of a hodge-podge, lacking a consistent through-line, some of it apparently written for an Indian audience, other parts an attempt to demand that the rest of the world pay attention to the damage being wrought by Modi. But Roy remains relevant because of the breadth of her field of vision and the risks she will take in a society where dissent is being inexorably silenced. (The latest casualty is Amnesty International, which announced on Sept. 29 that it was ceasing work in India, after “an incessant witch hunt” by government.)
I asked Roy whether she worries about being the next critic to wake up to police at her door; she responded, first, by listing the ways in which she has been targeted (a member of parliament from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suggested tying her to the roof of a military vehicle in Kashmir and using her as a human shield; a close Modi associate led a mob who smashed up an event for one of her books). Then she insisted she is much safer than others and rushed through a list of the assaults on people in a Muslim-targeting riot in North Delhi in February, and the names of activists who are jailed.
“So of course I’m aware of what I say and do, and it’s always been a fine balancing act,” she said. “And you can lose your balance any minute. But one is made vulnerable by one’s fame as well as protected by it.”
Roy lives in a second-floor flat in Jor Bagh, a quietly fashionable old-money neighbourhood of Delhi that borders Lodhi Gardens, a lush 90 acres of green scattered with Mughal-era tombs. Her life, she said, is largely unchanged by the pandemic – she sees friends, traverses the city – but she senses the absence of the millions of poor people, banished from “servants’ quarters” and building sites to rural villages by Modi’s lockdown and the virus fears of their wealthier employers.
The pandemic has put a check on the excesses of India’s elite in a way that was unimaginable eight months ago. While Roy has long warned of the exhaustion of natural resources, it was the vast pool of cheap labour which evaporated.
“So you have 20 cars, but you don’t want your drivers around because they might have COVID because they are living in some slum somewhere,” Roy mocked. “So then what is to do? The working-class body is being seen as a biohazardous body that can’t protect itself from COVID, from crowds, from slums, from buses and all that, as rich people are isolating themselves.” The inevitable result, she said, will be a rush to mechanize and replace those human bodies with germ-free machines as quickly as possible. The next step, she said – in one of the Nazi Gemany comparisons she makes often – will be the idea of “surplus people.”
Before COVID-19, India’s poor were already reeling from successive Modi policies: his snap decision in 2016 to “demonetize” – replacing currency ostensibly to crack down on untaxed wealth – cost an estimated 1.5 million jobs, virtually all of them among the poorest workers, and reduced the GDP by 2 per cent. In late September, tens of thousands of farmers began protesting new laws that Modi says will professionalize the agricultural sector but which small producers (the great bulk of those in India) believe will shut them out of markets. The coronavirus lockdown, announced with just four hours notice on March 25, has cut 10 million migrant workers off from the jobs they and their extended families relied on.
“But still he is very popular,” Roy said with a small bitter laugh. “That’s the thing – he doesn’t care what we all say because he’s very popular.” Azadi contains an essay written before Modi was reelected with a crushing new majority in 2019; Roy’s optimism at that time now seems foolish.
In Azadi, Roy chronicles the anti-Muslim project of the Modi government, but on the phone she points out that they’re far from the only victims. “If you look at the kind of destruction of every kind of safeguard and infrastructure for the poor here, look at the destruction of schools and universities … it’s not just the Muslims who are getting the hard end of it, it’s everyone else. … So you wonder, what is the psychology that makes human beings adore the people that are kicking them, that are destroying them, breaking their backs, that are mocking them?”
She speculated that the BJP’s steady diet of indoctrination about India as a Hindu state is one factor; the communal conflicts it stirs up to distract people from looking for the real cause of their unhappiness is another. In the book, Roy emphasizes the dearth of fact-based, non-partisan news coverage. “They’ve broken the media, and they replaced it with something extraordinary,” she told me. “I don’t know where you would find the scale and power of this kind of viciousness – 400 television channels spewing this hatred all the time.”
The media are fatally compromised, she says, and the courts and the electoral institutions have been subverted, too.
In one breath, Roy says she is done with manufacturing “fake hope” that change will come, in an election or any other form, or that a resistance can triumph; in the next, she tells me about the exhilaration of the giant mobilization of protesters, mostly women, in defence of the secular state, that filled the streets of Delhi and other cities in the first months of this year. The pandemic quashed that uprising, she said, but it could return. The government’s fear of its resurgence is what is driving the crackdown on her comrades. “All the people they think of as organizers and inspirers, they want them all in jail before it’s safe to come out on the street.”
Instead, Roy said, the world is facing a “portal,” created by COVID-19, through which we all must pass – “Nothing is going to save us. No one is coming to the rescue” – and it’s unclear who or what will survive, or what we will recognize.
She reminded me, then, of the words with which she ended Azadi.
“The last sentence is that we have to fight for it. It’s not going to just happen, it’s not going to just fall into our laps like some fruit,” she said. “Our job right now is to hold on to who we are and try to survive. Not just physically but our ideas, our way of thinking, our way of loving. All those things, all those complicated, whimsical things.”
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