​Arundhati Roy: Brilliant, troubled and troubling

Unsilenced: Arundhati Roy has repeatedly spoken out against the Indian government’s policies. She is also sharply critical of capitalism and refuses to deify Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo: Chandradeep Kumar/India Today Group)

Unsilenced: Arundhati Roy has repeatedly spoken out against the Indian government’s policies. She is also sharply critical of capitalism and refuses to deify Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo: Chandradeep Kumar/India Today Group)

In the 1780s, the Dutch East India Company moved the eastern border of the Cape to the Fish River. Under European law, this act tacitly affirmed the trekboers’ claim to the land, which would plunge them and successive colonial administrations into wars for 100 years against the rightful owners, the amaXhosa and Khoikhoi clans.

It was early during that decade that a building in Cape Town, now known as the Cape Heritage Hotel, was built.

By whom?

Was it the Bing family, who used it as their private residence, according to a framed black-and-white photo at the entrance? Or Jürgen Spengler, the German alcohol trader who owned the house?

In colonial Cape Town, construction and all forms of hard labour was the work of enslaved people. They lived in the Slave Lodge, which is now a museum. And they laboured on lands from which the Khoikhoi had been cleared by firearms and the legislative backing of the mother country, the Netherlands. But neither the displaced nor the enslaved feature in the record captured on the walls of the hotel or Heritage Square, a structure encircling the block.

Despite Short market Properties and the Cape Heritage Trust vowing that their desire is to preserve the history of the place, there is no acknowledgement of slavery.

The only mention of Khoikhoi people is a large, yellowing placard on a wall in the central courtyard. It says that the neighbouring square, known today as Riebeeck Square, a parking lot, was once called Hottentots Square. “Hottentot, now regarded as derogatory, was a word used to describe the early local inhabitants of the Cape Colony,” the placard reads.

By whom?

In that one throwaway line, the placard rewrites history to make Khoikhoi people “early inhabitants” rather than people displaced by the colony.

This European was “allocated” land here, that one “granted” it there, yet another was “given” some yonder, the placard says.

By whom?

Strange, then, to find Arundhati Roy, best known as the author of the Man Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things, tucked in the far corner of a long striped couch in the brightly coloured lounge of this hotel in a square of selective memory. She is drinking tea. The overcast sky brings such a definitive hush to the mid-morning that, if you listen carefully, you would swear you could hear the city’s drought-stricken people pleading with the dark clouds for the sweet mercy of water (to echo the title of Cape Town author Karen Jayes’ prescient post apocalyptic novel).

It’s unclear whether Roy, a first-time visitor to Cape Town, is aware of the elisions. There is no time allocated to wander the past. The duration of an audience with her is policed and the present demands attention.

After a 20-year hiatus, Roy released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, last year and is on her first book tour of South Africa. Two cities, one week — then she’ll be gone.

Holding a dark earthen teacup in her palms, she admits to being no expert on South African history and the country’s present social realities. But, she adds, she’s not a complete stranger to them either.

Her self-admitted, modest knowledge about the country raises some questions. Did her publisher, Penguin Random House, know about the silenced, preferably unheard, histories of the hotel when it was chosen as the place where Roy, of all people, would hold court with pre-selected, pre-vetted journalists? And, if they were, had they read a single word penned by the critically acclaimed anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist Indian author? Why co-opt her into this country’s dangerous national sport of remembering what we like?

A lack of awareness by her local handlers could explain the chaos that unfolded later that night, after her participation in a panel discussion at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and again three days later when she spoke in Johannesburg.

The story goes that there was a security issue with a member of the crowd at the Cape Town event and so fences were put up to cordon off the path to her in Johannesburg. An audience member in the book-signing queue apparently asked loudly: “Am I lining up to register under the Group Areas Act?”

Unaware of what awaited her, Roy sits leaning forward, listening keenly. She says her characters in The Ministry told her to go with Hamish Hamilton as the publisher of her long-awaited return to fiction, an imprint of Penguin.

She speaks lovingly about them, the characters. Even the antagonists, like Bilap Dasgupta, whose code name is Garson Hobart. He is a lovelorn, pragmatic and alcohol-addled intelligence ministry official who is a key part of the Indian state’s counter insurgent operation that manipulates people on all sides of the conflict over Kashmir. Roy loves him, even though she regards him as her intellectual nemesis.

“Garson Hobart is the guy who speaks on behalf of the state, a sophisticated state, the Nehruvian state — a guy who can pretend to be secular, who’s self-deprecating, who is a Brahmin, which is the Indian equivalent of the white man,” she says.

Hobart is the only character in the book who speaks in the first person, interrupting an unseen omniscient narrator who sounds suspiciously like Roy.

She says she tried to tell Hobart “no”. She says she told him that he couldn’t just start speaking in the first person midway through. Of course, Hobart — who is half human, half the state — did as he pleased.

This is how she characterises the Indian state. A government that does as it pleases.

“He [Hobart] has the state’s ability to watch something horrible happening and wait. The state can always wait. The state can always just say, ‘Okay, these guys will just calm down; they come out for their processions and funerals and scream and yell, then things will go back to normal’.”

The occupation of Kashmir will continue as normal, as will the bloodletting, she says.

Her love-hate relationship with Hobart mirrors her relationship with the Indian state, which has been a source of fear, frustration, prosecution and perhaps persecution for the better part of two decades.

Roy seems genuinely terrified but says she can’t help herself.

After she won the Booker prize in 1997, Roy had barely a year to ponder the anxiety-inducing weight of the fact that she might never write anything as successful again. She could not afford that kind of self-indulgence, like others who wrote breakthrough debuts — Elizabeth Gilbert, for instance, the author of Eat Pray Love.

When Roy became world-famous, Hindu nationalism was again on the rise. She says she didn’t have the option of keeping quiet.

“They would have just used me as a part of this new, rising India. I would have been the ambassador. So, I wrote this essay called The End of Imagination, which immediately, I suppose in some ways, made people who had deified me regret that,” she says.

A wry smile suggests that was the intention.

She was signalling to them that she was not going to protect the legacy of winning the Booker prize. That she was not like the many other Indian public figures and intellectuals who live for the fame and money. She was not going to temper her words or look away when the state did as it pleased.

Published in 1998, the essay warned not only against the threat of nuclear war with Pakistan, it also chastised the luminaries who celebrated “Operation Shakti”, India’s second testing of a nuclear bomb. Many of them had only a year earlier been celebrating Roy, who was on the cover of every magazine. The essay said to them, India’s Hindu upper castes, that Roy was of “them” but not one of “them”.

It also propelled her into the “urgent intervention” of non-fiction. Two decades later, essays — a genre she did not set out to write — make up most of her bibliography.

But she insists that fiction is the closest form of writing to prayer. It is the only way, in a temple of her own making, to tell the truth about Indian society and the occupation of Kashmir, she says.

This is perhaps why she says she finds fiction more freeing than non-fiction.

“Every time I would write an essay, I would get into so much trouble legally and otherwise, and I would keep telling myself I’m not doing this again. You know. And then, something would happen,” she says.

The nuclear bomb test. The 2002 Gujarat massacre. The 2004 flood in Srinagar. The constant and relentless persecution of Indian Muslims and Dalits, who are excluded from the privileged varna castes in Hindu society. The state-sponsored eviction of people from their lands, for corporations to mine for coveted mineral deposits. The privatisation of public goods.

Such atrocities would keep happening and Roy kept on writing, impelled by the urgency of the situation.

The 100-page Capitalism: A Ghost Story lay bare these issues. It reveals an India that, much like South Africa, is locked in step with a global economic system that resists and co-opts any attempts to break the economic, cultural and social dominance of the nation’s elite and the superpowers of the West.

Roy attributes the persistence in South Africa of apartheid’s economic ordering to this, despite the advent of democracy.

“There was a real sense in which international finance realised that apartheid was a bad idea because it wasn’t getting them very good press,” she says. “So, they asked themselves, can we take the machine into the workshop and come out with the same economic structure, but with a slightly better-looking machine, where its racist nature isn’t so obviously stated?”

The answer is yes.

“That is capitalism,” Roy says.

She adds that the system is inextricable from the identities created by the ideologies — such as race, gender and caste — that are its engine room. There is no dismantling the injustice of these ideologies without dismantling capitalism, and there is no dismantling capitalism without deconstructing the identities. The importance of the latter is something the global left, who focus on class, have failed to understand, she says.

But it isn’t only trouble with the state that Roy has courted.

In 2014, she published The Doctor and the Saint as an introductory text to The Annihilation of Caste, a 1936 speech written by BR Ambedkar, a towering intellectual born into a Dalit family. Ambedkar was prevented from delivering it by Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, the reformist, upper- caste organisation that had invited him to speak.

Several Dalit scholars and activists objected. They accused Roy of speaking over Ambedkar, in what was essentially a standalone essay that barely referenced the original text, corrupting his ideas in the process. The website Round Table India began to curate a collection of critiques of Roy and Navayana, the book’s publisher.

Created by Dalit activists Kuffir Nalgundwar, Anoop Kumar and Anu Ramdas, the website contains arguments that suggest that the obvious intention of Roy’s introduction was to criticise Mahatma Gandhi, which she could have done without smuggling it inside Ambedkar’s seminal text.

Roy is sceptical. She insists the standalone text would have been banned in an India where Gandhi is an industry. Gandhi, in Roy’s telling, is like a god and any word critical of him is sacrilege and censored.

“Nobody who is inside the system, who is an academic or who is looking for a way to be promoted within the system can easily write about Gandhi critically,” she adds.

She acknowledges it is Dalit activists who paved the way for people like her to appraise Gandhi critically. But she adds that other versions of Ambedkar’s text exist; hers is neither the first nor the final definitive version.

These other versions include Ambedkar’s own republication, which includes a reply to Gandhi’s speech, A Vindication of Caste.

Responding to Ambedkar’s original speech, Gandhi argues that the caste system can be reformed so that those within and without the varna can and should learn that “no calling [is] too low and none too high. All are good, lawful and absolutely equal in status.” Gandhi not only attempted to repudiate Ambedkar’s call to annihilate caste, he defended the system that today continues to rationalise the exclusion, discrimination against and lynching of Dalits, Roy says.

“I completely understand [the critiques] and am glad the debates happen,” she says.

Roy’s insistence on criticising Gandhi, however, and the closing of ranks by those who valorise him, hits close to home.

The man’s legacy of advocating for the rights of Indians only continues to underwrite some of the conflict in KwaZulu-Natal between Indians and Africans. Gandhi wanted the colonial administration to set Indians apart from, in his own words, “the raw k****r, whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

He seems to have received his wish; tense relations between black people and Indians continue today in the province.

Roy is saddened by this and the deification of Gandhi in South Africa.

“You even need to interrogate the basic philosophies [of Gandhi] and what does it mean for a person who is so powerful to say I’m living like a poor man. Because poverty is not only about the lack of money; it’s also about the lack of power. If you have a choice … then it’s a form of theatre,” she says.

Time is up.

Roy offers a kindly goodbye and reappears that evening at UCT. Almost word for word, some of the answers she gives to questions asked by the panel moderator, author and journalist Rebecca Davis, are identical to those she gave earlier in the one-on-one at the square of the forgotten.

What to make of this?

“The answers are the answers,” says a novelist who has trodden the global book tour circuit many times over.

That is true. Roy is, as her latest, carefully calibrated novel reveals, consistent about who she is and what she stands for. Consistent and constantly observing, taking in the world around her, thinking and sharpening what she has to say and how she will say it.

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