Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Arundhati Roy

"Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe."

Arundhati Roy is one of my favorite writers, for her novel The God of Small Things, and for her many political essays and speeches.

I've been thinking lately about her remarks, from a lecture a year or so ago, reprinted in Ms. Magazine:

"The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as nonfiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in. The term “anti-American” is usually used by the American establishment to discredit its critics (myself included). Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that the person’s argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.

But what does the term “anti-American” mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you’re opposed to freedom of speech? That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons? Does it mean that you hate all Americans?

This sly conflation of America’s culture, music, literature, the breathtaking physical beauty of the land, the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people with criticism of the U.S. government’s foreign policy is an effective strategy. It’s like a retreating army taking cover in a heavily populated city, hoping that the prospect of hitting civilian targets will deter enemy fire. But there are many Americans who would be mortified to be associated with their government’s policies.

It is dangerous to cede to the Indian government or the American government the right to define what “India” or “America” are or ought to be. To be “anti-American” (or for that matter, anti-Indian or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you. If you’re not a Bushie, you’re a Taliban. If you’re not Good, you’re Evil. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.

Now that the initial aim of the war in Afghanistan - capturing Osama bin Laden (dead or alive) - seems to have run into bad weather, the goalposts have been moved. It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, that the U.S. Marines are actually on a feminist mission.

Think of it this way: In India there are some pretty reprehensible social practices against “untouchables,” against Christians and Muslims, against women. Pakistan and Bangladesh have even worse ways of dealing with minority communities and women. Should Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka be destroyed? Is it possible to bomb bigotry out of India? Can we bomb our way to a feminist paradise?

In everybody’s mind of course, particularly here in America, is the horror of what has come to be known as 9/11. The tears have not dried. And a strange, deadly war is raging around the world. Yet, each person who has lost a loved one surely knows secretly, deeply, that no war, no act of revenge, no daisy-cutters dropped on someone else’s loved ones or someone else’s children, will blunt the edges of their pain. To fuel yet another war - this time against Iraq - by manipulating people’s grief is to pillage even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a State to do to its people.

Real globalization would be the idea that human beings across the world do share love, and terror, and gentleness, and these things which literature links up. That’s why I keep saying that literature is the opposite of a nuclear bomb."


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