Posted Dec. 17, 2013
From Maoist Road;
West: Brother Tavis, we are blessed to have one of the great and courageous intellectuals of our time. She is Arundhati Roy. We call her Sister Roy. Of course she’s the winner of the Booker Prize of her renowned novel The God of Small Things. She is the author of a variety of very powerful prose, non-fiction prose. She is in the process now of finishing a new text called Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
What a blessing to have you, Sister Roy.
What a blessing to have you, Sister Roy.
Roy: Thank you, Dr. West.
West: Let’s start, before we get to your magnificent political activism, your visionary political activism, let’s go all the way back to your upraising, your training as an architect very much like Thomas Harding, becoming a great writer like Thomas Harding.
How do you connect your childhood with your training as an architect to your becoming a great writer?
Roy: I don’t know if I’m a great writer.
West: I can testify to that.
Roy: I’m a little embarrassed by all the good things you’re saying about me.
I grew up in south India as the child of a divorced mother which was unusual in that area. You know it’s a very parochial community called the Syrian Christians. My mother had married outside the community and then got divorced and come back to the village.
Growing up there in a very traditional space where caste was practiced, where there was all kinds of bigotry hidden and not so hidden, then growing up outside of this great Indian family unit.
I suppose it just made you look at society and wonder why it wasn’t offering you the certainties and the assurances that it offered a lot of other people from my kind of background.
I think that’s what initially made you want to explain it to yourself through writing.
The architecture was actually something that I did because I knew that I had to do something where I could earn a living very quickly so as to not be dependent on anybody because I knew that once that happened I wasn’t going to have even half a chance to write or to think or be anything other than live a very constricted, suffocating life.
West: The text itself, of course, wrestles with the issues that Embeker and so many other earlier intellectuals in India tried to hit head on which is the humanity of our Dalit brothers and sisters, the so-called untouchables.
Could you say something about what it is to wrestle with that issue even in 1997 or in 2013.
Roy: I would say that it is the most horrifying reality of India today. As horrifying in different sort of ways as it was 100 years ago in a different way. For some reason, for a whole host of reasons though the world has discussed apartheid and race and feminism and economic imperialism somehow caste passes under the banner unnoticed mainly because I think other than the fact that the person that everybody naturally chooses to worship is Gandhi. I could talk for about 3 hours about Gandhi and caste.
Other than that also the progressive intellectual left has enlighted the issue of caste. It doesn’t easily fit into class analyses. But you’re familiar with it because I think in that sense it was the same with race.
West: That’s the reason why Embecker is so very important and ought to be as well-known as Gandhi in many ways.
Roy: Gandhi was not of… I’m not a fan of Gandhi. In fact, very soon I think there will be a little book out in which I set out my views on that.
Smiley: Can you topline those views? That’s a pretty strong statement for some listeners, I suspect.
Roy: I’m reluctant to talk about it before what I’m writing is out. It’s something that is such an exclusive subject and it needs to be discussed with care. First it will have to come out and then I’ll be, you know, set out the context in which I can talk about it.
West: Did you want to say a word about Embeker though?
Roy: Embeker, yeah. I think he’s a heroic man.
West: He’s always been a hero of mine.
Roy: I think what he brought to the national movement in India was an intelligence that was much deeper than almost anybody else in that spectrum, you know. He has been ghettoized and his work has been hidden, more or less. He’s hardly available.
Even though he’s a huge hero among the valley population in India who know his work and his life in every very, very minute detail, he was actually the greatest not just intellectual, not just political, but the greatest moral challenge to Gandhi.
West: He has taught at Union Theological Seminary. I teach here. I do agree with you.
But this book that includes a critique of Gandhi does sound quite fascinating, I must say.
Roy: I’m coming to your seminary to talk about it.
West: Coming to your seminary, coming to Union. Wonderful, wonderful.
Smiley: What do you say to people, how to you respond to people, Ms. Roy, who think that text like the one that’s forthcoming about Gandhi and any number of other things that we could list because you’ve been involved with so many issues, how do you respond to people who think, and I’ve read this critique of you, that you’ve gotten to the point now where you are just being deliberately provocative.
Roy: I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be. I will not necessarily take it as an insult.
Obviously they would have to point specifically to what I was being gratuitously provocative about. Deliberately is okay, gratuitously is not okay.
It would have to be a specific charge about a specific point that we could debate but not just an assessment of my character.
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