The Journey Toward Justice

The Checkbook And The Cruise Missile
Conversations with Arundhati Roy
Interviews by David Barsamian

by Gilles d'Aymery

Book Review

August 16, 2004   


The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, Conversations with Arundhati Roy, interviews by David Barsamian, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004; ISBN: 1-89608-710-7 (pbk., 178 pages, $16.00).

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
—Frederick Douglass, The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies.

(Swans - August 16, 2004)  As Arundhati Roy is embarking on her 2004 US speaking tour organized by her publisher, South End Press (check their Web site for her schedule), this series of four conversations with David Barsamian, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, is a fresh reminder of the power of ideas advocated with passion. Arundhati Roy has both, passion and ideas, and more (wit, intelligence, commitment, talent...). This book deserves wide dissemination. These conversations took place in various locations, both in the United States and in India, between February 2001 and May 2003. They illuminate the socio-political side of the writer, her "hooliganism," and, as she once said, the "million ways to becoming a collective pain in the ass" (World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 2003), as well as her own upbringing and culture.

But let's take a short detour. A few days ago, Jan and I drove to the Bay Area Peninsula to meet our real estate broker and receive offers for our Menlo Park home, which we recently put on the market. Shellie Fletcher, our agent, had organized meetings with potential buyers. The first was a young couple in their thirties, accompanied by their agent. Once the introductions and greetings were completed, Jerome Edwards gave us a short letter he had written and a drawing of their intended plans for the house and the relatively big yard. Here is a short excerpt:
"My wife, Robin Edwards, is an elementary school teacher in Menlo Park. She teaches multiple grade levels at Beechwood Elementary. . . . . Beechwood is located in Belhaven, an area of Menlo Park usually associated with East Palo Alto (East of 101, North of Willow). Like East Palo Alto [author's note: East Palo Alto is largely inhabited by African Americans and Latinos], the area and its inhabitants are unfortunately stereotyped as criminal and dangerous. What is often overlooked is the majority of families are, like all of us, searching for a good and productive life. While many may believe that the students and parents of Beechwood are fortunate to have teachers like Robin, in actual fact the opposite is true. Robin is fortunate to have students and parents that appreciate education and see it as an opportunity to have a better, more productive life."
Jerome showed us a picture of Robin with her pupils...and we talked about their plans and their dreams. Later on, as we promptly chose not to see the other offers, he remarked that they had been praying that we would not hold against them the color of their skin. See, there is no black family in the street where our/their house is located.

As I recently noted, the racist beast is alive and well in America. (See Ron and Ray, June 21, 2004.)

Back to The Checkbook... Commenting on her speech in New York at Riverside Church on May 13, 2003 -- the same church where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in opposition to the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, Ms. Roy tells David Barsamian:
"It was important to me to come to the United States and speak in that church. Apart from what I said in the talk, which is available as a text, there was a lot unsaid which was very political. A black woman from India speaking about America to an American audience in an American church. It's always historically been the other way around. It's always been white people coming to black countries to tell us about ourselves. And if anybody from there comes here, it's only to tell you about us and what a bad time we're having. Here citizens of an empire want to know what other people think of what that empire is doing. Globalization of dissent begins like that. That process is very, very important." (p. 156)
A black woman, tiny, slim, with fiery eyes reflecting intensity, intelligence, anger, ardor, emotion, and, yes, delight and love too, speaking with the same clarity and to the same audience that Martin Luther King once did... Refreshing, no? (Will they kill her too?)

A clear-minded, passionate dissenter, Ms. Roy certainly is. As a "subject of the empire," she feels it's her right -- no, her obligation -- to speak out. Not truth to power, mind you. Power knows the truth, she asserts. It's the commoners, the people that need to be reached...in their hearts and minds. It's the people who, one would hope, need to understand what Power is doing to the world (and themselves), in their name.

She has a few words to say about Power and its arrogance.

On Mr. Bush and his counterpart, Mr. bin Laden:
"Osama bin Laden and George Bush are both terrorists. They are both building international networks that perpetrate terror and devastate people's life. Bush, with the Pentagon, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Bin Laden with Al Qaeda. The difference is that nobody elected bin Laden. Bush was elected (in a manner of speaking), so U.S. citizens are more responsible for his actions than Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans are for the Taliban. And yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, either by economic sanctions or cruise missiles, and we're told that these deaths are the results of 'just wars.' If there is such a thing as a just war, who is to decide what is just and what is not? Whose God is going to decide that?" (p. 92)
Who? Niall Ferguson, the author of Empire, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blair, Suzan Sontag, Michael Ignatieff, and the other guard dogs of the White Citadel, have made the case for just war and the civilizing benefits of empire.

Grotesque, exclaims Roy! She tells Barsamian,
"Do you think that the people of South Africa, or anywhere on the continent of Africa, or India, or Pakistan are longing to be kicked around all over again? Is Ferguson aware of how many million people died in India in the late nineteenth century because of the drought and the famine while food and raw materials were being exported to England? How dare they even talk like this? It's grotesque that anybody can sit down and write a reasoned book on something like this. It is nothing short of grotesque." (p. 138)

"The mullahs of the Islamic world and the mullahs of the Hindu world and the mullahs of the Christian world are all on the same side. And we are against them all," says Roy. (p. 145)
"If you put your ear to the ground in this part of the world today, what do you hear?" asks Barsamian.
"Communal talk," Roy answers. "Talk about religious identity, ethnic identity, tribal identity. Economically, as globalization is pushed down our throats, people are fractured into tribal communal groups. The world is getting more and more fractured. Nationalism, nuclearism, communalism, fascism, these things are springing up." (p. 99)
And finally, on America and all her military power:
"So what is it that makes a country with all these bombs and missiles and weapons the most frightened country and the most frightened people on earth? Why is it that people in a country like India, which has nothing in comparison, are so much less scared? Why do we live easier lives, more relaxed lives?

People are so isolated, and so alone, and so suspicious, and so competitive with each other, and so sure that they are about to be conned by their neighbor, or by their mother, or by their sister, or their grandmother. What's the use of having fifty percent of the world's wealth, or whatever it is that you have, if you're going to live this pathetic, terrified life?" (p. 146)
Answer, dear Arundhati: Because people are getting conned on a daily basis by their neighbors, their mother, their sister, or their grandmother -- and most bluntly by their bosses and their government and their political parties and the PR of the media beholden to the interests of the corporate titans; and people, largely ignorant and indifferent, want more and more, and think only about themselves, and their sacred "property." This IS America, Arundhati; this IS America, a controlling core with an awesome killing shelf, and a big unwashed mass of anesthetized automatons...

But I can't keep quoting Ms. Roy much longer without running the risk of having the friendly publisher of South End Press have an unfriendly encounter with my own little ass!

The fact is that Arundhati Roy says much of what the keyboard revolutionaries are not saying, as they are busying themselves attacking each other on the purity of their own definitions of the famed revolution. Roy does not talk truth to power; she does not talk about revolutionary decorum. She talks to people about the reality of power, whatever the consequence.

There is much more in this book.

One aspect that is not just alarming but quite frightening is her questioning, with much reason, of our definition of democracy. Is democracy about simply pulling a lever in a ballot box every so often?

She takes the example of the Indian province of Gujarat. In late February 2002, as the Indian People's Party (Bharatiyia Janata Party -- BJP), a fascistic party that was governing Gujarat (and India until recently), was gearing for re-election, a mass-slaughter, anti-Muslim pogrom was unleashed, organized by the provincial authorities. Over 2,000 Muslims were killed; women raped, gang-raped; pregnant women had their bellies slit open; businesses were burned to the ground; Mosques desecrated... It at best made the front page of The New York Times for one day. It may also have helped the Fergusons and Hitchens of this white-supremacist world feel even better about the superiority of their world views and the benefits of empire. But, there, within months, the prime minister of the province, Marenda Modi, in the words of Roy, "announced proudly that he wanted to have early elections. He believed that the pogrom would win him Hindu hearts."

He was re-elected.

Think about this, for a second. Think about what we are confronting right here, in the USA. People commit war crimes and real crimes against humanity and we elect them back into power, time and again. Think about it. What's the difference between a Bush and a Modi? One kills his own people; the other kills so-called gooks. What a difference, indeed!

Mussolini was elected to power... Hitler was elected to power... Think about it.

These conversations cover much more territory than the American empire and the putrefying stage we in the West are drowning in like the frog in a slowly boiling water pot. Roy is an Indian by birth and culture and life. She talks much with David Barsamian about India and her long activist journey there. Born in a village of Kerala, the southwesternmost province, taught at her mother's much heralded school, mid-rural, mid-cosmopolitan, educated, prodded to think by herself, without a father figure around, she began to question authority long before the white world discovered her. Barsamian should be commended for bringing Ms. Roy to talk about her own past, her own story, and the steps she's taken over the years in defense of the powerless -- who, she stipulates, have more power than one would think. Here again, the multitude does make a difference; and the multitude, in India, is often led by women, for reasons she describes thoroughly.

While she does not talk about the environmental and health damages caused in her state of Kerala; in particular the use of the pesticide Endolfan in the cashew plantations -- introduced (of course) by the Portuguese for the cocktail hours (see "The Poison Stream," by Matthew Power, Harper's, August 2004), she gives us an eye-opening picture on the big dams project in the Narmada Valley. This project covers more than 800 miles over three provinces (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat), the building of 30 mega-dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada river and its tributaries, threatening to destroy thousands of years (literally) of civilization. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced, mostly uncompensated, and countless villages submerged.

Roy provides the example of the Bargi Dam, the first built on the Narmada River, in 1990. On paper, seventy thousand people would be displaced and 101 villages submerged. Says, Roy:
"One day they just filled the reservoir. One hundred and fourteen thousand people, almost twice the government's projection, were displaced and one hundred and sixty-two villages were submerged. They were just driven from their homes when the waters rose. They had to run up the hill with their cattle and children. Ten years later, that dam irrigates five percent of the land that they said it would. It irrigates less land than it submerged." (p. 23)
The project was originally sponsored by, who else, but the World Bank...in the name of the abominable Green Revolution, the corporatization of the world's agriculture, profits made by the few, living thousands of miles away, and without any concern for the many, the affected people on the ground. Decisions made in The Hague or Washington or their local quislings detrimentally affect the entire world. A run-away train rushes toward irreversible ecological destructions in the name of profits and greed. Shall we remain silent forever, in the comfort of our little selves? Roy does not.

There is something strangely endearing about Arundhati Roy, almost unreal. Here is this genteel and beautiful woman. She made a fortune with her 1997 novel, The God of Small Things, which won the famed Booker Prize. She became a celebrity in the western white lands, and could have followed the course of so many other Uncle Tommies, and made a comfortable, wealthy living, appearing on Oprah and other daily sanitized, castrated network shows. She chose to travel another journey, a "less traveled journey." Instead of keeping being published by the big money-making presses (Random House, Perennial, etc.) and feeding honey to petit-fours-gorged ladies, she chose a small independent print shop to let her voice echo in the wilderness of our consciousness. The big guys would never have given her a forum, anyway. South End Press does. Kudos to them.

The New York Times, always aware of the dangers dissent causes to the well being of their patrons, considers Roy threatening enough that they sent one of their foot-soldiers to do a hatchet job on her. Roy's writing was portrayed as "vain, shrill, unoriginal, oversimplified, hyperbolic and lacking any voices but her own," in an article by Cecilia W. Dugger ("An Indian Novelist Turns Her Wrath on the U.S.," The New York Times, November 3, 2001, A3). Unoriginal, oversimplified, lacking any voices but her own... It tells you how much she is seen as a threat to the order of the day...

Says Roy,
"Sometimes I think the world is divided into those who have a comfortable relationship with power and those who have a naturally adversarial relationship with power." (p. 46)
Keep your voice up, Arundhati. We all need to hear it. The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile is a good place to start.

The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, Conversations with Arundhati Roy, interviews by David Barsamian, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004; ISBN: 1-89608-710-7 (pbk., 178 pages, $16.00).

The book can be ordered on-line directly from South End Press at southendpress.org.

It can also be ordered from your local US independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

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Also reviewed on Swans: Arundhati Roy's War Talk (July 2003).


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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published August 16, 2004
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