Saturday, April 5, 2008
Interview with Arundhati Roy
1. Considering the political, educational, cultural and social background of Kerala, which generally appears to be caste free, why did you choose to represent the issue of caste discrimination in Kerala in your novel The God of Small Things ?
Caste free? You must be joking. Just because you don’t have the Ranvir Sena operating in Kerala, just because you don’t have caste massacres, does it make Malayali society caste free? Have we lowered our standards that much? Like most other communities in India, Kerala too functions along elaborately and explicitly drawn lines of caste and religion. It maybe that because of the legacy of the Marxists it is not as up front, as vulgarly on display as it is in other places. But it would be delusional to believe that it does not exist, or that transgressions will be easily tolerated. However, it has to be said that Kerala is not the same as Bihar or Rajasthan when it comes to caste conflict. But I’m waiting to see how the situation in Chengara pans out. If you go to Chengara you will see what you never see in Kerala. A hidden nation of Dalits and Adivasis has risen to claim land on a corporate rubber estate. Go there and you will see what upper caste and upper class Malayali society wants to wish away.
2. What were the responses to the novel from CPM and the Dalits themselves? How do you react to these responses?
The CPM was distinctly uncomfortable. Much of that discomfort was channeled into a bizarre accusation that I had somehow implied in the novel that E.M.S Namboodiripad was running a hotel for tourists, which is so stupid that it didn’t deserve to be answered. The Parliamentary Left has a long history of eluding caste issues and hoping that if they elude them for long enough, they will simply go away. For some reason many people read The God of Small Things as an outright assault on the CPM as well as Communism as an ideology – some went as far as calling me anti-communist. That I think is absurd, and an overreaction. It shows a slightly frightening intolerance of criticism of any kind. While it is perfectly valid to ask what the response of the CPM was (because it is a political party with a clear party line), I feel that asking what ‘Dalits’ thought is a bit insulting and patronizing to Dalits. Surely Dalits are not one homogenous mass with the same opinion about everything. Probably some loved it, some hated it, and most haven’t read it because it hasn’t yet been translated into Malayalam (its happening now). I don’t think we’d easily ask a question like ‘what did Brahmins think of your book?’ or even ‘what do women think of it?’
3. In the novel, Velutha emerges as a victim of caste discrimination. He is a victim with no voice for himself and his body is objectified and eroticized, in a way similar to the African black body in Literature. Is not this romanticizing of Velutha a misrepresentation of Dalit identity?
That, if you don’t mind my saying so, is absolute nonsense. In The God of Small Things, Velutha is not the only victim of caste discrimination. He lost his life. Ammu lost her mind and then her life. Estha lost his voice and Rahel lost everyone she loved. It’s a bit clichéd and untrue to look at Velutha as a voiceless victim. If there is a voiceless victim – literally, it’s Esthappen. In fact, you see Velutha as the only really political character – someone who was a Naxalite, someone who was in a protest march, someone whose anger and politics sets him apart from his family and community, someone who was prepared to do something about his anger. How is he voiceless? He is Estha and Rahel’s biggest hero. He teaches them how to look at the world. He tells stories, he makes jokes, and he dares to love. As for his body – yes it is objectified – yes it is a beautiful body – not because he is a Dalit, but because he is a carpenter. A man who labours, whose labour shapes him. But read the book, it is about love, physical love, sexual love. It’s about the love laws, remember? When you write about love, the body is and has to become and be seen as an object of love. But it is not only Velutha whose body is objectified, Ammu’s is too. Her hair, her skin, her breasts. So is Estha’s. And to some extent Rahel’s too. What’s wrong with that? Why should we be so coy? There are lots of bodies in the book. Some less loved than others, but they are also in the book. Baby Kochamma’s, Comrade Pillai’s (whose skin stretches off his bones like chewing gum). To see only Velutha’s is a pre-determined Pavlovian response, anticipating the insult – wanting to see things in a particular way because we’re so used to being insulted (or being insulting) in a particular way. But this is no insult. It’s a celebration. Of love. Of sex.
Having said that, in Kerala, Dalit men labour bare-bodied. In that parochial, sexually inhibited community, you see bare, male Dalit bodies all the time. They are beautiful (because they are formed by labour, not in gymnasiums) But to upper caste people, men as well as women, those bodies don’t exist. They are no threat to anybody. They don’t see Dalits as physical, leave alone sexual beings. It’s as though in that society caste-prejudice overcomes human biology and desire. (Girls without dowry will remain unmarried and will even commit suicide rather than marry out of caste) So, I think to notice, to describe, to write about it is a political and a provocative thing to do. And, if I may say so, it is also the natural thing to do if you are a human being who is not indoctrinated by rigid caste prejudice. How sad a literature that does not objectify bodies – male, female, black, white, upper-caste, out-caste – would be.
This is not to say that objectifying certain bodies and not others does not reveal politics – of caste, of race and gender. It happens all the time. That’s what much of the feminist movement is all about. I’m deeply aware of that. As an early reader of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, I was fully aware of the pitfalls of creating the ‘Dalit Eunuch’. I didn’t do that. I never would. However, I do not believe that the way to evade the treacherous trap of the politics of ‘objectification’ is to produce hard, bilious literature that has been sanitized and drained of love and beauty.
In fact I’m a little skeptical about some Dalit writing which goes to great lengths to describe victim hood, with gratuitous descriptions of smell and stink and humiliation. I feel that that is a sort of inverted plea for compassion and I think it can be counter-productive. I do not believe in the politics of compassion and good intentions. I believe in finding beauty in the saddest places, and honing it into a weapon of war. It is not compassion or pity that attracts Ammu to Velutha. It is not subservience that delivers Velutha to Ammu. It is Ammu’s anger at the society she lives in and is shunned by that seeks out and recognizes Velutha’s anger. They are united in anger as much as in love.
4. How has the CPM in Kerala failed to address the caste issue?
Well Caste does not fit that easily into the Communist Manifesto, so it creates a problem. It’s inadequate to say ‘caste is class’ and leave it at that.
5. Is CPM fully casteist considering
(a) its role in diminishing caste system may be indirectly through Land Reform Act etc)
(b) A major chunk of the educated Dalit youth of Kerala, especially Kottayam district, support CPM in elections?
I would not call it fully casteist. I’d just say it hasn’t done all that it could or should – not even on the implementation of Land Reforms. I suppose the very upper-caste, Brahmanical nature of leadership of the CPM – even if we assume it had/has the best intentions – makes it a bit like well-intentioned white folks arguing politely with the idea of Apartheid. The kindest interpretation could only be that it is paternalistic towards Dalits. Its harshest critics would call it casteist. I would say that it is as opportunistic as any other political party, and prefers to harness rather than overtly challenge the caste-system to create its support base. As for educated Dalits supporting the CPM – that has to do with the rather vast subject of electoral democracy and the options it offers. As it becomes more and more necessary for political parties to have access to vast amounts of money, as the links between the Free Market Capitalism and Democracy grow closer and stronger, choices become limited. If the only choice Dalits in Kerala have is between a party that is aligned to the big modalalis [the rich] and the settled establishment and one that is - at least in name - Marxist, then who should they choose? All over India oppressed and humiliated people are being forced to choose between ‘worse’ and ‘less worse’ - I don’t see it as a real choice, but I understand that it is a choice that people have to make. At least until they come up with real options.
6. In most inter-caste relationships- in real life and also in Literature- the frequency of a lower caste man marrying an upper caste woman is more compared to the other way round. This seems to operate in Velutha's case too. This seems to be an aspiration of the lower caste men to assert their identity and thus a rise up the social ladder. How do you respond to this statement?
I think you can read this in diametrically opposite ways and both would be valid. In many parts of India an upper caste man can pick up a Dalit woman and sexually assault her. It is seen very much as his right, as part of the structure of repression, part of the way of keeping Dalits in their place. Historically white men have raped black women. (The black man sleeping with the white woman is of course the stuff of the white man’s nightmare.) In India, in our communally charged times, even in the goody-goody secular idiom, if an ‘inter-communal’ relationship is portrayed, it is OK if the man is Hindu and the woman Muslim (that way she is absorbed into the Hindu mainstream). On the other hand, in the new hyper-nationalist Bollywood movies, the chorus girls in many songs and dance sequences are white – that way the conquering Indian male announces his arrival as a victor in the white world. In Lagaan, Rang de Basanti – it’s the Indian Man with the white heroine. The other way around would be inconceivable. I remember a South African friend listing how many black leaders – major figures in the anti-Apartheid struggle have got white wives or partners. So, it seems to me that when the black man ‘arrives’ and wishes to announce his ‘arrival’ he adorns himself with a white woman as a badge of victory. But to do it before he has won – when the laws of Apartheid still applied, when the battle was still raging – would have meant something different altogether. It would have been a battle-cry, by both parties in equal partnership, black as well as white.
So in The God of Small Things Velutha and Ammu’s relationship is a battle-cry. There is no way that he could use that relationship to make his way up the caste ladder – instead, she would make her way down – and she did. (All this explanation is only if we really must reduce their relationship to a game of snakes and ladders, which somehow makes me sad.)
7. Is a socially accepted marriage between Syrian Christian and a Paravan [a lower caste] possible in a contemporary Kerala? Do you see inter-caste marriages as a solution to caste system?
Well... no. Not easily. May be. Maybe if the Paravan had made pots of money in the Gulf – or in some extraordinarily enlightened family context. But even then I think it would cause a scandal and the couple would be ostracized and their children too. Prejudice turns very quickly into outright hatred when old hierarchies are challenged.
I don’t think inter-caste marriages can or ever will ever be the solution to the caste-system. But I think that the day we see inter-caste marriages taking place it will indicate that we are winning the battle against caste. I think we still have a long, long, long way to go.