Arundhati Roy's blaze of light

Issue 

The Chequebook and the Cruise-Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy
By David Barsamian
Harper Perennial, 2004
178 pages, $22.95 (tpb)

Review by Lachlan Malloch

Arundhati Roy is usually introduced as "the Indian writer who won the 1997 Booker Prize", before her activist achievements are listed. The four interviews that make up The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile - more a political pamphlet than a book - confirm, however, that Roy is an eloquent and insightful fighter in today's global justice movement.

These interviews, conducted between February 2001 and May 2003 by US-based journalist David Barsamian, explore several themes about life for the mass of the world's people under modern-day imperialism. Reading them together is a smooth ride: we're guided by Barsamian's probing, progressive spotlight and accompanied all the way by Roy's insistent, persuasive prose.

The first theme is the profoundly undemocratic nature of the world economic system, especially as it impacts on people in the Third World. The official development debate, as conducted by the World Bank, the IMF and company, is a "scam", says Roy, amounting to nothing more than advancing the re-colonisation of the Third World.

In 2001 she told Barsamian: "The distance between power and powerlessness, between those who make decisions and those who have to suffer those decisions, has increased enormously. It's a perilous journey for the poor - it's a pitfall filled to overflowing with lies, brutality and injustice. Sitting in Washington or Geneva in the offices of the World Bank or the World Trade Organisation, bureaucrats have the power to decide the fate of millions. It's not only their decisions we're contesting. It's the fact that they have the power to make those decisions. No one elected them. No one said they could control our lives."

It's clear that living and working in India, at globalisation's grinding coalface, places Roy at a vantage point. And there is so much to learn from her reflections on Indian politics. In the book, Roy explores the history of the Indian government's project to build 3200 dams in the Narmada Valley and the mass protest opposition, which she has been a part of.

Roy's commentary on the rise and ugliness of Hindu chauvinism in India also stands out as compelling reading.

Roy constantly reminds us that it's women who, in many ways, bear the brunt of globalisation, making feminism a touchstone of the global resistance. Hers is a fierce, uncompromising, independent, intellectual feminism. It's a pleasure to read how she rallies her fellow women, especially in the deeply sexist Indian context, to retain what they want from tradition while gaining what they need from modernity.

While I read this book, I pondered why Arundhati Roy's work should be so attractive to us.

It's not just that she unleashes her prodigious weaponry of metaphors to unmask imperialism and inspire our resistance - although that's a great asset for the left. The title of this collection is a fine example, referring to the two primary ways in which imperialism keeps the Third World subjugated.

It's not just that she has chosen to continue to give a voice to the oppressed rather than 'sell out' and pursue the purely financial rewards promised by the Booker Prize. That too is exemplary morality.

Perhaps Roy's greatest qualities are the ones she obviously shares with Pilger. First, she's an activist journalist, finding and telling the truth by taking sides in the struggles of the world's oppressed.

Second, her sense of humour and alertness to the absurd rescue some of our sanity, by helping us laugh at an insane world.

In another way still she recalls a little of the old Italian man in Catch 22 during the Second World War. He pities the US empire because he's calmly confident that humanity will endure, outlasting an empire whose internal contradictions and greedy overreach will eventually see its power drain away.

Roy's unshakeable belief in the power of collective action - in the solidarity of the oppressed - is an example of what the anti-war movement needs in large doses. In Chequebook she articulates this in terms of breaking mass liberal illusions in the way the US war in Iraq might have been averted:

"Isn't there a flaw in the logic of that phrase - 'speak truth to power'? It assumes that power doesn't know the truth. But power knows the truth just as well, if not better, than the powerless know the truth. Enron knows what it's doing. We don't have to tell it what it's doing, we have to tell other people what it's doing".

How prescient that passage was for the recent theatrics of Australian politics! In one fell swoop it nails all the fake soul-searching and hand-wringing that's been going on about "intelligence failures" supposedly leading the Australian government to lie to the people about the reasons for going to war against Iraq.

Our smooth ride with Roy and Barsamian further gathers pace towards the end of the book, as they begin to touch on the ways forward for our movement.

The global anti-war marches of February 2003 were magnificent, Roy says, but only ever symbolic. She implores us not only to grow, but more importantly to punch our way through into real civil disobedience. It's the only way the powerful few will ever take notice of us. Roy chides the naivety in thinking that simply "giving up a Sunday" - even if it was millions of us doing it - was ever going to stop a juggernaut with such force as the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

This sort of perspective undoubtedly places her on the radical wing of the anti-war movement.

But a yet unanswered question for those of us following Roy's work, especially as it relates to the World Social Forum process, is whether her proven capacity to change and to learn as she leads will eventually see her become aligned with a particular revolutionary party or socialist political current.

There are many of us who believe such a cross-over is not only possible, but truly urgent for all the leaders of today's global resistance movement.

[Lachlan Malloch is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Sydney, Australia.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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