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Authors: Arundhati Roy

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I’ve known her for many years, this friend of mine. She’s an architect too.

She looked dubious, somewhat unconvinced by my paper-napkin speech. I could tell that structurally, just in terms of the sleek, narrative symmetry of things, and because she loved me, her thrill at my “success” was so keen, so generous, that it weighed in evenly with her (anticipated) horror at the idea of my death. I understood that it was nothing personal. Just a design thing.

Anyhow, two weeks after that conversation, I returned to India. To what I think/thought of as home. Something had died, but it wasn’t me. It was infinitely more precious. It was a world that has been ailing for a while, and has finally breathed its last. It’s been cremated now. The air is thick with ugliness and there’s the unmistakable stench of fascism on the breeze.

Day after day, in newspaper editorials, on the radio, on TV chat shows, on MTV for heaven’s sake, people whose instincts one thought one could trust—writers, painters, journalists—make the crossing. The chill seeps into my bones as it becomes painfully apparent from the lessons of everyday life that what you read in history books is true. That fascism is indeed as much about people as about governments. That it begins at home. In drawing rooms. In bedrooms. In beds. “Explosion of Self-Esteem,” “Road to Resurgence,” “A Moment of Pride,” these were headlines in the papers in the days following the nuclear tests. “We have proved that we are not eunuchs any more,” said Mr. Thackeray of the Shiv Sena. (Whoever said we were? True, a good number of us are women, but that, as far as I know, isn’t the same thing.) Reading the papers, it was often hard to tell when people were referring to Viagra (which was competing for second place on the front pages) and when they were talking about the bomb—“We have superior strength and potency.” (This was our Minister for Defence after Pakistan completed its tests.)

“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests,” we were repeatedly told.

This has been hammered home, over and over again. The bomb is India. India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just antinational, but anti-Hindu. (Of course, in Pakistan the bomb is Islamic. Other than that, politically, the same physics applies.) This is one of the unexpected perks of having a nuclear bomb. Not only can the government use it to threaten the enemy, they can use it to declare war on their own people. Us.

In 1975, one year after India first dipped her toe into the nuclear sea, Mrs. Gandhi declared the Emergency. What will 1999 bring? There’s talk of cells being set up to monitor antinational activity. Talk of amending cable laws to ban networks “harming national culture” (
Indian Express
, July 3). Of churches being struck off the list of religious places because “wine is served” (announced and retracted,
Indian Express
, July 3;
Times of India
, July 4). Artists, writers, actors, and singers are being harassed, threatened (and are succumbing to the threats). Not just by goon squads, but by instruments of the government. And in courts of law. There are letters and articles circulating on the Net—creative interpretations of Nostradamus’s predictions claiming that a mighty, all-
conquering Hindu nation is about to emerge—a resurgent India that will “burst forth upon its former oppressors and destroy them completely.” That “the beginning of the terrible revenge (that will wipe out all Moslems) will be in the seventh month of 1999.” This may well be the work of some lone nut, or a bunch of arcane god-squadders. The trouble is that having a nuclear bomb makes thoughts like these seem feasible. It
creates
thoughts like these. It bestows on people these utterly misplaced, utterly deadly notions of their own power. It’s happening. It’s all happening. I wish I could say “slowly but surely”—but I can’t. Things are moving at a pretty fair clip.

Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films—scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no sound track? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right? Could those images be the inevitable culmination of what we have set into motion? Could our future be rushing forward into our past? I think so. Unless, of course, nuclear war settles it once and for all.

When I told my friends that I was writing this piece, they cautioned me. “Go ahead,” they said, “but first make sure you’re not vulnerable. Make sure your papers are in order. Make sure your taxes are paid.”

My papers are in order. My taxes are paid. But how can one
not
be vulnerable in a climate like this? Everyone is vulnerable. Accidents happen. There’s safety only in acquiescence. As I write, I am filled with foreboding. In this country, I have truly known what it means for a writer to feel loved (and, to some degree, hated too). Last year I was one of the items being paraded in the media’s end-of-the-year National Pride Parade. Among the others, much to my mortification, were a bomb-maker and an international beauty queen. Each time a beaming person stopped me on the street and said “You have made India proud” (referring to the prize I won, not the book I wrote), I felt a little uneasy. It frightened me then and it terrifies me now, because I know how easily that swell, that tide of emotion, can turn against me. Perhaps the time for that has come. I’m going to step out from under the tiny twinkling lights and say what’s on my mind.

It’s this:

If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and antinational, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I’m female, but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I’m willing to sign any nuclear nonproliferation treaty or nuclear test-ban treaty that’s going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag.

My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.

Admittedly it was a flawed world. An unviable world. A scarred and wounded world. It was a world that I myself have criticized unsparingly, but only because I loved it. It didn’t deserve to die. It didn’t deserve to be dismembered. Forgive me, I realize that sentimentality is uncool—but what shall I do with my desolation?

I loved it simply because it offered humanity a choice. It was a rock out at sea. It was a stubborn chink of light that insisted that there was a different way of living. It was a functioning possibility. A real option. All that’s gone now. India’s nuclear tests, the manner in which they were conducted, the euphoria with which they have been greeted (by us) is indefensible. To me, it signifies dreadful things. The end of imagination. The end of freedom actually, because, after all, that’s what freedom is. Choice.

On August 15 last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence. In May we can mark our first anniversary in nuclear bondage.

Why did they do it?

Political expediency is the obvious, cynical answer, except that it only raises another, more basic question: Why should it have been politically expedient?

The three Official Reasons given are: China, Pakistan, and Exposing Western Hypocrisy.

Taken at face value, and examined individually, they’re somewhat baffling. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these are not real issues. Merely that they aren’t new. The only new thing on the old horizon is the Indian government. In his appallingly cavalier letter to the president of the United States (why bother to write at all if you’re going to write like this?) our prime minister says India’s decision to go ahead with the nuclear tests was due to a “deteriorating security environment.” He goes on to mention the war with China in 1962 and the “three aggressions we have suffered in the last fifty years from Pakistan. And for the last ten years we have been the victim of unremitting terrorism and militancy sponsored by it . . . especially in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The war with China is thirty-five years old. Unless there’s some vital state secret that we don’t know about, it certainly seemed as though matters had improved slightly between us. Just a few days before the nuclear tests, General Fu Quanyou, Chief of General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was the guest of our Chief of Army Staff. We heard no words of war.

The most recent war with Pakistan was fought twenty-seven years ago. Admittedly Kashmir continues to be a deeply troubled region and no doubt Pakistan is gleefully fanning the flames. But surely there must be flames to fan in the first place? Surely the kindling is crackling and ready to burn? Can the Indian state with even a modicum of honesty absolve itself completely of having a hand in Kashmir’s troubles? Kashmir, and for that matter, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland—virtually the whole of the northeast—Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and all the trouble that’s still to come—these are symptoms of a deeper malaise. It cannot and will not be solved by pointing nuclear missiles at Pakistan.

Even Pakistan can’t be solved by pointing nuclear missiles at Pakistan. Though we are separate countries, we share skies, we share winds, we share water. Where radioactive fallout will land on any given day depends on the direction of the wind and rain. Lahore and Amritsar are thirty miles apart. If we bomb Lahore, Punjab will burn. If we bomb Karachi, then Gujarat and Rajasthan, perhaps even Bombay, will burn. Any nuclear war with Pakistan will be a war against ourselves.

As for the third Official Reason: exposing Western Hypocrisy—how much more exposed can they be? Which decent human being on earth harbors any illusions about it? These are people whose histories are spongy with the blood of others. Colonialism, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, germ warfare, chemical weapons—they virtually invented it all. They have plundered nations, snuffed out civilizations, exterminated entire populations. They stand on the world’s stage stark naked but entirely unembarrassed, because they know that they have more money, more food, and bigger bombs than anybody else. They know they can wipe us out in the course of an ordinary working day. Personally, I’d say it is more arrogance than hypocrisy.

We have less money, less food, and smaller bombs. However, we have, or had, all kinds of other wealth. Delightful, unquantifiable. What we’ve done with it is the opposite of what we think we’ve done. We’ve pawned it all. We’ve traded it in. For what? In order to enter into a contract with the very people we claim to despise. In the larger scheme of things, we’ve agreed to play their game and play it their way. We’ve accepted their terms and conditions unquestioningly. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ain’t nothin’ compared to this.

All in all, I think it is fair to say that
we’re
the hypocrites. We’re the ones who’ve abandoned what was arguably a moral position, i.e.:
we have the technology, we can make bombs if we want to, but we won’t. We don’t believe in them
.

We’re the ones who have now set up this craven clamoring to be admitted into the club of superpowers. (If we are, we will no doubt gladly slam the door after us, and say to hell with principles about fighting Discriminatory World Orders.) For India to demand the status of a superpower is as ridiculous as demanding to play in the World Cup finals simply because we have a ball. Never mind that we haven’t qualified, or that we don’t play much soccer and haven’t got a team.

Since we’ve chosen to enter the arena, it might be an idea to begin by learning the rules of the game. Rule number one is Acknowledge the Masters. Who are the best players? The ones with more money, more food, more bombs.

Rule number two is Locate Yourself in Relation to Them, i.e.: make an honest assessment of your position and abilities. The honest assessment of ourselves (in quantifiable terms) reads as follows:

We are a nation of nearly a billion people. In development terms we rank No. 138 out of the 175 countries listed in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. More than 400 million of our people are illiterate and live in absolute poverty, over 600 million lack even basic sanitation, and over 200 million have no safe drinking water.

So the three Official Reasons, taken individually, don’t hold much water. However, if you link them, a kind of twisted logic reveals itself. It has more to do with us than them.

The key words in our prime minister’s letter to the president of the United States were “suffered” and “victim.” That’s the substance of it. That’s our meat and drink. We
need
to feel like victims. We need to feel beleaguered. We need enemies. We have so little sense of ourselves as a nation and therefore constantly cast about for targets to define ourselves against. Prevalent political wisdom suggests that to prevent the state from crumbling, we need a national cause, and other than our currency (and, of course, poverty, illiteracy, and elections), we have none. This is the heart of the matter. This is the road that has led us to the bomb. This search for selfhood. If we are looking for a way out, we need some honest answers to some uncomfortable questions. Once again, it isn’t as though these questions haven’t been asked before. It’s just that we prefer to mumble the answers and hope that no one’s heard.

Is there such a thing as an Indian identity?

Do we really need one?

Who is an authentic Indian and who isn’t?

Is India Indian?

Does it matter?

Whether or not there has ever been a single civilization that could call itself “Indian Civilization,” whether or not India was, is, or ever will become a cohesive cultural entity, depends on whether you dwell on the differences or the similarities in the cultures of the people who have inhabited the subcontinent for centuries. India, as a modern nation-state, was marked out with precise geographical boundaries, in their precise geographical way, by a British Act of Parliament in 1899. Our country, as we know it, was forged on the anvil of the British Empire for the entirely unsentimental reasons of commerce and administration. But even as she was born, she began her struggle against her creators. So is India Indian? It’s a tough question. Let’s just say that we’re an ancient people learning to live in a recent nation.

What is true is that India is an artificial state—a state that was created by a government, not a people. A state created from the top down, not the bottom up. The majority of India’s citizens will not (to this day) be able to identify her boundaries on a map, or say which language is spoken where or which god is worshiped in what region. Most are too poor and too uneducated to have even an elementary idea of the extent and complexity of their own country. The impoverished, illiterate agrarian majority have no stake in the state. And indeed, why should they, how can they, when they don’t even know what the state is? To them, India is, at best, a noisy slogan that comes around during the elections. Or a montage of people on government TV programs wearing regional costumes and saying “
Mera Bharat Mahaan.

The people who have a vital stake (or, more to the point, a business interest) in India’s having a single, lucid, cohesive national identity are the politicians who constitute our national political parties. The reason isn’t far to seek, it’s simply because their struggle, their career goal, is—and must necessarily be—to
become
that identity. To be identified with that identity. If there isn’t one, they have to manufacture one and persuade people to vote for it. It isn’t their fault. It comes with the territory. It is inherent in the nature of our system of centralized government. A congenital defect in our particular brand of democracy. The greater the numbers of illiterate people, the poorer the country and the more morally bankrupt the politicians, the cruder the ideas of what that identity should be. In a situation like this, illiteracy is not just sad, it’s downright dangerous. However, to be fair, cobbling together a viable predigested “National Identity” for India would be a formidable challenge even for the wise and the visionary. Every single Indian citizen could, if he or she wants to, claim to belong to some minority or the other. The fissures, if you look for them, run vertically, horizontally, and are layered, whorled, circular, spiral, inside out, and outside in. Fires when they’re lit race along any one of these schisms, and in the process, release tremendous bursts of political energy. Not unlike what happens when you split an atom.

BOOK: The End of Imagination
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