By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Sept. 30, 2011
In Walking with the Comrades, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) travels into the forest with India’s Maoist indigenous communities at war with the government.
How did you earn the guerrillas’ trust?
When the Indian government declared war against the Maoists, Indian liberals, for the most part, took a very safe, neutral position: “The government is bad, the Maoists are bad, the poor people are sandwiched in the middle.” I am no Maoist, but I thought that was a profoundly dishonest position. It elided the fact that the government had secretly sold lands belonging to indigenous tribes to mining and infrastructure companies. This is illegal and unconstitutional, and yet it was being done brazenly. Hundreds of thousands of paramilitary police were closing in on forest villages to clear the land for the corporations. About 600 villages had been emptied; some 300,000 people had fled their homes and had either moved to police camps or were hiding, terrified, in the forest. Many had joined the guerrilla army and were fighting back. The government and the media, campaigning for corporations, labeled them terrorists and called for them to practice Gandhian nonviolence. I wrote that Gandhian nonviolence was political theater that could be effective provided it had a sympathetic and empowered audience; how could people in remote forest villages, far from the gaze of the media or a hostile middle class be Gandhian while they were being raped and murdered? How could the starving go on hunger strike? How could those with no money boycott goods? My writings made their way into the forest, and one day a note was slipped under my door, inviting me to walk with the comrades.
What surprised you most about them?
I believed that when people take up arms, the violence would inevitably turn against the women in the community. In the forest I was disabused of this notion—45% of the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army is made up of women. Many of them joined after watching the brutal attacks of the police and the government sponsored vigilante groups on their villages. Others joined to escape the patriarchal practices of their own tribal society. The Maoist party has been a very patriarchal organization; the women within it still have major battles to fight (like women everywhere), but in the forest, I was in complete awe of the women I met. There was a lovely moment when I went down to a river with some women guerillas to bathe, while others kept guard. I remember thinking to myself, “Look at the women in this river—writers, guerrillas, farmers—how very wonderful.”
You write about India’s poor and disenfranchised, but you do so in English (and with a fairly sophisticated style, to boot)? Who do you write for?