‘I hope the Indian government, in its mysterious Byzantine ways, will reconsider its ban on me. I am hardly a threat to the Indian Union’
Late in September 2011, American radio broadcaster and writer, David Barsamian, landed at Delhi Airport, only to be stopped at Passport Control, and turned right back on the same plane he had just arrived on. No explanations were provided then, or since.
Barsamian is best known as the founder of Alternative Radio, a syndicated weekly talk programme heard on 150 radio stations in countries across the world. Over 25 years he has turned the long form audio interview into a unique genre, and the Boulder, Colorado-based Alternative Radio into a legend.
Its tagline says ‘audio energy for democracy’, and his interviews with some of the most important critical voices of our times have confirmed that reputation, and appear regularly in acclaimed media outfits like The Progressive, The Nation, and Z Magazine. Much of this social commentary has been collated into significant books. These include conversations with Edward Said (The Pen and the Sword, 1994), Howard Zinn (The Future of History, 1999), Eqbal Ahmad (Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, 2002), Arundhati Roy (The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, 2003), Tariq Ali (Speaking of the Empire and Resistance: Interviews, 2005) and most frequently, with Noam Chomsky, with whom he has brought out Chronicles of Dissent (1992), Class Warfare (1996), Propaganda and the Public Mind (2001), and What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World (2009). His latest book with Noam Chomsky is Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. The book was published in January of 2013
Eighteen months after he was turned away from India, on a cold blustery day in March 2013, documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak spoke with him in Chicago.
Q: Welcome David Barsamian
It’s a pleasure. Usually I’m on the other side of the microphone. (Laughs)
Q: This is my first ever interview. So I just want to share some of that anxiety with you, and ask you to tell me about the first interview you ever did, if you can remember who it was?
I could never forget. It was with Araxie Barsamian, my mother. It was in the mid, early 1970s, on a very cheap General Electric cassette recorder. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I wanted to talk to her about her memories of the genocide that she had lived through, in 1915, when the Turkish government carried out a campaign of extermination, dispossession and deportation of its very large Armenian Christian minority. When I was growing up -- I was born in New York in 1945, my parents came to America in 1921 after they got married in Beirut -- and while I was growing up there was always this big dark secret in the background, there was this huge shadow over everyone and everything in the Armenian community, over people in my family. I wanted to interrogate that, I wanted to know about it. People didn’t want to talk about it. They were reluctant, there was something called survivors guilt: “Why did I live, when I lost my parents and my brothers…” In my mother’s case she lost three younger brothers, and her parents, all lost in that horrific period. So I wanted to record the memories of these people, because I thought what they experienced is really valuable for history, and also for my own edification and knowing about my family background.
So that was the very first interview I did, and then I interviewed some survivors from my mother’s village and people on my father’s side who were in New York and those I knew. That was the beginning of my interviewing career. I never realized it was going to become a profession for me. I just did these out of mostly curiosity and interest and knowing that these were elderly people, they were going to die in a few years and all those memories will go with them. So I felt it really important to record that. Since I did that interview with my mother, which was heartbreaking, and if I think about it even now I start choking up, because it was so visceral, in the solar plexus, not up here (taps his head). It’s not an intellectual exercise when you’re talking to your mother about painful, painful things; since then, I’ve felt all the interviews I’ve done have been a snap, because that one was so hard. I was on the top of K2, Mount Everest, and then, the other mountains have been much easier. (Laughs)
Q: So, as a form of journalism or enquiry -- you used the word illumination, to illuminate the darkness that surrounded your family’s history -- what is the interview for you? You’ve interviewed -- I don’t know, you’ll tell me -- how many people, all kinds of people, so, why do you think it works as a form for you?
Well, first of all, I think my approach is of an artist. I see this as an art form. I mean, it is journalism, but how you construct an interview that has a beginning, a middle and an end, that has waves and texture, and engages the listener -- that’s not some dry exercise. What do the listeners need to know? I might know a little bit about these subjects but I have to remember who is behind me. So if I ask simplistic questions like, “What is the capital of Kashmir?” or something like that, it’s because I am sure listeners may not have that information. So I want to get it out there, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be patronizing, it shouldn’t be overly simplistic.
Interviewing, particularly people like Noam Chomsky here in the US, who is, clearly not the most gifted writer, people will have a difficult time following his writing style -- it’s very dense. So, I’ve got many comments from people, from readers, who say, “I could never read Chomsky’s books, but I find these interviews very accessible.” That’s the key word. You can open up a book of interviews, read a few questions, read a few answers and you get something. It’s not like you have to read from page one until the last page. That’s something that makes this style very important and attractive to readers.
Q: You’ve interviewed many of these people several times. You’ve done many interviews with Noam Chomsky, with Edward Said, with Eqbal Ahmed. When you do interviews over a period of so many years with the same people over and over again, what is the kind of relationship you have with their work, because you can’t obviously keep asking the same questions.
Well, I don’t ask the same questions. Let’s just take a more recent example: Arundhati Roy; I’ve done maybe a dozen, or fifteen interviews, I can’t even count. I go back over the earlier interviews; I review recent work that the person has done, to extract nuggets or things that I think need explication, need more detail, need more fleshing out. I don’t want to bore someone like Arundhati with you know, “How is everything”, “Why did you write this book”, or “What does this mean?” I want to engage her because she is doing a lot of those interviews. And so I am trying to step out of the box and be as creative as possible in order to engage the person. I have enough experience with let’s say ‘professional’ interviewees, people that do get interviewed a lot and you can almost see them pressing the play button. They have the tapes recorded here [taps his head], and you know, it’s all eloquent and articulate, but there’s no fire or passion and there’s certainly no improvisation, and I think like a good musician, having improvisational skills comes into the interviewing format very crucially. So let’s say I am talking to you and I learn that you’re of Kashmiri background and we’re talking about this issue, I can’t ignore that, I would want to bring that into play. Or, if you are interviewing me and you learn that I am the son of survivors of a genocide and you just go on to your next question, you know, “Who’s your favorite cricket player?” it means you’re not listening. And not caring, either, because some people have an agenda, “I’ve got twelve questions written out, no matter what you say I am going to ask those twelve questions”. And you hear these incredible bombshells that are dropped and then you completely ignore them. That to me is a failure of interviewing.
Q: David, many of the names of the people you have interviewed are intimately tied in with progressive politics in America. What is it like to be a witness to progressive, and even Leftist politics, in the belly of the beast, so to speak. Sitting in America, what does it feel like?
I feel a certain obligation. I know that is a very boring word, but I do feel, since we are living here in the US, which is this huge military machine that straddles the globe with hundreds of bases, a genuine responsibility and obligation to tell the American people what’s going on in their name. Because most people do not know -- they know about the latest Lindsay Lohan divorce, or Matt Damon movie, Lance Armstrong admitting to taking drugs. But they don’t know about the important things that their country is doing in their name. So I feel a kind of, like a muckraker. It’s an old word; it was common in the early 1900s, about a specific kind of American journalism, that troubled the neat stereotypes of “Everything’s great; America’s terrific; we are spreading freedom and democracy and the free market around the world, we are doing all these things and we’re so altruistic”. Some of those things are accurate but with this altruism is also a very venal and violent side of the American Empire. America is the empire in the world today. How are we going to deconstruct it? What are the fissures, as Antonio Gramsci would say, that we can find, and then open that space up, so there’s more space, so more light can shine through and more of us can walk through that space.
That’s an urgent task for any journalist, or any citizen: to be informed. Information is power. Like in India, a handful of corporations control most of the media here in the US, with predictable outcomes. Predictable outcomes such as ignorance as to what is going on: what the Indian Sate is doing in the Northeast or in Kashmir or other parts of the country; what the American State has done in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen. This is something that everyone who calls himself or herself a journalist should strive for.
We’re looking to create electronic umbilical cords. Connecting with people, saying, “Ok, I’m not interested in US imperialism or what the military is doing, but I don’t have healthcare and I’ve got two old parents, and they’re sick, and I don’t have money to pay for their medicine or pay for their care in a hospital.” We have to make those connections, so people understand the cost, the literal cost of this imperial machine. The same thing with education: let’s say I have kids and I want to send them to college. I have to borrow money, because the cost of education is so high in the US. Again, making a connection with the vast amount of money spent, almost a trillion dollars a year by the Pentagon and what are called “Intelligence Agencies” -- I hate to use this term, because they seem to be the opposite of intelligence in their practice -- but the US has 16 intelligence agencies. They have black budgets: we don’t know who is getting the money, who’s spending the money, where it’s being spent; it’s like a secret government, it’s the Deep State.
Talking about those things clarifies a lot of what is ailing the US domestically. This is a very violent country. I’m sure you’re familiar with all of the shootings in schools, colleges, workplaces, very, very violent. Is there a connection between the external violence and the internal violence? I think there is, because when the State says, “Hey, it’s okay to bomb a country, it’s okay to send drones and kill people in Pakistan”, then if I’m a citizen, I’m saying, “Well, if the State can do this, listen, I’m having a problem with my boss: he’s not giving me a raise, I’m really unhappy, I can’t pay my rent -- let me get a gun and settle this issue.” So, making those kinds of connections are really critical in understanding how a democratic society, where there are elections, actually functions. Because elections are just one aspect of democracy and too many people understand elections as the alpha-omega of democracy. “You have had your chance, you went and voted. Now you can go home and watch TV again until the next election, when we’ll ask you to come out for tweedledum or tweedledee”. Not very different from India, where you get the choice of BJP or Congress, here we have Democrats and Republicans.
Q: To take a sort of radical or critical position in the midst of this huge capitalist universe that the US represents, tell us a little bit about how Alternative Radio came about and how you made it work all these years, because you’ve been at it for a very long time. That’s a story that people need to hear.
Well, particularly for young people who are thinking about getting into media and how to do that, the first thing I would say is, and I say this not as boasting but as an encouragement to young people, that I am totally self-taught. I have no credentials. I barely graduated from high school here, which equals secondary school. I went to college for one year, to the only college that would accept me because my grades were so bad. Then I quit and got a job on a Norwegian ship and went to Asia and that’s how I ended up in India…
The reason I started Alternative Radio was that I was upset about the superficiality of the corporate controlled media: how in lockstep it was with State perspectives, how it was more of an echo chamber. I didn’t find any journalists doing journalism, they were doing stenography. They go to a press conference, they have their little notepad with them and they’re just taking down whatever the government official is saying, and they’re taking it down and reproducing it either on TV or on radio in print. So I was really furious and I decided to do something about it, which I think is, again, very important, because if you have a critique and you really don’t do anything with it, it gets demoralizing. Because, you haven’t taken action. I can tell you, “Well, Sanjay, Indian media is like this, it’s awful”, and you nod your head, “Yeah, it’s awful”, but then you do something about it. That has a cathartic effect, it has a catalytic effect, as well.
And so, I started Alternative Radio, totally on a whim. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I didn’t know left channel from right channel. I made huge mistakes. Live radio is unforgiving. I mean, we’re pre-recording this. So, if there are some breakdowns, we can fix it later. But live radio, you don’t have that luxury. I’d be doing an interview, my mike would be on but the guest’s mike wouldn’t be on. And then someone would ask me later, “David, you were talking to yourself for over a half hour. And there were these huge blank moments where we didn’t hear anything. Was this some kind of esoteric interview that you were doing? Is this a new art form?”
There’s this mystique about the media -- you need a degree, you need to go to special colleges and universities, you need to mentor yourself with senior journalists to figure things out -- there’s none of that. You can absolutely do it yourself. What is required is a sense of curiosity and interest: interest in people, interest in issues. And care, caring for people and issues. That’s the secret. So I began, made tons of mistakes, figured things out and now Alternative Radio has been broadcasting for well nigh 27 years. It’s on all over the US, in Canada, in Australia. And it’s become a kind of a radio dinosaur too because it’s the only programme which devotes a complete hour to one topic, or one issue. Let’s say Kashmir, or the uprising in Chhattisgarh, or the anti-POSCO movement in Orissa -- a whole hour on that. People do segments, they do magazine formats; they do eight minutes, 12 minutes, but nobody is doing an hour.
Over the years I have developed camaraderie with all these wonderful beacons of light that speak out for truth and justice and you know, against tyranny, injustice, monopoly control, imperialism and rapacious, predatory capitalism. So when I talk to people like Chomsky, it’s almost like, at this point, like talking to friends, in a way. Also, I am always trying to be professional, but there’s a trust, there’s an understanding that Alternative Radio is a vehicle for their voices, for their perspectives, that the corporate controlled media want to either marginalize or eliminate entirely.
Q: I know that apart from radio, your other passion is Hindustani music. So when did this Armenian American stumble upon Hindustani music? What took you to it?
Stumble is the right word, indeed! I landed in Nagapattinam by ship, I sailed deck class from Penang, in Malaysia in 1966, July 1st. I then started touring around South India. There was no intention, music wasn’t on my horizon. But then I fell ill. I got hepatitis. I landed in a hospital in what was then Ceylon, and is now Sri Lanka. When I came back to India I got a severe ear infection that had to be treated. Then I got…
Q: … a proper American tourist in India?
I was very raw at this point, I was about 20, 21! Then I got dysentery, in Kashmir. Now, on the way to Srinagar, I went from Old Delhi Station to Pathankot – I remember it really well because I met somebody in the adjoining compartment, we started talking, very nice person, his name was Devendra Balhotra, and he said, “Look me up, I live in this place”. And you know when you travel a lot of people say, “hey, look me up, here’s my number, give me a call, love to host you” or something like that. Well then I went to Kashmir, to Srinagar and then I got sick again, and I decided: hepatitis, ear infection and now dysentery. I needed to rest somewhere, recuperate myself. So, again, on a whim, I went to Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, where Devendra lived, and lo and behold, he was there, his father was the MP from that district. And so he had a really nice house and I stayed there. And I was getting stronger and stronger. His sister had a sitar and I started fiddling with it, you know, just playing around, ding ding ding. And there was a government college there, and there was a couple of instructors that kind of took some interest in my interest, because I went there and said, “What is this Sitar, what is this Tabla and Tanpura?, What is a raag?” and I could see that they were intrigued by this, you know, gora chamra, white boy who is interested in Indian Music. Back then I didn’t think much of it. But I did listen to a disc, a 45 rpm, by a Debu Chaudhury, playing Desh and Bhairavi, and I kind of copied some of the pieces you know, some of the parts of it, just because I was interested in it.
Then a curious Indian thing happened. I don’t want to contribute to South Asian stereotypes but my visa expired, and when I sent my passport to get renewed, the Government of India lost my passport. So I had to go to Delhi, and I went to the US embassy, and it turns out the passport had been returned to the embassy. Somehow it went to the Housing and Development ministry of the Himachal Pradesh Government. This so embarrassed the Indian Government that they gave me a visa without any questions. Now, at the time – you see how fate kind of works in very curious ways – I had met a hitchhiker from Uganda. He too, like Devendra said, “Hey, I live in Delhi. I go to the University of Delhi. You’ll probably pass through, so why don’t you look me up?” And like many of these chits you know, I stored it. And in fact, I was in Delhi, looked him up, and I was staying with him. Where? Jubilee Hall, on the University of Delhi campus, a student dormitory…
Q: I was in that same place for two years as well!
No! (laughs)] Ok, so I’m walking around campus, “Sir Shankar Lal Music Faculty. Oh, interesting.” So I’m looking at the board there with the professors and the schedules and things and I see one D. Chaudhury, Professor, and I went inside and I said, “Is this the same D. Chaudhury that recorded Desh and Bhairavi?” “Yes, yes.” “Is he available, can I see him?” “Well he is not in right now, he’ll be available at two o clock.” So I came back, and he was waiting for me. Literally, in the threshold of the door. Because it was still kind of an unusual thing, some foreigner asking about music and so, he was there. And you know, within moments it seemed I had become his disciple. So, I had no, ambition, it wasn’t my intention to do that, but as I said, I wasn’t keen to leave India, and I was still recuperating, getting stronger and stronger. Incidentally, all those things happened once at the very beginning, and I never got sick again. Knock on wood. Maybe my immune system had, you know, built up sufficiently…
(Laughs) In any case, that was the beginning of my relationship with Debu-da. And it was probably the richest cultural experiences of my life. I can think of nothing comparable. I was exposed to some of the greatest musicians, not just in India, but anywhere in the world. Legends like Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Rahimuddin Khan Dagar, the Dagar bandhu – we used to visit them in Nizamuddin, near the dargah. All of these great artists, I was kind of in another sphere. Because there was the India out there with noise and traffic and filth and poverty and in this realm, there was an elegance, there was something old world about it, yes, this was the product of a feudal culture. It had been nourished and nurtured under Nawabs and Maharajas. It wasn’t democratic. And so there was still that bridge, that generation was still alive, that remembered that kind of socialist patronage, where they did not have to worry about, “Oh, how am I going to pay my rent? How will I feed my kids?” All they had to worry about was about performing once in a while for the Raja/Nawab and they were set. And in this matrix came this incredible development, because they could focus on their riyaz. They weren’t hustling record contracts, or “I’ve got to get a concert in Sapru Hall, or Rabindra Bhavan or Triveni Kala Sangam, or Kamani, I can just practice my art”. So it did produce a remarkable set of musicians – Ustad Fayaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and many, many others, who I was exposed to. And it was very elevating… To be in the presence of anyone who does something with excellence, is very uplifting. Even if it is, let’s say food, a master chef, a master mason, a master carpenter. You feel elevated to be in the presence of someone who takes such great care and precision with whatever they are doing. So making a quilt, making a carpet, these are all art forms. And this legacy is with me till today and I am trying to figure out how to construct an interview, or how to construct a program, I am remembering that, particularly musicians like my Guruji, Padmabhushan Pandit Debu Chaudhuryji, he always stressed: much in little, not little in much. A lot of musicians today, especially in Sitar, a lot of it has become Kamikaze music. I mean they’re playing really fast, faster than anyone in history, the Tabla is racing, the audience is applauding. But people are confusing movement for content. They are confusing tayyari with virtuosity. And tayyari is tayyari. It just means you can play fast. It doesn’t mean you’re a good player. So this is another valuable lesson I learnt from Debuji, in formulating questions. Should the question, you know, start in Kolkata and end in Mumbai, or should it be short, and to the point? You know, why are you a filmmaker? Who has influenced you? Try to formulate tight questions, don’t show off to the audience that I know all of these things, you know “Satyajit Ray is a very great filmmaker, you’re not like Satyajit Ray” and along those lines. That was a very great lesson and I am very grateful to Debuji for instilling that in me.
I got the impression that if the order was to deport their mother, they would have to deport their mother. They were just following orders. They were apparatchiks of the State. I was allowed to make one phone call
Q: You are passionate about Indian Hindustani music. You’ve drawn attention to its feudal patronage, to its high aesthetic and spiritual components. How do you then bridge that with your cool, calm and grounded view of American politics?
I don’t think you can get emotionally overwhelmed with these issues. I’m not saying one should be cold hearted, but there needs to be a certain distance, and a clear intellectual understanding of what the issues are, and not be sentimental or nostalgic about them. This is what it is, and this is what we’re dealing with. We can’t live in the world of what should be, we have to live in the world of what is. But can we imagine a different world, is another world possible? Can the US have a non-belligerent, non-bellicose, non-militaristic foreign policy? I think it can, and it should. And it will not just make this country a better place, it will make the world a better place, rather than having this behemoth, going around wrecking countries.
We’re speaking in the middle of March, right now, and this happens to be the tenth anniversary of one of the great crimes of modern times -- the US invasion of Iraq, which was on March 19, 2003, when this ancient country was ravaged by the shock and awe campaign. They were completely fabricated, all the excuses that were given for the war. Even if they were true, it still did not give permission for the US to attack a country that was not threatening it. And so the fact that those criminals who were responsible: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, they have not been brought to book. They have not been brought to court. They have not faced any accountability. That speaks volumes of the corruption here. Obama continues it. When he was asked in 2009, after he became president, “What about these guys, are you going to do anything about it, about these war crimes?” He said, “It’s time to look forward. There’s no point in looking back.” These people never look back. They are always looking forward, because if they look back they see crimes that they too may be implicated in. Obama has repeated many of the crimes that liberals in this country were screaming about when Bush committed them.
Q: You’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and so much of it has been working with these people in excavating a modern history of the US and the world. Do you ever feel tired, do you feel exhausted? What keeps you going?
That another world is possible. I get energy from the people that I talk to. I am excited to learn new things about Kashmir or Ladakh that I never knew. I am excited to meet activists, journalists in India, Pakistan or elsewhere who are out there doing real journalism, not fake journalism, not this stenography that is passing for corporate journalism today. Everywhere, in a country like India, people with far fewer advantages and resources than me -- I’m fairly well off, I live in my own home -- who are putting up marvelous resistances against a corporate power, against abusive State power. That is hugely inspiring; the things that are going on in Odhisa and Chhattisgarh, which you have documented so well, in Kashmir, and in many other places around the world.
Interviewing, particularly people like Chomsky, people will have a difficult time following his writing style -- it’s very dense… I’ve got many comments from people, who say, ‘I could never read Chomsky’s books, but I find these interviews very accessible’
You see this happening in Latin America, which has finally been able to shed the yoke of US domination, with the elections of the first indigenous leaders in all of Latin America, with Evo Morales or with Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the recently deceased Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil. There is a wind blowing out there that the US is not controlling. That’s a good thing. This empire needs to be reined in. It shows no sign of reining in itself. It’s going to have to be done by outside forces as well as internal forces, which is part of what Alternative Radio gives voice to. Who are the voices inside the US that are saying another country is possible, another world is possible?
Q: It’s March, 2013. We’re sitting in your hotel room in Chicago, it’s snowing outside. It’s probably been one-and-a-half years since you flew to India and were turned away at the airport, probably because of the nature of the interviews that you have been doing on India. If I can ask you the stupid question that TV journalists often ask people -- how do you feel about it?
No, it’s not stupid at all. It was a very dire moment to be severed from a country that I have had links with since 1966. I’m not a casual visitor to India. I’ve been visiting and I’ve studied there, I’ve lived there, I daresay I have more friends, like you, in India, than I have in the US. By that I mean people that I can call at any time and request something, a favour, of if there is an emergency. I don’t feel I have that many people I can do that with here in the US. That’s the nature of the culture also, the bonding, the solidarity that goes on is very different from this kind of, industrial, materialistic culture. There are exceptions of course. I was shocked at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi when the Passport Control kept holding my passport, and I said, “Is there some problem?”
And then you hear those deadly words, “Wait here, I will be right back.” And then, the even deadlier words, “Come with me please.” And so I was taken into a room, and I started talking to the immigration people, young chaps, and since I was speaking Hindi, they were almost apologizing to me, they were saying, “Humein kuch nahin pata hai, humein ` mila ha…” (We don’t know anything, we have got orders…) I got the impression that if the order was to deport their mother, they would have to deport their mother. They were just following orders. They were apparatchiks of the State. I was allowed to make one phone call. Someone jokingly said later, “Did you call the US embassy?” I said, “Are you kidding? The US embassy would say, we don’t want him, yeah, you get rid of him!” I called my guru, Debuji (eminent sitarist Debu Chaudhury).
So it did produce a remarkable set of musicians – Ustad Fayaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and many, many others, who I was exposed to. And it was very elevating… To be in the presence of anyone who does something with excellence, is very uplifting
While I was sitting there, I think: Kashmir. There is no other explanation. You can do things on other parts of the country, but Kashmir has something in the Hindu nationalist psyche that is out of proportion to reality. It’s visceral. We have experience of that here in the US. If you start talking about Israel in a critical way, some people here go berserk. They just lose all rational thought. Evidence, forget about it. It’s all about emotions and for Hindu nationalists Kashmir is a huge emotional elephant which they refuse to acknowledge. They hide behind, “It’s an integral part of India; it’s subjected to Pakistani terrorism.” As if the people there have no agency. As if there has been no military occupation since 1947. As if there hasn’t been a Buried Evidence Report, or Alleged Perpetrators Report. Just amazing, stunning documents which should be required reading for anyone interested in human rights, and not just as an Indian issue. This is a human rights issue, it’s about justice. So, I said, “It’s got to be about Kashmir”.
It’s been difficult, because I am in a Kafkaesque type of situation. I don’t know what I am being accused of, I don’t know who my accuser is, I don’t know who to appeal to. Letters to the Indian ambassador in Washington have gone unanswered. Petitions were signed and submitted by fairly well known Indian activists, intellectuals, writers, and Noam Chomsky signed as well, from the US. No response, which is kind of surprising. Not even, you know, “thanks for your interest, have a nice day”, which is kind of what happens in the US. At least you get some form of letter back, “The minister is busy, but he appreciates your writing. Sincerely yours.” Not even that. So you feel like you’re in a black hole, with no way to cling up, to get back up to the top.
I feel like a muckraker. It’s an old word; it was common in the early 1900s, about a specific kind of American journalism, that troubled the neat stereotypes of ‘Everything’s great; America’s terrific; we are spreading freedom and democracy and the free market around the world’
It’s been more than two years since I’ve been in India. The deportation was in late September 2011. I know from what I’ve been told that the intelligence agencies were interested in one of the lectures that I gave in Srinagar, but that lecture was in 2007, on Christmas day! So I don’t know why, four years later, and I had been in and out of India… There were some inquiries made, very elliptical, obtuse comments, to the effect that, “he did not follow the restrictions of his visa”. I have a tourist visa. I didn’t do any work in India, I didn’t get any remuneration. Sure, I talked to people, but when Indian tourists come to the US and talk to me, are they going to be arrested by the US government because I am a dissident? No, they’re exercising their free speech rights. This issue now is dragging on and I don’t quite know what to do. It’s a conundrum. I am concerned about my guruji’s health, he’s getting on, and I do want to see him and other dear friends. I keep up with things indica, I try and read The Hindu and Hardnews, and other magazines and newspapers, but there is no substitute to being there. To be in that ambience, to be in that mahaul, that’s so radically different.
I hope the government of India, in its mysterious Byzantine ways, will reconsider its ban on me. I am, you know, hardly a threat to the Indian Union.
Q: And do you retain your contact with the music? Are you able to do that?
I am able to do that because I don’t play anymore. I am simply overwhelmed with lecturing and editing and producing programs and doing interviews. But I listen all the time. It nourishes my soul. I mean, it’s said that it’s very spiritual music. Whatever it is, it’s a very high, high-grade classical music. It has a solemnity to it that I don’t find in other music. You know, to listen to an alaap in Marwah or Miyan ki todi, it’s mesmerizing. It takes me out of the space I am in, into a very soothing, mentholated, peppermint-like area. And that refreshes my brain. And that’s very important, for any artist, including yourself, you know. We need to go on hikes, we need to look at flowers, we need to even look at the ceiling and not do anything. We need to get those batteries recharged. We don’t have to work 24/7. There’s music, there’s wonderful poetry, there’s art. I live in a part of the US that is blessed with incredible mountains, hiking trails: and so, I go out as much as I can in the warm weather, and in cold weather I try cross country skiing, whenever possible. In Boulder, where I live, I bike everywhere. So it’s all these kinds of things that we can do for ourselves that will sustain us. Particularly if you are in these oppositional roles. You’re not going with the current; you’re swimming up against the current, which I think is a good thing. I tell people, the people swimming upstream are a lot more interesting than the people swimming downstream. (laughs)
Q: David, I hope the next time we do an interview – and I would like to do another one because this was my first – that we’ll do it in New Delhi. And thank you very much.
My great pleasure.
Interview transcribed by Jasun Chelat. Abridged version of the interview has been published in the print issue of Hardnews, May 2013. Photographs: Barsamian with Noam Chomsky, Debu Choudhary, Tariq Ali and Arundati Roy.