Good Fiction, Dismissed
– A saga of more news, little substance.
If controversies were poems, Arundhati Roy could be a shining epigrammatist, playing hide and seek with the nuances of her lines. Instead she became a writer of fiction, whose solitary published debut novel charted the Man Booker course well into a climactic finish. On the evening of the Booker prize-giving, in a televised discussion on Channel 4, writer Carmen Callil, Chair of the previous year's Booker jury, pronounced Roy's work "execrable", and said it should never have reached the shortlist.
That was a long time ago.
For almost a year, she kept promoting her book, lacing it up with intensive interviews and stating the hotels she put up were "ridiculously posh". This was called down-to-earth and won her many admirers. Kerala's chief minister, EK Nayanar, however, attributed her book's success in the West not to any literary merit but to its "anti-Communist venom". He couldn't have known then that this ‘some’ Ms. Roy would be up in arms against the West one another time, not too far into the future.
On her part, however, Ms. Roy did not think she should refrain from putting her many fingers into pies of political savagery, perils of globalization, religious fundamentalism, and many more. If she wouldn’t burn her fingers, it would be only because serious takers for a writer are a few. Well, that was a long time ago too.
Consider this interesting interview with Karan Thapar:
Karan Thapar: How do you perceive the Maoists?
Arundhati Roy: I perceive them as a group of people who have at a most militant end in the bandwidth of resistance movements that exist.
KT: But do you support any attempt to overthrow the Indian state?
AR: If I say that I support the Maoists' desire to overthrow the Indian State, I would be saying that I am a Maoist. But I am not a Maoist.
KT: .. what about the tactics that the Maoists use?..
AR: There is already a civil war...when your village is surrounded by 800 CRPF men who are raping and burning and looting, you can't say I am going on a hunger strike. Then, I support people's right to resist that.
In ‘An Essay On Criticism’, 1709, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote: A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: // there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.
What it means is that meagre knowledge can mislead people into thinking that they are more expert than they really are. Only later, in 1774, in ‘Gentleman and Lady’s Complete Magazine, Vol II, the writer of a piece misquoted Pope, saying: ‘Mr. Pope says, very truly, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”’
This also implies, in other words, the writer replaced ‘learning’ in the original quote with ‘knowledge’, for he well understood the motive behind the quote to be able to garner that elbow for himself, knowingly or inadvertently. Ms. Roy, however, many say, is not given to such aptitude.
People were agape on why she should describe the Maoists as ‘Gandhians’ and ‘patriot of a kind’ who are ‘fighting to implement the Constitution (while) the Government is vandalising it.’ Sources have reported she does not hold sympathy for the victims of Maoist ‘terrorism’. A few argue her not being an authority on the Indian Constitution and wait for her words to be lost in their own emptiness. Others opine her mind speaks blatant words of wisdom that anyways shouldn’t matter to anybody – not even the Maoists themselves. She has raised many a hornet’s nest when she criticized the Government’s armed actions against Naxalite-Maoist insurgents in India, terming it ‘war on the poorest people in the country’, and that the Government has ‘abdicated its responsibility to the people’ and launched the offensive against Naxals to aid the corporations with whom it has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). That was a long cut for a young lady who once ran aerobic classes at Five-star hotels in New Delhi. Journalists have given her the epithet of limelight-seeker. Probably, journalists themselves are not God’s gospels and leave a lot to be desired for. For many, however, that’s where Roy stays put.
Ms. Roy’s hobby is not like others. If Booker has done one thing for her, it has given her fame. She hasn’t been able to let go of her Maid of Honour status since. Nothing can be more sensible than to be anti-establishment if hobnobbing with limelight is a motive. Leading a life of a hippy in Goa once upon a time, and castigating Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Bandit Queen’ with a film review titled ‘The Great Indian Rape Trick’ and questioning the right to ‘restage the rape of a living woman without her permission’, is by far, no mean job. If only Phoolan Devi felt the same way she did, things would have been a bit different.
Over time, Ms. Roy has locked horns with Ramachandra Guha, a literary figure and environmental historian of repute, and Gail Omvedt, an American sociologist settled in India, a crusader for many a social cause in India. There have been seasons of open letters and salvos. ‘Narmada Bachao’. In 1999, her article ‘The Greater Common Good’ was published by the Indian magazine Outlook. The 40 million people to be displaced by the dam were called ‘small heroes’, contending the 21st century might be for the ‘big’ to be dismantled, and this might be ‘the century of the small things.’ Guha summed up her advocacy as hyperbolic and self-indulgent: “Ms. Roy's tendency to exaggerate and simplify, her Manichean view of the world, and her shrill hectoring tone, have given a bad name to environmental analysis.” She had once criticized the Supreme Court judges who were hearing the petition by Narmada Bachao Andolan. Roy countered thus: "I am hysterical. I'm screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he and his smug little club are going 'Shhhh... you'll wake the neighbours!' I want to wake the neighbours, that's my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes." More than an act of being historically unkind, it smacked more of a jingoistic appeal (read prick).
Ms. Roy’s demand was to stop building the dam altogether, while Omvedt supported intermediate alternatives. One of her open letters to Roy had these questions in the last-stanza: ‘Do you really think the adivasis, dalits and shudra or Rajput farmers of the Narmada valley want to keep that? Are you so convinced that the thousands of dams built since independence have been an unmitigated evil? Or that the goal should not be to restructure and improve them but to abandon them? Or that the struggle should not be to unite all the rural people aspiring to a life of prosperity and achievement in the modern world, drought afflicted and dam afflicted, rather than to just take up the cause of opposition to change? Development to so many people in India means getting out of traditional traps of caste hierarchy and of being held in a birth-determined play. It is not simply economic progress, but the capacity to participate in a society in which knowledge, grain and songs will be available in full measure to everyone. When you so romantically imply that such development is not possible, when you give all publicity and support to anti-development organisations, are you not yourself helping to close such doors?’ Ms. Roy’s interviews have proved to be a double-edged sabre that can do a lot of work both ways. But many aren’t sure it can cut either way.
Internationalism, like sensationalism, come for free. Roy’s penchant to hate America and its Presidents is well-known. She puts the attacks on the World Trade Center and on Afghanistan on the same moral level, as that of terrorism. She goes on to imagine how beauty was unimaginable ever after 2001. Quoting her: "Will it be possible ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a newborn gecko in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered in your ear – without thinking of the World Trade Centre and Afghanistan?" Now that is some literature-encrypted-world view, or the other way round. In a 2001 opinion piece in the British newspaper The Guardian, Roy responded to the US military invasion of Afghanistan. She did not buy the argument that this war would be a retaliation for the September 11 attacks: "The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world." Her views on U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were spoken of thus: "When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said: 'We're a peaceful nation.' America's favourite ambassador, Tony Blair, (who also holds the portfolio of prime minister of the UK), echoed him: 'We're a peaceful people.' So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is peace."
In May 2003 she delivered a speech entitled "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)" at the Riverside Church in the New York City. She referred to the United States as a global empire that reserves the right to bomb any of its subjects at any time, deriving its legitimacy directly from God, indicting it for its actions relating to the Iraq War. In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq. In March 2006, Roy criticized US President George W. Bush’s visit to India, calling him a "war criminal". In August 2006, Roy, along with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others, signed a letter in The Guardian called the 2006 Lebanon War a "war crime" and accused Israel of being a "state terror”.
Well, coming back to her own country of birth, she detested India's testing of nuclear weapons in Pokhran, Rajasthan in The End of Imagination (1998). It was published in her collection The Cost of Living (1999), in which she also crusaded against India's massive hydroelectric dam projects in the central and western states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Not without reason, which might just be her own lethargy to come out of the incessant desire to comment on contentious issues, Roy raised questions about the investigation into the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the trial of the accused. She has called for the death sentence of Mohammad Afzal to be stayed while a parliamentary enquiry into these questions were conducted. She also denounced press coverage of the trial. Not surprisingly, many in India criticized her for defending a terrorist - against national interest.
In her own home state, Kerala (she was born in Bengal though), the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a social movement for adivasi land rights in Kerala, organized a major land occupation of a piece of a former Eucalyptus plantation in the Muthanga Wildlife Reserve, on the border of Kerala and Karnataka. After 48 days, a police force was sent into the area to evict the occupants. One participant of the movement and a policeman were killed, and the leaders of the movement were arrested. Arundhati Roy traveled to the area, visited the movement's leaders in jail, and wrote an open letter to the then Chief Minister of Kerala, A.K.Antony, now Defence Minister of India, saying "You have blood on your hands."
Her comments on the 2008 Mumbai attack warrants a mention here. In an opinion piece for The Guardian (13 December 2008), Roy argued that the November 2008 Mumbai attacks cannot be seen in isolation, but must be understood in the context of wider issues in the region's history and society such as widespread poverty, the Partition of India (which Roy calls "Britain's final, parting kick to us"), the atrocities committed during the 2002 Gujarat violence, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Just so that the mass appeal is not lost, Roy invariably believes "nothing can justify terrorism" and calls terrorism "a heartless ideology."
A writer of fiction has shown how non-fiction can be an easy boat. She talks of wars and how conspiracies work. Roy warns against war with Pakistan, arguing that it is hard to "pin down the provenance of a terrorist strike and isolate it within the borders of a single nation state", and that war could lead to the "descent of the whole region into chaos". Salman Rushdie condemned her remarks for linking the Bombay attacks with Kashmir and economic injustice against Muslims in India and for attacking the iconic status of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. "The latest of her series of hysterical diatribes against India and all things Indian”, Tavleen Singh, a noted journalist commented.
Going back a bit in time, there’s another interesting incident. In 2002, Roy responded to a contempt notice issued against her by the Indian Supreme Court with an affidavit saying the court's decision to initiate the contempt proceedings based on an unsubstantiated and flawed petition, while refusing to inquire into allegations of corruption in military contracting deals pleading an overload of cases, indicated a "disquieting inclination" by the court to silence criticism and dissent using the power of contempt. The court found Roy's statement, which she refused to disavow or apologize for, to constitute criminal contempt and sentenced her to a "symbolic" one day's imprisonment and fined her Rs. 2500. Roy served the jail sentence for a single day and opted to pay the fine rather than serve an additional three months' imprisonment for default.
In an interview with Times of India published in August 2008, Arundhati Roy expressed her support for the independence of Kashmir from India after massive demonstrations in favor of independence took place—some 500,000 separatists rallied in Srinagar in the Kashmir part of Jammu and Kashmir state of India for independence on 18 August 2008, following the Amarnath land transfer controversy. According to her, the rallies were a sign that Kashmiris desire secession from India, and not union with India. This came under a lot of criticism.
In October 2010, at a seminar in Delhi named "Azadi – The only way", where Roy took part with Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Varavara Rao, Roy was reported to have said that "Kashmir should get azadi from bhookhe-nange Hindustan". Official transcripts of her speech, however, said:
“When I was in Kashmir… what broke my heart on the street of Srinagar was when people say "Nanga Bhukha Hindustan, Jaan se Pyara Pakistan" and I said no because "Nanga Bhukha Hindustan" is with you, and if you are fighting for a just society then you must align yourself with powers and here are people who have fought their lives opposing Indian state....You have to look beyond stone pelting and how the state is using people. ...You have to know your enemy and you have to be able to respond by aligning tactically, intelligently, locally or internationally.”
Now that is grotesque in the gospel business. She bore the ire of the media and politicians for her secessionist views, and booking her on sedition charges was imminent. An IPS officer from Uttar Pradesh, Amitabh Thakur opined in an open letter published in the Daily Pioneer that her statements would come under the realm of sedition under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. There was a demand for appropriate action against Roy under suitable sections of law.
On the other end, Tehelka - the self proclaimed people's paper, whose founder Tarun Tejpal’s publishing concern India Ink had first published Roy’s solitary book, vehemently supported her, describing her as “a writer and public intellectual who has, at many crucial junctures, brought the nation’s attention to chasms that threatened to tear it apart.” Now, that was an undivided surprise to the Nation. In an article, Tehelka pronounced: “Ironically, if Roy had been booked for sedition, she would have had illustrious precedents. Mahatma Gandhi was charged with sedition in 1922 for his views in Young India. At the trial he said, 'I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me… Sedition, in law, is a deliberate crime… but it appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.' Inspiringly — displaying the rare commitment to the liberal values that were the founding ideas of this nation — he went on to say, 'Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen… If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence… Some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.'" Illustrious precedents like Mahatma Gandhi? If a booking on sedition-charges gives one the privilege to mount the high pedestal and share the stage with Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nothing better! Amazing piece, indeed.
A few days after the October, 2010, seminar, Roy traveled to Srinigar and Shopian and then reported on her visits. A note at the outset commented on how Barack Obama, the U.S. President, had ditched the Kashmir issue against his own promises earlier. That Obama "pleased his hosts immensely by saying the United States would not intervene in Kashmir," was referred with consternation. With regard to her own trip to Kashmir, Roy asserted "Indian nationalists and the government seem to believe that they can fortify their idea of a resurgent India with a combination of bullying and Boeing airplanes. But they don’t understand the subversive strength of warm, boiled eggs." The C-17 Globemaster III aircraft were on the Obama agenda in Delhi when he visited recently (reference to ‘Boeing’). The eggs were a gift to Roy from the father of one of the Shopian victims (supposedly of rape or murder) in appreciation for Roy's efforts.
Arundhati Roy has travelled the long dark path and seen it all. Some vouch she has an unparalleled fetish to be in news and ceaselessly hog the limelight, even if it takes her to comment on issues she understands the least.
Arundhati Roy – woman of more news and little substance. Good fiction – dismissed. Since long. You either hate her completely or love her absolutely. Its mutually exclusive. No middle path, this.
Shub Atpug is the pen name of Shubham Gupta, an author, poet and cartoonist currently based in United States of America. He is the co-editor of Scroll and the author of Conflict and Other Stories