Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Reading Arundhati Roy

Once my family was visiting my cousin's place. My 6 year old nephew after saying the usual greetings went back to watch his TV in the living room. We also started chatting right next to him in the living room. After a few minutes, he asked his mother to give him some MnMs. His mother said in a minute and she was back in conversation with us. After a few seconds, he tried again but with no response this time. This request-response must have happened  three times more when he stood up and yelled at the top of his voice "You are not listening to me".  This is exactly the image that come to my mind when i read Arundhati Roy. Somebody who is yelling at the top of her voice because "we" are not listening.

In her Defense
Ms. Roy's critics claim that hers is the voice of extreme left. She is angry with anything and everything. She knows only to make noise and nothing else. I do not deny their argument. But imagine a situation when your house has been robbed and you go to a police station and nobody is listening to you, what will you do? You will be angry and you will shout. Such is the plea of Arundhati and in this writer's mind, she does an extremely good job by bringing that anger to her writing without loosing her temper.

 Godhra , Naxalite movement or even Kashmir, there is a much sinister play here which has to be understood in the right context. It is not a denial of acknowledgement but rather a refusal to acknowledgement. Because "denial" would mean partial knowledge or inefficiency or carelessness while "refusal" is a blatant statement saying that it never happened. Arundhati Roy is fighting against this "refusal" mentality and she is also under a clock because public memory is short-lived.

In her article on Godhra, she spends considerable time on defining why Godhra was not a riot but a genocide.  In the case of Afzal Guru where Supereme Court in its judgement  wrote this - "The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender." She rightly questions our democracy when the supreme body of judiciary is basing its decision on satisfying the collective conscience of the society.

The Tone
In the article - "How deep shall we dig?", Arundhati takes liberalization policies 1991 and places them next to the Rath Yatra by Advani and  writes - "While one arm is busy selling off the nation's assets in chunks, the other, to divert attention, is arranging a baying, howling, deranged chorus of cultural nationalism". Her essays are filled with such acerbic comments, these simply can't be ignored.  It is at the phrase "to divert attention" in the above quote where a reader, like me who agrees with most of her viewpoints, feels put-off and frankly short-changed.

Arundhati definitely has a flair for writing good prose (she even has a Booker prize in fiction to prize for this) but it feels like she often succumbs to her own internal demons and ends up applying her talent to take cheap shots. There is a fine line between satire and ridicule and she crosses it again and again. It is her sarcastic tone,  the air of superiority that i am right and you are not, the "You-have-to-be-a-moron-to-not-see-this", which gets in the way of people taking her more seriously. It is also her tone which gets more attention than her content.  We discussed her book - Listening to Grasshoppers - Field notes on democracy, as part of our book club  and couple of people mentioned that after reading a few essays, their reaction was "Stop! Please stop".  Mind you, it was not the heavy content that made them say this, it was the vinegar representation of fundamental issues. 

 With every writing, Arundhati has made more enemies than friends. Earlier this year, she wrote "Capitalism, A Ghost story" in which she criticized practically any company that has existed since the dawn of civilization. The article offers anecdotes bashing one company after another but it fails to make any attempts to highlight issues at a theoretic level. Neither it offers any solution to Capitalism, nor it argues for any alternate theory. At the end of reading that article, one is left with a lingering question - "What is the point of all this?

The Necessity
With all the arbitrary claims, metaphors and ridicule, the obvious question are - Does she bring anything to the table? or in other words Do we need Arundhati Roy? The answer is a big yes. We definitely need a voice that represents the left, even though it may the voice of extreme left, to counter the extreme right.  There are still people in this world who like the idea of Modi as Prime Minister, who believe that the man is the force behind the (aura of) development in Gujarat and who  do not believe (or are willing to overlook) his complicity in Godhra. We need talk to these people because every voice of reason and fairness has failed us. We need to shame them, to make them realize the fallacy in their arguments, to put them to the same standards as they have been putting for the rest of us.  This is precisely why we need her, to do the balancing act. To yell because every attempt for a calm and productive conversation has been a waste of time.

One can go to a solution only after one acknowledges that there is a problem. Arundhati's battle is to ensure that we acknowledge that there is a fundamental problem. Readers who are aware and understand the problem, are not her audience. If you are looking for an all-fact coverage, she is not the right choice. If you are looking for solutions, she is not going to offer any. But at the same time, those readers should not shun her. We should lend support wherever we can because we are anyways loosing the battle. We should not fight among ourselves even though there exists considerable differences in our approaches taken. We should be thankful to her for bringing these issues up and voicing out a side that everybody else is so keen to suppress. We should realize that we also need her if at all there is hope for a better future.  

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