Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arundhati Roy and the voices in my head

It's hard to be neutral about Arundhati Roy.

I loved (in an unqualified way) 'The God of Small Things' (GOST). I was just out of high school when the book came out, to tremendous hype and I was determined to find it over-rated. Instead, the book blew me away - at this point it's almost a cliche to say how inventive the language is but I'll just say that it captured smells, sounds and textures in a way I have rarely seen since, though there are many bad imitations. The plot is beautifully paced, the narrative device felt utterly genuine and organic. I still feel tension and sadness as the book reaches its climax...and I still marvel at her small insights - this particular feeling of unease that I have always associated with her image of the fluttering moth in your chest since the book.

I don't think Roy could have topped GOST and so in a sense I'm glad she hasn't written more fiction.

Since GOST, Roy has become passionately committed to many causes, general and specific- the enviornment and anti-dam movement in India, taking on the neo-liberal order, anti-Indian nuclear tests, anti-Iraq war and American imperealism. Most of this is done via writing in a series of articles that have found wide circulation internationally, many of which are first found in Outlook India.

While I loved GOST, the articles - not so much. But still, I can't be ambivalent about them....

This is the internal dialogue I wrestle with when thinking about Arundhati Roy:

Pro-Arundhati voice: She really can write well- she just has a way with words.

Anti-Arundhati voice: 1. What's the point of writing well, if you're just ranting and raving. She has no sense of proportion or balance. Everything is really, really black and white for her. 2. So much of it is her marketability and persona- I get really annoyed by academics in the west who think she is the real voice of the 'Indian masses'. 3. Plus Ramachandra Guha says she's unoriginal and frequently gets things wrong (in much better words than I can muster) and I am inclined to trust his opinion.

Pro-Arundhati voice: But are you saying that because 1. she says some really uncomfortable, unflaterring things about India and 2. exposes deep rooted facets about your own privileged existence. At the end of the day, isn't she speaking truth to power? Isn't your vehemence born out of your own discomfort at being confronted by the ugly truths about the parts of of the neo-liberal world order that benefit you?

Anti-Arundhati Roy: Yes, she does make me uncomfortable for those reasons. In fact, I don't disagree with much of her agenda and where she's coming from. I want to be on her side but she's just annoyingly simplistic, quick to take umbrage and just a little smug. Not to mention a little rabid. She could make her argument so much more credibly and intelligently if she was just more balanced, nuanced and open to alternative perspectives. Also, she's intellectually lazy- by making the 'they're fascists/like Hitler' argument for anyone she doesn't agree with.

Pro-Arundhati: Why should she give more space and credence to already powerful players and voices? She has courage and she backs up her words with her deeds. You need voices like hers in the forums she has access to. We are kept honest by someone with her ability with language and her visibility to press our conscience and to give voice to people ...

Anti-Arundhati: I'll give her the courage part- but really, she is supported and lionized by the same systems and people she criticizes. I would just like to see her acknowledge that just once. I'd be more willing to listen to her if she would be willing to have a dialogue with people she disagrees with. You can't have a dialogue with Arundhati- she's an ideologue in the same way as G.W. and she is so convinced by her own stance that she is unwilling to question her own mistakes

And so it goes on....

Mostly, as I've read her work over the years (increasingly more incoherent and badly edited), the anti-Arundhati side of me has prevailed over the pro-Arundhati side...

So, after reading her latest article in Outlook entitled '9 is not 11', the debate has restarted and surprise...the pro-Arundhati voice is winning.

Yes, it needs an editing job and it lapses into her usual rant against America and also a somewhat inappropriate but understandable tirade against neo-liberalism when discussing (rightly) the excessive coverage of the Taj versus other, less glamorous targets. It's also way too rambly. But she does make some good points and in the language and style that she does like no one else.

Some interesting lines/points:
1. First, can we just agree that the '9 is not 11' title is vintage Roy- clever, simple, stark. On this desire to brand 11/26 'India's 9/11' she writes:

"We've forfeited the rights to our own tragedies. But November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan, and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions."

I agree. Calling 26/11 out 9/11 is easy and understandable but dangerous. Yes, the Bombay attacks were on an unprecedented scale symbolically but they were not a bolt from the blue in the same sense. It should not undermine the unacceptability of the series of attacks India has suffered. More importantly, we should be wary of equating responses to 11/26 with that of 9/11. The domestic and strategic context is different, India's identity is distinct and different and so we need to recognize and work with those differences.

2. A provocative but useful discussion on the politics of calling Muslim versus Hindu groups terrorists. This is a debate that is very much alive in India and she raises the important question - does discussing the context or root causes of terrorism amount to excusing it (Side A) or is it necessary to understand the deeper bases of violence (side B). She chooses side B. I've always struggled between Side A and Side B. I don't buy her reasoning getting to that point. or her simplistic and predictable linking of the Bombay attacks solely to domestic politics (though that no doubt fuels movements in Pakistan) but....she goes there and she juxtaposes the ugly side of 'context' with all that is 'magnificent' about the idea of the India. It is uncomfortable, perhaps too early to talk about but I think it is only by asking ourselves the questions about our own 'context' instead of just pointing the finger at Pakistan that we truly live up to all that we pride in ourselves as a secular, inclusive democracy.

Again, instead of constructing barriers to asking tough questions about our own legacy and place in the world, as happened in the US after 9/11, we would do well to have a discourse about these questions. Certainly in the non-inflammatory and less sensitive arenas that public intellectuals occupy.

3. Most of all I like the end:
The only way to contain – it would be naive to say end – terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We're standing at a fork in the road. One sign says "Justice," the other "Civil War." There's no third sign and there's no going back. Choose.

Amen Sister. The choice is pretty clear to me.

Soon, no doubt you will write some crazy 50 page essay comparing Bill Gates to Pol Pot. And I'll feel vindicated in my irritation with you. But tonight, Arundhati, I'll give you half a thumbs up.


bala subramanian said...

your thoughts about Ms.Arundhati Roy are very close to mine.
Before I start to read her article, I tell myself not to be carried away by her writing and I urge myself to take a more balanced view, unlike her.But every time, I am pulled towards her prose and start believing her every word.

B. S. Prakash said...

you have touched a chord; i too have felt the same way --not only admiration for the style, but sometimes empathy for the substance too and a gulit feeling that it is our class background that makes us call her `naive` or simplistic.

I havent read this article as yet, i will, but your pro and anti Arunhati points are mine too and are very well made by you.

But at another level: there are two kinds of people and responses to any social issue specially something horrific. The sociologist/ the psychologist and the writer can look for an understanding of the underlying, look for root causes. But the policeman, the commando and the politician has to tackle and deal with the problem and cannot analyse it. It does not make them fascists or whatever. And sometimes, action has to take precedence from a social point of view over thought and analysis.

I am now going to Ms Roy, but Ms Deepa1s writing is compelling too.

jai said...

Don't know how I stumbled onto your blog, in any case, an interesting read on how you highlight the contradictions that you experience when reading A. Roy's works of non-fiction.

There is no doubt of the eloquence in her prose and her ability to evoke visceral feelings with her words but personally, I have found her to place greater emphasis on the A. Roy brand than on the product (wrt her non-fiction work). How different is she from an average politician when she frames events such as 11/26 in the context of the causes she supports?

Re the article in question, what disappointed me most, is that no where in the long essay, she found the need to capture the human side of 11/26: the acts of bravery and sacrifice on part of ordinary people as well those in uniform or the terror faced by the victims of the carnage and killings.

Lightlight said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Bala Subramanian: sometimes she just has a turn of phrase or expression that stops you in your tracks

B.S.P. Good point about her privilege as a writer versus those who have to handle these horrific crises as they unfold. And her patent lack of acknowledement or sympathy for those people should be noted. And that links to Jai's point below

Jai: I agree that there is something remarkably self-indulgent at best, selfish at worst to be quickly formulating your literary response to something like this and not once to reflect on the immediate human dimension of it. Very true.