Saturday, February 20, 2010

arundhati roy: listening to grasshoppers

#16 Listening to Grasshoppers: Fieldnotes on Democracy, Arundhati Roy

This book is a collection of Roy's essays and sketches, written at various crisis points in India's public life over the last decade. (Regular readers of Outlook Magazine will be familiar with most of its contents.) Roy's style blends some testimony with some reportage, but her primary literary position is that of a polemicist, not a journalist. The title of the book is taken from its longest and I think its most philosophically representative piece, a talk Roy delivered in Istanbul in January 2008, on the first anniversary of the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. In this, she traces the world's history of linking genocide with progress in a freewheeling lecture that touches on the historic - race genocide in North America, Nazi camps in Europe - and elides it with the contemporary, specifically with India, and particularly in relation to the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. This will probably make a lot of people unhappy, starting with political moderates in India and going all the way up to those students of the Holocaust who view it as a unique and ahistorical event. But Roy has a way of upsetting even liberals who are ranged on her side of the field. Her writing is a notable departure from the way liberals in India communicate with each other, at least in between magazine covers. We hate the thought that someone might be talking down to us without first establishing their appropriate authority to do so. Roy's style regularly stands out in the corpus of resistance writing as an exclamation mark on a page where the other punctuations are commas.

Since this does not invalidate her opinions, sadly for the legion of anti-Roy trolls on the Internet and prime-time TV news, let me try and stick to my mandate, which is to describe my experience of the book. As I said, I think the titular essay is central to the collection in more ways than one, and pulls together almost all the ideas contained by the more time-bound 'feral howls' [Roy's words] that Roy produced for magazines on several devastating occasions: the carnage in Gujarat, the dubious investigative and judicial processes that surrounded the state's prosecution of Mohammed Afzal for the Parliament attacks in 2001, and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. While the decision not to 'update' any of this writing leads to a substantial overlap between pieces - readers who've never come across Roy before may find themselves very thoroughly acquainted with her talking points before the third essay is out - I think it will stand as a good record of Roy's decade in opinion writing, successful in its shocking immediacy and the consistency of her commitment to the egg and not the wall. In some cases, the atmosphere in which her criticisms were delivered was far less comfortable than it may seem to us now, and she has written, argued, harangued and - yes - shrieked at volumes that not many people with quite such carrying voices did.

However, I don't enjoy the self-conscious juvenility and the handwaving that marks her style. Catastrophes occur in 'our wonderful democracy'; an observation about the Hindutva characterisation of Muslims as 'outsiders' contrasts it with the government's signing of development aid contracts with Britain, 'a government that colonized us for centuries.' This is bad rhetoric and logic. The Afzal piece is completely successful in transmitting Roy's concern for and horror at the way the Delhi Police and courts handled the trial of the main suspects in the Parliament bombing, but framed as it is in the language of conspiracy theory and secondary-source reportage, it's also confusing about what form it aims to be judged by. There is a satirical sketch written on the even of Bush Jr's visit to India that imagines a speech he might make, written in 'voice,' peppered with "Innia"s and "jus' kiddin'"s. Her refusal to take a solutional approach anywhere in her essays (apart from Azad Kashmir) severely limits her and our capacity to expand on her criticism. All of this throws regularly me out of her narrative.

(I freely admit that this probably means that my inner self is a morally comatose real-estate developer with a side-business in arms-dealing waiting to break out.)

So I guess you could say that in spite of my profound agreement with the spirit of this book, I am not its ideal reader. Since Roy is not India's only vocal critic of the state, even if some newspapers abroad seem to think so, and since I read Outlook regularly, why did I read this book? Frankly, because of Penguin's deliberate attempt to mislead readers about its subject - in fact, this ought to be an object lesson to editors and publicists on how not to characterise a political anthology. Listening to Grasshoppers is produced to look like a meditation on democracy. The back cover text reads:

Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?

Underneath the blurbiness, this is a very good question. Is there a political system with the potential to be more just and less prone to breakdown than democracy? There is almost nothing in this book that even approaches this practically, much less philosophically. Roy's main arguments are about the abuse of state machinery in India, and about the failures of nationalism. But the faults of the state are distinct from the faults of democracy - which is why Roy herself repeatedly uses the word 'fascism' to describe institutionalised oppression. If there's anything evident in her essays, it's that the ideal has not failed its people and its institutions: it's the other way around.

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