Arundhati Roy has a tendency to rile India’s media and political elites like no one else on the subcontinent. Perhaps that’s because no writer today, in India or anywhere in the world, writes with the kind of beautiful, piercing prose in defense of the wretched of the earth that Roy does.
Review of Arundhati Roy’s My Seditious Heart (Haymarket Books, 2019)
It’s possible to mark time in Indian politics by how long it’s been since Arundhati Roy has pissed off the government. Her meticulous, two-decades-long dissection of India’s unsustainable development, its Islamophobic Hindu nationalism and caste violence, alongside the United States’ pursuit of global empire has been proven accurately, darkly predictive.
When India’s December law restricting Muslim citizenship passed, readers of Roy’s essays had a framework, going back two decades, within which to place these developments. By midwinter, Muslims were being beaten and lynched in the streets of the capital. This was shocking but not unprecedented, and readers of her essays recalled her warnings over mass killings in Gujarat in 2002, an early flashpoint that she describes explicitly as a contemporary genocide.
Roy is known for two musical and beautifully complex novels. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017; her debut, The God of Small Things, won that prize twenty years before. Last summer, to more muted fanfare, her essays were collected in an eight-hundred-plus-page edition by Haymarket Books called My Seditious Heart. As Roy approaches fifty-nine, the three books add up to a major literary achievement.
The title of the essays nods to Roy’s power to rile state prosecutors and their media allies. The former are prone to slapping her with charges (since the first novel appeared) and the latter to camping outside her house and haranguing her for her perceived “anti-national” treachery. While she was at work on her second novel, she felt the need to flee the subcontinent. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is masterful and intricate. The musical humor that appears in her novels graces her essays, too, so that her scorn for dehumanizing, paternalistic policies in India and the United States is amplified by a deeply felt love of language, a winking irony, and disarming displays of working-class solidarity, affection for wild animals, and love of the natural world.
Her anxieties guide readers through the violence of major dam projects, India’s blithely joining the world’s nuclear powers, and its atrocious policies in Kashmir. A koan throughout is a concern over how bad it can get beforet the country’s liberals sufficiently question modern India’s superpower narrative. “Given the history of modern India, I think we did have to go through this phase,” she told an interviewer last fall about the rule of far-right prime minister Narendra Modi. “I just hope that we don’t pay too high a price as we come out of it.”
Beginning of the Imagination
Arundhati Roy’s essay writing began two decades ago, after first bursting onto the international scene through her fiction. At the time, India was taking a place of global prominence. “For me, personally it was a time of odd disquiet,” she writes. “As I watched the great drama unfold, my own fortunes seemed to have been touched by magic.”
With the success of her debut novel, The God of Small Things, “I was a front-runner in the lineup of people who were chosen to personify the confident, new, market-friendly India that was finally taking its place at the high table. It was flattering in a way, but deeply disturbing, too. As I watched people being pushed into penury, my book was selling millions of copies. My bank account was burgeoning. Money on that scale confuses me. What did it mean to be a writer in times such as these?”
She applied her new “platform” to critiquing the new India, such as the country’s developing nuclear weapons. She saw a threat in the received wisdom that viewed nuclear weapons as modernization, advancement. To her, this threat to annihilate all creation in response to temporary, territorial disputes (with Pakistan, over Kashmir, usually) equated to “The End of Imagination,” as her first essay was titled. On one level, this was because there’s “nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world.” The anti-nuclear power and weapons movement had been born simultaneously with the advent of both these milestones; like Roy, it bore elements of the global peace and non-aligned movements.
The arguments against such doomed advances were well known, running through books like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, published in 1946 and showing the devastating effect of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on the civilians of Japan, and the bombs’ toll on nurses, doctors, clerks, and teachers. Books on this topic also include Belarusian author and future Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s 1997 Voices from Chernobyl and, important to Roy, scientist Carl Sagan’s work on “nuclear winter.”
Taking a page from the nuclear winter models of the 1980s, Roy presents a detailed picture of exactly what had fallen into India’s hands. If the weapons were to be used:
Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day. Only interminable night. Temperatures will drop to far below freezing and nuclear winter will set in.
Sometimes she found that India’s nuclear triumphalism had a sexual component. One politician of the right-wing, Shiv Sena, pronounced after the tests that Indians are “not eunuchs anymore.” “Reading the papers,” Roy writes, “it was often hard to tell when people [trumpeting the tests] were referring to Viagra.”
But she argues that when it comes to triumphal fantasies, “The trouble is that having a nuclear bomb makes thoughts like these seem feasible. It creates thoughts like these.”
If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I’m female, but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I’m willing to sign any nuclear nonproliferation treaty or nuclear test-ban that’s going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag.
My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.
When Roy turns to India’s hydroelectric dams, she is similarly ruthless and imaginative. “Instinct led me to set aside Joyce and Nabokov,” she begins, “to postpone reading Don DeLillo’s big book and substitute for it reports on drainage and irrigation, with journals and books and documentaries about dams and why they’re built and what they do.” What they do, under careful scrutiny, proves underwhelming, in terms of benefits, and crippling, in terms of costs.
Activists who oppose dams in their native regions, many of whom are low-caste, outcast, or indigenous, come to see the dams as matters of life or death (and mostly the latter). What specifically troubles Roy is not just the disenfranchisement, which is already bad enough; it’s that after she does the math, she realizes that the dams India places so much hope upon simply won’t work.
Dams are “being decommissioned, blown up” in the first world, she notes. Yet at the time of her first essay on dams, in 1999, India had “3600 dams that qualify as Big Dams, 3300 of them built after Independence. One thousand more are under construction. Yet one-fifth of our population — 200 million people — does not have safe drinking water, and two-thirds — 600 million — lack basic sanitation.” Dams, she writes, are
a brazen means of taking water, land, and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich . . . Ecologically, too, they’re in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, waterlogging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes . . . For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the first world is in trouble and out of work. So it’s exported to the third world in the name of Development Aid, along with their other waste, like old weapons, superannuated aircraft carriers, banned pesticides.
She writes on the irony of India’s latecomer dam-addiction: “On the one hand the Indian government, every Indian government, rails self-righteously against the first world, and on the other, it actually pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage.” But the even bigger problem, beyond the duplicity, is that “the [Indian] government has not commissioned a post-project evaluation of a single one of its 3,600 dams to gauge whether or not it achieved what it set out to achieve.” In India’s west, near Navagam, Gujarat, the Sardar Sarovar Dam projects “will end up consuming more electricity than they produce.”
Roy sets out to find a number for how many people have been or will be removed from their homes to make way for these dams. Finding a conservative figure published by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, she calculates that Indian dams have displaced 33 million people. A secretary of the Planning Commission, however, thought the figure for all development projects, dams alongside others, was more like 50 million. Given that so many of those displaced are Adivasis, India’s indigenous, “India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyle of her richest.”
The picture becomes clear: India’s investment in these development projects, in fact, is married to corruption in the wealthy world. “‘Development Aid’ is rechanneled back to the countries it came from,” she writes, “masquerading as equipment cost or consultants’ fees or salaries to the agencies’ own staff.” For example, the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, spurred by a loan of L234 million, revealed its benefactors’ ulterior motives when it “emerged that the loan was offered to ‘encourage’ Malaysia to sign a L1.3 billion contract to buy British arms.”
Another of the Narmada River dams, the Bargi, “cost ten times more than was budgeted and submerged three times more land than the engineers said it would.” At the same time, it “irrigates only as much land as it submerged in the first place — and only five percent of the area that its planners claimed it would irrigate.” As in development projects in the United States and Canada, like the pipeline project at Standing Rock, protestors in India enter into no-protest zones. “The dam site and its adjacent areas, already under the Indian Official Secrets Act,” a holdover from the British, “were clamped under Section 144, which prohibits the gathering of groups of more than five people.”
India’s displaced appear in Roy’s work in affecting portraits. Take, for example, this scene of a family removed from a flood zone whose mitigation money, for forfeited property, never materialized. “In Vadaj, a resettlement site I visited near Baroda,” she writes, “the man who was talking to me rocked his sick baby in his arms, clumps of flies gathered on its sleeping eyelids.” All at once, she records the man’s poverty and its conditional nature, and her eye and ear demonstrate how his survival and dignity are severely curtailed.
Children collected around us, taking care not to burn their bare skin on the scorching tin walls of the shed they call a home. The man’s mind was far away from the troubles of his sick baby. He was making me a list of the fruits he used to pick in the forest. He counted forty-eight kinds. He told me that he didn’t think he or his children would ever be able to afford to eat any fruit again. Not unless he stole it. I asked him what was wrong with his baby. He said it would be better for the baby to die than live like this. I asked what the baby’s mother thought about that. She didn’t reply. She just stared.
To rebut the gospel that technology, deregulation, and privatization — “modernization theory” during the Cold War — will save India, Roy delves into the numbers of citizens disenfranchised, holds them up against what has been promised, and finds them lacking. The projects fail to deliver (in kilowatt hours) or to reimburse (with payments promised to people removed from their submerged homes). She captures what the nonpayment means to these families, images of those sacrificed to rising India.
“Twelve families who had small holdings in the vicinity of the dam site had their land acquired,” she writes. “They told me how, when they objected, cement was poured into their water pipes, their standing crops were bulldozed, and the police occupied the land by force.” Multiply this scene by 50 million.
Roy eulogizes the victims’ dying citizenship and their dying dreams of citizenship, and she marks such moments with damning aphorisms for what a noncitizen, a nonperson, has in store. “Resettling 200,000 people in order to take (or pretend to take) drinking water to 40 million — there’s something wrong with the scale of operations here,” she writes. “This is fascist math.”
Privatization and the West
Beyond these changing roles, Roy’s work is riddled with moments of contrast between what is happening in the bank ledgers of the elite, at the self-congratulatory press conferences, and at the dinner tables of poor people. On her way to a definition of economic privatization, for instance, appears one of these rudimentary self-portraits.
“As a writer, one spends a lifetime journeying into the heart of language, trying to minimize, if not eliminate, the distance between language and thought.” But for states and corporations, “the whole purpose of language is to mask intent.” As first-world and multinational corporations wreak privatized chaos in the developing world, this is all the more true.
Roy’s early work stood on the shoulders of environmental movements, and she resists the mantra of nature as commodity. Privatization, she reflects, “is the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies. Productive assets include natural resources.”
Earth, forest, water, air. These are assets that the state holds in trust for the people it represents. In a country like India, 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas. That’s 700 million people. Their lives depend directly on access to natural resources. To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.
The logic starts with bureaucrats confessing their inefficiency, a malaise; the rationale to privatize will follow naturally from the confession. “The solution to this malaise, we discover, is not to improve our housekeeping skills, not to try and minimize our losses, not to force the state to be more accountable, but to permit it to abdicate its responsibility altogether and privatize the power sector. Then magic will happen. Economic viability and Swiss-style efficiency will kick in like clockwork.”
A local example of this is the Enron scandal. In 1993, the Indian National Congress–ruled state government of Maharashtra signed an agreement for a 695-megawatt power plant. This agreement would not go well for the party.
The opposition parties, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, set up a howl of swadeshi (nationalist) protest and filed legal proceedings against Enron and the state government. They alleged malfeasance and corruption at the highest level. A year later, when the state elections were announced, it was the only campaign issue of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
When that alliance won, its members denounced the deal as “loot-through-liberalization.” Keep in mind that the liberals of the Indian National Congress Party, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s old party, enabled the right-wing coalition to come to power, first regionally then nationally, through these actions plausibly portrayed as fighting corruption. The opposition leader who kept his promise and scrapped the project “more or less directly accused the Congress Party government of having taken a $13 million bribe from Enron.”
Enron, for its part, could hardly deny this, making “no secret of the fact that, in order to secure the deal, it had paid out millions of dollars to ‘educate’ the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the deal.” For pointing out this liberal corruption, Roy was repeatedly denounced, accused “of sedition, of being anti-national, of being a spy, and, most ludicrous of all, of receiving ‘foreign funds.’” This is how the Congress Party apparently deflects blame, while its well-compensated exit from power, in this state and elsewhere, helped usher in a reign of fascist terror against India’s Muslims. The fascists were able, reasonably, to cast liberals as corrupt, paving the way for the former’s taking power.
India’s Genocide Against Muslims
Amid such developments, a Dutch filmmaker once asked Arundhati Roy what India can teach the world. She offered an ironic lesson, guiding the filmmaker to India’s fascist training camps, “a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha, where . . . ordinary people march around in khaki shorts and learn that amassing nuclear weapons, religious bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, book burning, and outright hatred are the ways to retrieve a nation’s lost dignity.” This is one of the recurring motifs of Arundhati Roy’s work: helping Indians and the world to see India’s fascist infrastructure, and warning against its most folksy herald in prime minister Narendra Modi.
Roy frequently reminds the reader that the RSS’s leader during World War II (a man called M. S. Golwalkar) openly admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Politicians of both the Indian National Congress Party and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are members of this volunteer, fraternal organization, which has millions of members across the nation. Their work bends toward fascism, by way of nationalism. In her essay “Listening to Grasshoppers,” she reports the stakes for India’s Muslims.
In the state of Gujarat there was a genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word genocide advisedly . . . The genocide began as a collective punishment for an unsolved crime — the burning of a railway coach in which fifty-three Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, two thousand Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organized by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. Two thousand were killed and more than one hundred thousand people were driven from their homes.
As she calls out one of the key perpetrators — the shameless “helmsman” of this genocide, Modi, now in his second term as prime minister — the scope of her moral and comparative reasoning is sweeping and meticulous. Yes, the 2002 Gujarat genocide was small compared to other global massacres. It was small compared, even, to an atrocity egged on by the Congress Party that killed three thousand Sikhs after prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored — first, because it was used to win multiple elections.
Modi, Roy writes, “had become a folk hero, called in by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to campaign on its behalf in other Indian states.” Second, because it “is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision.” India’s “fascist math” has evolved in pursuit of electoral gains. The math is underpinned by a hatred that “must see its victims as subhuman, as parasites whose eradication would be a service to society,” but that is cleverly weaponized to win elections.
A certain class of genocidaire doesn’t bother with denial and even brags about their killings. So it was in the colonial United States with English Puritan John Mason reporting the following of a Pequot massacre, which Roy quotes: “Those [Pequots] that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces.” And so it is today, with one of the “lynchpins” of the Gujarat genocide, who told an Indian magazine, “We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them.”
India represents a large economic base, and it is courted for this rather than castigated for such atrocities. Politically aligned with him, Donald Trump is cozy with Modi, even appearing at a “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas in the fall. But so was Barack Obama, who normalized this fascist math through the strategic friendship he nurtured, almost like endorsing Trump’s politics overseas before they landed in the United States. To both these figures, India’s importance in the region overruled the need to condemn Modi’s barbarism. And the Indian media, too, are engaged in fascist math, as seen in Modi’s high approval ratings even after he “demonetized” Indian currency, creating financial freefall.
When India rewrote its laws in December to strip citizenship from millions of Muslims, many protested. The backlash came in the form of the worst pogroms against Muslims in decades. In North East Delhi, in February, repeated waves of attackers chased Muslims from mixed neighborhoods; beat, hacked, and shot more than fifty to death; mutilated their genitals and set them on fire.
When Roy details such atrocities, she doesn’t want American readers to forget the brutalities done in our name, either. In her meditation on genocide, she asks:
And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion of 2003, genocide (which is what UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Dennis Halliday called it) or was it ‘worth it,’ as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations, claimed? It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child?
In an essay about Modi’s genocidal killings, the point is that her US readers can’t let ourselves off the hook, not psychologically, not morally, as we read of a different kind of atrocity in the subcontinent.
The Woodborer in Her Heart
By way of an introduction to a 2003 edition of Noam Chomsky’s For Reasons of State, we learn from Roy herself why she is so indispensable. “As a child growing up in the state of Kerala, in South India — where the first democratically elected communist government in the world came to power in 1959, the year I was born — I worried terribly about being a gook,” she begins.
Kerala was only a few thousand miles west of Vietnam. We had jungles and rivers and ricefields, and communists, too. I kept imagining my mother, my brother, and myself being blown out of the bushes by a grenade, or mowed down, like the gooks in the movies, by an American marine with muscled arms and chewing gum and a loud background score. In my dreams, I was the burning girl in the famous photograph taken on the road from Trang Bang . . . As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralized each other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshalling of evidence was — how shall I put it? — insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky’s work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he’s up against. He’s like the wood-borer who lives inside the third rack of my bookshelf. Day and night, I hear his jaws crunching through the wood, grinding it to a fine dust. It’s as though he disagrees with the literature and wants to destroy the very structure on which it rests. I call him Chompsky.
“Layer by layer,” she writes, “Chomsky strips down the process of decision making by U.S. government officials, to reveal at its core the pitiless heart of the American war machine, completely insulated from the realities of war, blinded by ideology, and willing to annihilate millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole cities, whole ecosystems — with scientifically honed methods of brutality.”
She captures what it is about Chomsky that heartens us. It explains how indispensable Roy is, too. Her early essays feature a furious curiosity that masters the tools of technocrats — becoming a “clerk,” she calls it. Checking numbers and reports, interviewing victims. The writing in her early essays is thrilling — she writes as a refuter with bursts of bravado and comic asides.
But later in the collection, we find her transformed into a sober but still irreverent detective of history, seeking to decode the precise moment when the spell (of nationalism, of state violence) was cast in India — as with her essay on B. R. Ambedkar.
The Doctor and the Saint
To begin her most ambitious essay, on the problem of Hindu caste, Roy recounts the horrifying rape and murder of Surekha Bhotmange. To show the problem’s invisibility, Roy compares the media’s treatment of Bhotmange, an untouchable, or Dalit, in India in 2006 to that of Malala Yousafzai, a girl in Pakistan in 2012. After Yousafzai was denied an education in Pakistan and got one anyway, defying the local Taliban, she was famously shot in the head, miraculously survived, and was made into a global symbol for women’s education through the “I am Malala” slogan — a slogan supposedly defiant of conservative regimes but marketed in the context of the United States’ so-called war on terror and its media and NGO adjuncts.
Roy is fair in her depiction of Malala herself, who is noble. But her sentiments toward Malala’s being used in a propaganda campaign for war are reduced to a single sentence: “The US drone strikes in Pakistan continue with their feminist mission to ‘take out’ misogynist, Islamist terrorists.”
Contrast this with Bhotmange, a forty-year-old Dalit woman in India. Better educated than her husband, she served as the de facto head of her household. Her children were educated, too. Like her intellectual idol, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who was one of India’s founding lights, she left Hindu untouchability for caste-free Buddhism. But for trying to make improvements in her plot of farmland that abutted the farms of supposedly higher-born Hindus, she was persecuted and oppressed. Assaulting one of her relatives, her neighbors arbitrarily blocked her attempts to run electricity, improve her farm’s infrastructure, or irrigate her crops.
When she fought back, demanding arrests for the beaten relative, a vigilante group of seventy villagers arrived on tractors and raped and murdered her and her daughter after mutilating and murdering her sons. The four members of the family, all but the husband (who ran to call police), were left in a ditch. Unsurprisingly, as with so many Dalits, no justice was served for what Bhotmange, her children, and her husband underwent.
“Surekha Bhotmange and her children lived in a market-friendly democracy,” writes Roy. “So there were no ‘I am Surekha’ petitions from the United Nations to the Indian government, nor any fiats or messages of outrage from heads of state. Which was just as well, because we don’t want any daisy-cutters dropped on us just because we practice caste.” She notes of Ambedkar that he wrote “with the sort of nerve that present-day intellectuals in India find hard to summon,” and she quotes him describing Hinduism as “a veritable chamber of horrors.”
While gruesome, Bhotmange’s story was not atypical. Roy cites the National Crime Records Bureau, which records that “a crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every sixteen minutes.” She continues,
every day, more than four Untouchable women are raped by Touchables; every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered and six are kidnapped. In 2012 alone, the year of the Delhi gang-rape and murder, 1574 Dalit women were raped (the rule of thumb is that only ten percent of rapes or other crimes against Dalits are ever reported), and 651 Dalits were murdered. That’s just the rape and butchery. Not the stripping and parading naked, the forced shit-eating (literally), the seizing of land, the social boycotts, the restriction of access to drinking water.
It is for this reason that Roy excavates Ambedkar’s speech, one he never delivered, called “The Annihilation of Caste.” When she discovered it, she found it refreshing. At once an explainer of Indian caste and an alternate path that could have better fixed the Constitution, the speech addresses the gap between “what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience every day of our lives.” What follows is Roy’s 120-page thesis on the battle between the doctor wise enough to oppose caste, who helped write India’s constitution, and the better-known saint who fought him to preserve caste, Mohandas K. Gandhi. The essay goes on to ask why international shame campaigns leave out Indian caste, stories like Surekha and her family’s, though these campaigns manage to focus on “other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism, and religious fundamentalism.”
While independent India was being built, Ambedkar fought for an equality that was incompatible with the stratified system of Hindu caste that Gandhi defended. But after a long section on the debate between these two men, she asks, what about today? “Can caste be annihilated?”
Not unless we show the courage to rearrange the stars in our firmament. Not unless those who call themselves revolutionary develop a radical critique of Brahminism. Not unless those who understand Brahminism sharpen their critique of capitalism.
And of course not unless we read Babasaheb Ambedkar. If not inside our classrooms, then outside them. Until then, we will remain what he called the “sick men” and women of Hindustan, who seem to have no desire to get well.
Indeed, isn’t caste another kind of fascist math? And doesn’t each type of Indian violence — against Muslims, Adivasis, and Dalits, not to mention its rivers, elements, and forests — reinforce the other?
Yet India’s wretched aren’t just victims. In Roy’s decades-long retelling, they have also taken up their own self-defense, including an infamous Maoist armed resistance. She surveys this response in her long essay “Walking with the Comrades.” On one side, she writes, is a
massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organized, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion.
She explains their violence, too, these downtrodden who, in another essay, were having their water pipes filled with concrete, whose towns were being emptied of inhabitants in an operation known as Operation Green Hunt. “Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal — homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.”
It keeps getting wiped out, this rebellion in the forest; then it is reborn elsewhere. Does she know that armed struggle is violent? Yes, of course. Does she condone this? No, she contextualizes it. She writes that it’s convenient for the state, and its boosters, to see each new uprising ahistorically. To present it in a Cold War frame of Maoist (read: communist) versus progress. To forget that India’s tribal people were shafted, like its Dalits, by the Constitution, whose ratification she describes as a “tragic day for tribal people,” who were turned into “squatters on their own land,” denied the fruits, nourishment, and resources of their own forests, their whole way of life criminalized, especially when resource extraction or a dam project came along.
“Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people . . . refugees of India’s ‘progress,’” she writes, “the great majority are tribal people.” The first of their rebellions was in Naxal; thus Naxalite became a synonym. But anachronistically Maoist? “It’s convenient [for the state] to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.”
When Roy first set out to research this essay, her fixer was supposed to be holding bananas and carrying a magazine, so she would know who he was. He had neither; he said he couldn’t find the magazine. And the bananas? “I ate them.” She humanizes them as more than just an armed struggle for their land; she shows them dancing, celebrating, fighting, sleeping in the forests under stars.
She writes that nonviolence, while preferable, cannot work if no media will cover your plight. As a member of the media, she travels there to fix this. Meanwhile, they defend themselves.
She does the same humanizing work in the conflict in Kashmir, contextualizing India’s errors there in another essay filled with history and critique, which also shows the occupying state’s personae non gratae harvesting and eating apples, and otherwise enjoying what life is left to them, in their shrinking moments of peace during another crisis of rising India’s own making.
The Critic and Her Critics
Of course, liberal intellectuals read Roy’s critiques of the state and her portraits of dissidents as beyond the pale. Samanth Subramanian begins his New Yorker review of My Seditious Heart by reminding his readers again and again just how angry Roy is. While he praises her apple scene in Kashmir, her critique of the neoliberal project he reduces to “uninhibited anger,” and asks that anti–Fourth Estate platitude, wielded often against leftists: What solutions does she have, anyway?
A typical sentence in Subramanian’s review describing Roy’s critiques begins, “She lambasts,” or “She flays.” He accuses her of inconsistency in her attitudes toward nonviolence, and of adopting “a gentler perspective” when considering the violence committed by India’s Maoist “Naxalite” movement. But despite his characterization of her alleged hypocritical tenderness toward leftist violence, what she actually wrote was that their founder, Charu Majumdar’s “abrasive rhetoric fetishizes violence, blood and martyrdom and often employs a language so coarse as to be almost genocidal.” Does that sound tender, wistful?
Subramanian goes on to dispassionately mock Roy for accepting literary prize money funded by NGOs while condemning other NGOs “without weighing for us, on the page, the work that nonprofit may have done.” What she actually wrote, however, was that “the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within.” Functioning like “listening posts,” they turn artists, activists, and filmmakers away from radical confrontation, “ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development” — bandages on the wounds left by privatization. She adds, finally, that she resents how the “transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part.”
It’s typical of a journalist of a certain, often liberal, bent to pad their clips with distortions of writers on the Left. But however much anger some find so disqualifying in her work — Subramanian’s editors soften his misread to “The Prescient Anger of Arundhati Roy” — Roy’s work reads to me as an act of critical love. She’s trying to save lives, the way you would in a pandemic. To make the numbers of those suffering less abstract, smaller even.
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on . . . I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, “apply-through-proper-channels” nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favorite new superpower.
In other words, Roy’s anxiety over where her obsessive heart has led her is guided by an originating question: What can she report or say that will get those in power to stop cheating at math and killing? To get the adjuncts to those in power, in the media, to stop covering for the first lot? How many ways must she remake herself to do so?
The Duplicitous Author
Roy recounted on stage in New York City an amusing and telling anecdote about the moral fog of some of her critics. A man came up to her once who recognized her. Though she tried not to get pulled in, knowing what was coming, she finally admitted who she was. He made clear he strongly disapproved of her, for all her critiques of India. But he couldn’t immediately articulate what he disagreed with, muttering something about Kashmir.
But then the word came out of his mouth; she was “duplicitous.” This surprised her. She vaguely argued back that he was mistaken, that her critiques of Indian state violence in places like Gujarat and Kashmir were unmitigated and clear, the opposite of duplicitous. Finally, she understood that he didn’t know what the word meant and told him so. He came back to the word, hoping its meaning might stretch to encapsulate his gut critique of her lack of patriotism.
“But nevermind,” he cut her off. “Why worry about vocabulary? Come, take a selfie with me?”
“Now that,” she said, “that’s duplicitous.”
When Arundhati Roy argued in a 2010 speech that Kashmir was historically not part of India, the women’s wing of the fascist BJP, who found this view intolerable, camped outside her house, demanding she take back her statement or “quit India.” The Indian right even allegedly sent around a PDF of her 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, presumably to deny her royalties by giving those who might otherwise be tempted to buy the book a free copy.
As a non-Indian from a country that loves to denounce “censorship” abroad while indulging in it in its own way at home, I shouldn’t overstate her persecution. While her work has been deeply distorted by some opponents in India and elsewhere, that’s how it goes for progressives. She has more readers around the world, of her novels and essays, than most writers ever get.
So the fact that Chicago-based Haymarket Books has collected her essays offers a chance for readers to become familiar with the breadth of struggles Roy has immersed herself in for twenty-five years, which inform her novels. Roy the essayist embodies the legalistic but humanistic ruthlessness of a public defender, the wit and wordplay of a poet, a comrade who takes no injustice as a given.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, Poetry Magazine, the New York Times, the New Republic, and elsewhere.