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Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy



Arundhati Roy

Man Booker winning author, Arundhati Roy,  takes a investigating look at the underbelly of the world’s oldest democracy in her new anthology of essays "Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy" which is published this week.

"By democracy, I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: western liberal democracy, and its variants. Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s flawed, but it’s better than anything else that’s on offer," Roy said.

The compilation is typically Arundhati Roy – candid, chatty, lucid and probing – more like snapshots from all her earlier non-fiction works since 1999.

With intelligent political insight, she shows how the journey of Hindu nationalism and neo-liberal economic reforms, flagged off almost around the same time in the early 1990s, is now manifest in dangerous ways.

The book begins with an essay on the state-backed killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, explaining how "progress and genocide" has always been comrade-in-arms. They either take place together or follow each other in a strange cycle of fate.

"Fascism’s firm footprints has appeared in India. Let’s mark the date: Spring 2002. While we can thank the US president and the coalition against terror for creating a congenial international atmosphere for fascism’s ghastly debut, we cannot credit them for the years it has been brewing in our public and private lives… it breezed in after the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998," Roy writes in her essay, "Democracy: Who’s She, When She’s At Home".

The argument makes sense.

In the essay, "How deep shall we dig", a text of the lecture that she delivered at the Aligarh Muslim University in 2004, she uses Kashmir to establish the Indian government’s handling of terrorism along its margins – Jammu and Kashmir and in the seven sister states of the Northeast where the "schism between the real and the virtual world has turned into a place of endless speculation and potential insanity".

Roy brings POTA and allied terrorism-related laws under the scanner and poses a disturbing question – "Successful fascism takes hard work. And so does creating a good investment climate. Do the two work well together?"

"Azadi", another essay that first appeared in The Guardian in August 2008, gathers up a controversy – one that leaves most of us squirming in discomfort.

Roy pleads for an "azad Kashmir" saying "for all these years, the Indian state, known among knowing as a ‘deep state’, has done everything it can – subvert, suppress, represent, misrepresent, discredit, intimidate, purchase – and simply snuff out the voice of the Kashmiri people".

India needs ‘azadi’ from Kashmir just as much – if not more – than Kashmir needs azadi from India, she writes. Which is well, but the essay fails to address who makes up the Kashmiri people and the holes in history? Can an Azad Kashmir make room for all?

The concluding essay, "Nine is Not Eleven (And November isn’t September) is perhaps the most soul-searching of the lot.

It is a spotlight on th 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks – published in The Guardian in December 2008. The essay, while describing the horrors of the blasts, as beamed across by television channels and the post-mortems that followed the live coverage, makes a pertinent point.

"Dangerous, stupid oversimplification like the police are good/politicians are bad… Tragically, this regression into intellectual infancy comes when people in India were beginning to see that, in the business of terrorism, victims and perpetrators often exchange roles," she writes, citing Kashmir as an instance.

The collection is thought-provoking, well-researched and worth reading.

But in retrospect, the thin line between reportage, editorial writing, sermonising and the fine art of non-fiction essay writing seems to overlap too frequently in the anthology.

Review courtesy:

Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Shape of the beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy

Now in our Library

Call No.: 828  ARU-S

Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.

In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.

The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.

What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.

The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.

The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.

“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.

Reviewed by Sharanya Manivannan

Courtesy: The New Sunday Express, May 18, 2008


A documentary featuring the words of Arundhati Roy

Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Author of the week


Arundhati Roy

Books by the author in the library


Call No.                    Title


823  ARU-A  Algebra of infinity justice

823  ARU-G God of small things

823  ARU-O Ordinary person’s guide to empire


Arundhati Roy (born November 24, 1961) is an Indian novelist, activist and a world citizen. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel The God of Small Things.

Roy was born in Shillong, Meghalaya to a Keralite Syrian Christian mother and a Bengali Hindu father, a tea planter by profession. She spent her childhood in Aymanam, in Kerala, schooling in Corpus Christi. She left Kerala for Delhi at age 16, and embarked on a homeless lifestyle, staying in a small hut with a tin roof within the walls of Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla and making a living selling empty bottles. She then proceeded to study architecture at the Delhi School of Architecture, where she met her first husband, the architect Gerard Da Cunha.

The God of Small Things is the only novel written by Roy. Since winning the Booker Prize, she has concentrated her writing on political issues. These include the Narmada Dam project, India’s Nuclear Weapons, corrupt power company Enron‘s activities in India. She is a figure-head of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism.

In response to India’s testing of nuclear weapons in Pokhran, Rajasthan, Roy wrote The End of Imagination, a critique of the Indian government’s nuclear policies. It was published in her collection The Cost of Living, in which she also crusaded against India’s massive hydroelectric dam projects in the central and western states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. She has since devoted herself solely to nonfiction and politics, publishing two more collections of essays as well as working for social causes.

Roy was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in May 2004 for her work in social campaigns and advocacy of non-violence.

In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq. In January 2006 she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of essays, ‘The Algebra of Infinite Justice’, but declined to accept it.

Source: Wikipedia: Arundhati Roy

Filed under: Author of the week, ,


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