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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Arundhati Roy's Broken Republic -- Book review

Broken Republic: Three Essays, by Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Books), 2011, pp. 220, Rs. 499.

‘All movements go too far.’ – Bertrand Russell

Arundhati Roy is India’s best-known polemicist. That she is intelligent, articulate, camera-friendly and media-savvy too has helped, in no small measure, to build her image as an iconic writer, activist and thinker. Since the publication of her first and only novel, the Booker-award winning God of Small Things (1997), she has published three volumes of essays: The Algebra of Infinite Justice  (2001), An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2005), Listening to Grasshoppers (2009); as well as a collection of her interviews, The Shape of the Beast (2008). In Broken Republic, a collection of three essays, Roy goes deep into the forested heartland of India to bring stories of real suffering, stark poverty and plain, undisguised greed.

In the past, Roy has displayed her ability to put her finger, unerringly and unfailingly, on the pulse of the nation, a pulse that the media neglects to read, politicians prefer not to hear, and the middle-class urban Indians pretend doesn’t exist. She has written, and spoken, about the glaring disconnect between the Two Indias, about homelessness, rural destitution, unemployment, shrinking land, industrialisation, privatisation, globalisation, terrorism, US imperialism, Hindutva nationalism, and urban renewal which does away with those at the lowest rung of the socio-economic pyramid as well as atrocities of the state against the most marginalised and least empowered – in fact, all the subjects that are anathema to the proponents of Shining India. In the process, she has earned brickbats and bouquets, laurels and libels from both sides of the Great Divide. Interestingly enough while she finds no favour with the right-wingers for obvious reasons, there is little love lost between her and India’s loose, lumbering and largely disorganised left.

The protection of the tribal peoples, their lands and their rights over the forests that have traditionally sustained them is mandated by the Constitution of India. The Government’s tendency to turn a blind eye when it is not actively hand in glove with agencies bent upon pillaging and looting the natural resources from the adivasis earn Roy’s worst ire. In the first essay, ‘Mr Chidambaran’s War’ she details the suffering of the victims of ‘decades of accumulated injustice’, the over 40 million who have been displaced by development projects such as dams, mining, factories, SEZs, highways. Here, as in much of her writing, a scathing denouement of the selfishness and self-righteousness of urban middle-class India runs through her writing like a liet motif. Equally strong is the case she builds for the Maoists whom she describes as ‘…desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of chronic hunger that verges on famine’ who are being ‘pushed to the very brink of existence’.

The second essay, ‘Walking with the Comrades’ is a somewhat dewy-eyed account of time spent with Maoists deep in their jungle hide-outs. Everything is beautiful: the village, the people, their smiles; her description of their overnight camp borders on the gaga: ‘As far as consumption goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.’ Roy goes lightly over child soldiers in the Maoist army, the casual violence, the summary justice for informers and non-believers for she holds up the ‘idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun’ as the best ‘alternative’ under the circumstances. In the third essay, ‘Trickledown Revolution’, she defends the Maoists from Maoist-baiters and Maoist-haters as people with a different imagination, ‘an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as Communism.’

A word about the quality of Roy’s writing.  While I laud her courage and honesty in examining the ‘idea’ of India in the clear light of her conscience as also her unequivocal and unchanging stand on the issues close to her heart, I despair over the propensity for excess, the hyperbolic, adjectival nature of her prose that has, if anything, grown with her success. The play on words, the coinages and witticisms, to my mind, detract from what could well be the most vivid, the most evocative reportage coming out from the less-shining India today.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil
This review was first published in The Herald, September 2011, Pakistan.

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