All I have is a voice

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Arundhati Roy with the advocate Prashant Bushan (second from left), Aruna Roy and Jignesh Mevani at a press conference in New Delhi in August 2018 against the crackdown on rights activists. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Phoolan Devi in 2001. Arundhati Roy was outraged by the movie “Bandit Queen”, which she found despicable for “recreating Phoolan Devi’s degradation for public consumption”. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

This collection of essays that Arundhati Roy published over the past two decades showcases her solemn immersion in dissident writing.

ACROSS India, a new situation is fast emerging where assaults on the dissident voices of writers, journalists, whistle-blowers, academics, workers, peasants, women and the youth are growing, and with brutal consequences. Narendra Dabholkar, the anti-superstition activist; Govind Pansare, the Communist Party of India trailblazer; and M.M. Kalburgi, a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, are victims of cold-blooded murder. And Arundhati Roy has had to face police cases and legal notices and the daily wrath of pro-establishment “intellectuals”.

My Seditious Heart is a collection of essays that Arundhati Roy published over the past two decades and shows her solemn immersion in dissident writing, which aims to undo authoritarian systems that smother not only creativity but intellectual freedom and self-belief. She says she wrote these essays “because it became easier to do that than to put up with the angry, persistent hum of my silence”. As a public intellectual, she began to confront right-wing bigotry and the “relentless propaganda and the sheer vicious bullying of vulnerable people by an increasingly corporatised media and its increasingly privatised commentators”, which overrules the possibility of emancipatory change. Dissident intellectuals and artists like her need free space; any disruption of it by the state inspires an oppositional stance by those who are not afraid to intervene in the major issues of the time, may it be protests against the state or an incumbent Prime Minister.

Her essay “The Greater Common Good” opposed the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada Valley in 1999 and blasted the government machinery that callously drove off their land the thousands of people who stood their ground fighting against the “wanton destruction” of their means of livelihood and the “whole ecosystem, an entire riparian civilisation”. However, as she writes in the introduction of the collection: “Even as they went down fighting, the people of Narmada taught the world some profound lessons—about ecology, equity, sustainability, and democracy.”

Arundhati Roy, undoubtedly, felt the necessity to uncover some of the deeper changes stirring beneath the apparent development project on the Narmada; she succeeded in moving the debate to a new level of understanding of the times we live in, a time when the state machinery is blatantly in confrontation with the spirit of self-determination and the sanctity of fundamental rights, justice and free speech. Her voice, therefore, on the issue of Kashmir or nuclear war or capitalism and its predatory agenda is her most unswerving instrument of analysis ready to “disturb and unsettle”, ask “embarrassing” questions and “force people to think of alternatives”.

The political essays collected here were born out of the necessity Arundhati Roy felt to intercede in human history, embracing the deepest needs and highest aspirations of the dispossessed through bold exposure of the seething events of the time. Moving away from fiction early in her career, she was provoked into writing bluntly; modernity came into conflict with tradition, gluttony with hunger, progress with regression, and humanitarianism with the callous state apparatus riding roughshod over the poor and the underprivileged.

Such fundamental concerns of Arundhati Roy evoke a deeply felt sense of contemporary history offering hope for the future. Her writings have become a decisive testimony to her devotion to justice and freedom in an increasingly repressive environment. Her essays on uranium mining in Jaduguda or on tribal anti-government fighters in the forests of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh come across as acts of survival and resistance, particularly her candid advocacy of human rights in relation to the cause of the Maoists in the long essay “Walking with the Comrades”.

Nuclear weapons

Another issue that she has taken up over the years with a deeply critical and engaging sensibility is on the proliferation of nuclear weapons as, for example, in her essay “The End of Imagination”, which is a response “to the series of nuclear tests conducted in 1998 by the coalition government lead by the BJP. The tests, the manner in which they were announced, and the enthusiasm with which they were celebrated—including by academics, editors, artists, liberals and secular nationalists—ushered in a dangerous new public discourse of aggressive majoritarian nationalism—officially sanctioned now, by the government itself.” This unfortunate development in a democracy, the struggle of Kashmir liberationists or the endemic ecological devastation under the neoliberal programme of right-wing governments or the privatisation and commercialisation of Indian services expose the dominating agenda of nationalism and the lust for power. Using the words of Soren Kierkegaard, she says the world she castigates “reminds one of the disintegration of the Greek state; everything continues and yet, there is no one who believes in it. An invisible bond that gives it validity, had vanished, and the whole age is simultaneously comic and tragic, tragic because it is perishing, comic because it continues.”

At a time when the political discourse in the country is underpinned by arrogant power and right-wing absolutism, such an oppositional stance enables individuals like Arundhati Roy to fall back on a mindset favourable to a more democratic set-up, one that is antagonistic to the rule of despotism. Her crusading spirit and her outrage at not only political issues but also at the 1994 film Bandit Queen, which she found despicable for “recreating Phoolan Devi’s degradation for public consumption…, restaging the rape of a woman without her consent”, reveals her authenticity and her passion for fundamental rights. This is evident in her other essays as well, especially “The Citizens’ Right to Express Dissent”, “War Talk: The Summer Games with Nuclear Bombs” and “Ahimsa: Non-violent Resistance”.

Her diagnosis of the worldwide crisis and how humanism as an ideal of civilisation has disappeared is reflected in essays on the United States’ belligerent foreign policy or on the general indifference to the ecological crisis. In “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”, published in 2000 and still relevant today in its evocation of the brutal war designs of the U.S. and its vivid hand in humanitarian crises, she writes: “A coalition of the world’s superpowers is closing in on Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most ravaged, war-torn countries in the world…. As supplies run out—food and aid agencies have been evacuated.”

The mechanical preoccupation with the vulgarity of military power and thoughtless material gain leaves the public predisposed to the readily accepted hypocrisy of the rhetoric of peace, progress and nostalgia for a lost world of peaceful coexistence.

“War Is Peace”, a broadside on the U.S.’ foreign policies and dozens of military interventions across the globe, indicates that Arundhati Roy’s concerns go far beyond immediate local issues. In “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire”, she does not spare Britain and the U.S. for their military support of Saddam Hussein in his long and bloody confrontation with Iran, which echoes the violent upheavals in West Asia.

Although Arundhati Roy had feared having her first novel, The God of Small Things, burnt across the Western world for her vitriolic outbursts against the policies of the West, she was thrilled in 2003 to observe across the U.S. large crowds coming out to hear her speak on “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy one, Get One Free)”: “They came, despite the malignant atmosphere of aggressive nationalism we all had to contend with during those days.” Her tour became “a good lesson in seditious thinking” when she saw millions demonstrating against the U.S. intervention in Iraq and brought to her the realisation “never to lazily conflate countries, their government’s policies, and the people who live in them”. The leadership in the West had no qualms about the callous annihilation of the ancient heritage of the Mesopotamian culture.

The realisation of the worldwide conflation of nationalism with religion or the issues of rampant corporate greed, water mining, military advancement and state duplicity calls for deep involvement in the ongoing struggle for human rights, social justice and mutual respect. And more importantly, in a post-truth world of distortion and deceit, Arundhati Roy’s analysis in the essay “Power Politics” shows how the official language on human rights is inherently intended “to mask intent”, as is evident from the “consummately written, politically exemplary, socially just policy documents that are impossible to implement and designed to remain forever on paper”.

Reclaiming language

Reclaiming language became her sustaining credo “[b]ecause it was distressing to see words being deployed to mean the opposite of what they really meant. (‘Deepening democracy’ meant destroying it. ‘A level playing field’ actually meant a very steep slope, the ‘free market’ a rigged market. ‘Empowering women’ meant undermining them in every possible way).”

Acquiescing to the state authority or falling into the trap of its “doublespeak” or “thought police” is the direct outcome of commonplace thinking and an absence of moral courage, which, as the European thinker Rob Riemen recently explained, is “the result of political parties that have renounced their own intellectual tradition, of intellectuals who have cultivated a pleasure-seeking nihilism, of universities not worthy of their description, of the greed of the business world, and a mass media that would rather be the people’s ventriloquist than a critical mirror”.

This is abundantly visible across the world, immersed as it is in an overwhelming surge of xenophobia and ruthless capitalism and its “sanctioned greed”.

Arundhati Roy’s anger at the world created around us remains undiminished, and as she brings out clearly in her writings, the outworn ideas from the “the left, the right, or from the spectrum somewhere in between—will not do”. The “seditious hearts” will rage and bleed until a new world is born with “algorithms that show us how to snatch the sceptres from the slow, stupid, maddened kings”.

We need to stop and think and find inspiration in Arundhati Roy to engage in a relentless intellectual interrogation of our mindset that will imbue us with the courage to stem the tide of authoritarianism sweeping the world.

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