Back in 1997, 35-year-old Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, a novel depicting an Indian family’s fall from grace in a society where people are divided into an ancient set of Hindi rules and conservative codes that work according to a hierarchical natural order of skin classifications, castes, creeds, higher races and untouchables.
The Delhi-based writer’s rise to literary stardom took place during a time when India was going through its biggest political transition since it gained independence from Britain in 1947. If the world’s largest democracy was previously associated with phrases such as periphery power, poverty, caste prejudice and religious superstition, a conscious decision was being made to transform its global image anew – with buzz-words like rising middle class, emerging markets, global investment, technological innovation and nuclear weapons.
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It momentarily appeared that the publishing industry could turn Roy into a cash cow. And who better to publicly embody what this new India represented than an eloquent, confident and beautiful young writer selling the dream of a global cosmopolitan success story.
The deal would work out if both sides could play the game within the tight parameters of a squeaky-clean winning PR strategy. But Roy is no sycophant; nor does she play to the crowd for popularity or money. Here we might wisely remember George Orwell’s astute observation that “there is no such thing as keeping out of politics”.
Indeed, it was for political reasons that Roy would take two decades to produce her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Ditching her literary fame, the novelist turned to polemical essays, long-form journalism, lecture tours and full-time political activism.
My Seditious Heart collects all of that radical writing over a 20-year period. Roy began publishing many of these essays at the turn of the millennium in two national mass-market Indian magazines: Outlook and Frontline.
From the outset, her message was clear: she could not remain silent or be used as a cultural pawn when a cynical, bloodthirsty game of politics began to grip a so-called new India: where far-right Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), genocide and censorship was being embraced by the Indian state, which was also promising a piece of the pie of global capitalism for the emerging new Indian middle class with the other.
Roy’s fiery pieces document India’s rapid post-millennial transition to the global economy as it entered the international stage of geopolitics in a new role. Some like to call this progress. Roy simply sees the British stick of colonial humiliation being replaced by a Washington carrot. Here political coercion is still ruled – albeit subtly and almost silently – by three global institutions: the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As Roy notes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was only too happy to embrace this Washington-centred worldview, which tilted the ship of new-found Indian democracy in a westward direction towards modernisation, a military industrial complex and all of the usual credentials and paradoxes that openly embracing neoliberal free-market globalisation entails.
Namely: dressing up acts of mass violence in a language that promises progress and opportunity for all; destroying the environment to transform it into capital; shutting down free speech to control the masses and assume omnipotent power; and creating a public enemy in an ethic other who can be blamed for almost all of society’s ills.
Indeed, the anti-Islam rhetoric the United States’ foreign policy has openly embraced in its post-9/11 narrative fits in with India’s age-old caste-based ethnic cultural prejudices, which not only oppose Muslim traditions and customs across the subcontinent, but openly encourage violence against them.
Elsewhere, Roy argues that the relatively new levers of global capitalism hurtling across India are not just erasing the wildlife from the land, but displacing people, too. Despite their marginalised status, these rural communities seem to be the only ones offering any kind of alternative to nation-state politics.
We read about the Narmada Valley Development Project, where citizens asking for the basic human right to keep their homes are beaten and called anti-national foreign agents; in the Bastar Forest Roy spends weeks with Maoist militant guerrilla forces who are attempting to set up an alternative to democracy; and in a lecture audience in New Mexico, Roy describes flags as “bits of coloured cloth that governments use to shrink people’s minds”.
Her ideological and political roots are firmly planted in what one might loosely call an earthy, utopian, eco-friendly-anarchism. It seeks to defend the rural poor, while also trying to persuade her metropolitan readers that another world – outside of oppressive state-sanctioned violence – is indeed possible: if one is willing to become an active participant in the process of change.
This philosophical vision is deeply distrustful of four things: nationalism of any shape or form; the concentration of power; the inevitable violence that comes from binding nation state mythologies together; and American imperial power, which Roy says magically masquerades genocidal acts into a positive PR spin of free market opportunity for all.
The writing is passionate, seething with anger; it clearly takes sides, and cannot be accused of ideological ambiguity.
Roy’s radical vision suffers from just one minor pitfall: it consistently points to all the follies, foibles and injustices permeating through global society without actually coming up with a definitive alternative for a world where the kind of peace and justice she is eternally seeking could indefinitely be forthcoming. The rather sad but realistic truth of the matter is that’s most likely because it simply doesn’t exist.
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