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August 30, 1999
The Currency of Arundhati Roy
The successful usually sign a pact with the Devil. Why didn't Roy?
I have been granted only 1,500 words to comment on Arundhati Roy's latest entry into news. Given that constraint -- and because life is short -- let me begin with three broad assertions that I have sought to justify at greater length elsewhere.
Broad Assertion 1: Most Indian writers in English (Roy is an exception) are simply reporters to the West.
V S Naipaul once warned his protege, Paul Theroux, not to emulate another writer, offering in explanation the comment: "He brings news. That is what he does. Brings news from Nottingham, from working-class people. It's not writing, really. It's news. Don't be that sort of writer, bringing news."
Most of the feted Indian writers, certainly most of those who are based in the West, are only bringing news here. By news I mean the presentation of otherness that is nevertheless utterly palatable to the West.
Let me provide a quick example. The New Yorker, in its very brief review of Chitra Divakaruni Banerji's novel The Mistress of Spices, noted that 'Divakaruni's prose in so pungent that it stains the page.'
Here you have an example of India being understood only in terms of the grand themes of spices and cooking. Banerji was an obliging author for that demand. To his credit, Salman Rushdie had used his tale of the Indian subcontinent to provide a punchy narrative about colonialism. Divakaruni set her sights firmly lower. In her story, Indians are post-colonial chicken coming home to roost -- as spicy, well-barbecued tandoori.
Broad Assertion 2: Most Indian writers (Roy is in a small group of exceptions), in simply bringing the news to the West, produce bad prose. More important, forgetting the manners taught in the English medium convent schools that they no doubt all attended, they reveal their distaste for the poor and the weak around whom, for some reason, they cannot help wrapping the eight arms of their narratives.
Kiran Desai's Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard goes in search of the desi Everyman and offers us our daydreaming hero, Sampath. Sampath climbs up a tree and finds himself suddenly transformed into a holy man.
Like so many of her peers, Desai cannot give life to the common folk without divesting them of any complexity.
In the pages of her novel we find an absence of folks who might have any reason to think. No poets or historians, union leaders, women doctors, teachers, people filled with purpose. Her characters lead closed, walled-off lives. You couldn't imagine them protesting, say, GATT -- even in a million years.
Largely inoffensive and mildly cretinous, the "masses" (or if that's too loaded a word, let's opt instead for `the people') in Desai's novel pose no threat to anyone, least of all to the West.
Broad Assertion 3: Indian writers in English are rank individualists. Even among the progressives, there is a strain of anti-leftism, or at least a suspicion of any organized politics.
My admiration for Roy notwithstanding, there are various turns in her own writing that demand stringent critique. Let me take up one quick example.
In her widely-disseminated article The End of Imagination, Roy had delivered a fine protest against India's nuclear tests. In the name of more than 400 million Indians who are illiterate and live in absolute poverty, and over 600 million who lack even basic sanitation, or the 200 million who have no safe drinking water, Roy rightly protested: "A nuclear bomb isn't going to improve any of this."
Then Roy proceeded to her conclusive sentiment: "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."
This secession seemed rather presumptuous to me because it left behind all those who were too weak, or too poor, or too tied to their paltry resources, to secede. It announced a narrowly individualist, even selfish, act.
A privileged writer might be able to do it. Declare that she is nation unto herself! Perhaps even invite others. We're now open to immigration! But of what of the others, who are not utterly mobile in history? To put it bluntly, to secede is as easy as making a bomb.
This is also, inevitably, the problem of a collectivity, far beyond individual issues or even nations. Neither the writer, nor the reader, can save the world by themselves. Or escape it entirely. That is the plain truth of the nuclear bomb and the way in which it makes visible the limits of our fantasies of withdrawal. When it explodes, it will finish you wherever you reside in your mobile republic. And Roy didn't seem to realize this.
Now, proceeding beyond my three broad assertions, here's my central point: Roy's latest entry into news confirms her alliance with history itself. Or, if that sounds needlessly grand and abstract, let us say that she has displayed an ability to change or evolve forcefully in the face of social demands.
This is a quality that Roy shares with Rushdie when he has been at his best -- brilliantly combative in the eighties against Thatcherite and National Front apologists on questions of racial equality in England -- and this makes her a highly significant intellectual on the global, not to mention Indian, stage.
The successful enter into the Faustian contract: they sell their souls to fame and become its servitors. Roy didn't. On the Narmada issue, as after the nuclear tests, Roy has chosen to go against the popular grain. Her words have contested the pious dogmas of the business-as-usual, safari suited, bureaucracy-cum-political establishment as well as its supporters.
When asked why she had joined the people's movement against the building of the Narmada dam, she is reported to have said that she had seen everything she touched turned into silver coins. It was now time for paying back what she had received from the people.
Roy has no doubt had a profound effect on the literary scene in India. Her Booker prize-winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, has sold more than 4 million copies in two dozen languages.
Writing recently in the British paper The Guardian, Tarun J Tejpal commented that "everyone -- scouts, agents, publishers -- is looking for the next Roy"
Tejpal is a partner in IndiaInk, the publishing firm that first published Roy. In his report, Tejpal wrote that Roy's runaway success has "activated some rogue literary gene in India's English reading and writing populace."
The publishers' desk has been flooded with an "avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts, exploratory letters outlining story and character, sample chapters, and stern notes ordering us to place our cards on the table.
These are the changes Roy has wrought on the literary landscape. But, what of the consequences of her recent political interventions?
In the mind of at least this reader of Roy, her efforts in alliance with the Narmada Bachao Andolan signify her resolve to build a republic of many. A republic that is mobile only in the sense that it represents a movement -- a broad movement of the disenfranchised who are fighting for their rights.
According to the journalist Kalpana Sharma, the results of Roy's interventions are fairly plain. Roy's essays, Sharma wrote in The Hindu, "have reached an audience which any number of well-argued, erudite pieces appearing on the editorial pages of mainstream newspapers would not have reached."
Among such an audience are the youth from many Indian cities who have been making their way to Narmada to learn about their countryfolk themselves.
And the charge of celebrity hunting that Roy is accused of?
Sharma raises a provocative question here: Would Roy have been subjected to harsh criticism if she had stuck to genteel tasks like cutting ribbons and appearing at functions?
It is imaginable that had Roy not made nuclear missiles and large dams her targets, more ink would have been spilt on her poetic syntax and her smile.
There can be no gainsaying the fact that Roy's latest leap into the public fray marks the emergence of an important intellectual who is both public and political.
There are people who make history. Roy is one of them. But, she is also one who has been made by history. Velutha, the tragic, untouchable hero of her novel, has found his flesh-and-blood counterparts in the Narmada valley. Roy's struggle to articulate this fact makes her perhaps the most important writer in India familiar to the West since Rabindranath Tagore.
The winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913, Tagore had renounced his knighthood in 1919 to protest British repression against Indians. He was also a writer who had turned from his early days of romantic revivalism to a strong vision of a fight against oppression. Roy's decision to march with real-life Veluthas recalls that earlier conversion.
The writer teaches English at the University of Florida and is the author of Passport Photos, forthcoming from University of California Press. Arundhati Roy's The Cost of Living, a non-fiction work about social issues that have turned her into an activist, will be published by Random House in October.
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