The Rediff Special/Aseem Chhabra
WHEN Margaret Woodbury read Arundhati's Roy essay, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, which appeared first in The Guardian of September 29, she was incensed. So much that she threw her copy of the Indian author's Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things in a trashcan on Manhattan's 75th Street.
"She really lashed out against globalism and capitalism and wrote that terrorism is transnational similar to multinational companies like Coke, Pepsi and Nike," said Woodbury, a freelance writer, who has been reporting from 'Ground Zero' since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre.
"I threw away the book because I had bought it from Barnes and Nobles and that is an Internet global enterprise -- that is, unless she had withdrawn her book from the chain's retail stores and Internet site."
"I have loved books since I was a little girl," Woodbury added, "and it was a big deal for me to throw away that book. But I suppose I had been reporting round the clock and I hadn't expressed any emotions so far. What really bothered me about her piece was her hypocrisy."
Roy's first article, followed by her October 20 essay Insult and Injury in Afghanistan on MSNBC.com, has been hailed by her supporters as an alternative voice of reason in a time when the Western media is going all out backing the US war effort. The two articles have coincided with the release of her new book Power Politics, a collection of three essays, published by South End Press, a progressive publishing house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
But her critics claim that Roy's writing and her statements are unsubstantiated and that she tends to misappropriate other people's works and reproduce it under her name.
Her celebrity status, and the fact that her only novel has sold more than six million copies, earned her a spot on ABC News' Nightline show on November 2, where host Ted Koppel broke his longstanding practice and asked Roy to read from The Guardian essay.
On the show Roy appeared to be her usual charming and glamorous self, minus her long hair, which she has chopped off so as not to appear to be just "a pretty woman who wrote a book". Roy was also the focus of an article in The New York Times on November 3.
"I have been overwhelmed with positive response, phone calls, emails from people around the world requesting to reprint Arundhati's essays and invitations for her to speak," said Anthony Arnove, Roy's editor at South End Press. Arnove's team along with Roy's literary agent in London, David Godwin, helped place the writer's essays in The Guardian and on MSNBC.com
"At a time when there is such a rush towards war, people are looking for engaged, intelligent, critical writing on what is happening," Arnove added. "They are facing a rather monolithic pro-war position, particularly in the US. They are looking for alternative voices and Arundhati has provided it."
Arnove said a few weeks ago Noam Chomsky, peace activist and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke at his university against the war and over 2,500 people attended his lecture.
"If Noam could attract so many people, then in an environment like this, Arundhati could certainly have a mass audience if she came to the US," Arnove said.
Roy was scheduled to visit New York and Boston in a couple of weeks to promote Power Politics. Her trip was postponed thanks to a criminal contempt charge she is facing in the Supreme Court of India.
Pat McCully, a campaign director at the International Rivers Network based in Berkeley, California, and a friend of Roy, also said the Indian author could attract large audiences if she visited the West Coast. Two years ago, McCully toured with Roy in the US to promote her book The Cost of Living and to speak about the Narmada dam controversy in India.
"War is an important issue in people's mind," McCully said. "If you had an event here [in Berkeley], she would draw a lot more people than she did during her last trip when she spoke about dams in India."
But Woodbury felt that even if Roy had sold out sessions in the US, it would not make a major dent in American policy. "People who read her are of an intellectual class and are more tolerant and welcoming to her point of view," she said. "But on the whole there won't be a big public outcry. She doesn't have that vast audience in Middle America."
Another Roy critic, London-based freelancer Salil Tripathi, wrote a response to Roy's first essay in the October 5 edition of The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Limits of Imagination -- America Haters Are Blaming the Victim.
"She is very good at marshalling facts and compiling things done by others, at appropriating others' works and writing it in a very skilful and polemical manner," Tripathi said from his home in London.
"I am not saying this is plagiarism, and she does give credit to people every so often. But she is very good at telescoping facts. She will pick one figure that will marshal her argument."
"What she is saying is not new," Tripathi added. "Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Robert Fisk have been saying this for a while in the US and Britain."
Roy's other non-fiction works have also followed more detailed and thoughtful research on the same fields by well-known but less glamorous Indian writers, Tripathi said. Writers like Praful Bidwai and Darryl D'Monte, who have written extensively against nuclear bombs and large dams in India -- two of Roy's pet projects, prior to her current anti-war crusade.
"Some of her best arguments against Enron [the Texas-based power conglomerate that is operating a controversial plant in Maharashtra state] came from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Developmental Research," Tripathi added.
McCully acknowledged that often Roy writes about subjects where she may lack expertise. "She is not a foreign policy analyst, but she has a very good grasp of all the forces that are driving foreign policy," he said. "She knows as much and is as qualified as others who write in newspapers. I could quibble with small parts of her essays, but she is a very powerful writer."
Arnove said that before Roy's second piece was released to MSNBC.com, his staff fact-checked it thoroughly.
"It checked out," Arnove said. "There may have been one date that was wrong, because she rushed to get to out, but it is a solid piece."
Not so, said Woodbury. She questioned Roy's statement that the US had no evidence that Osama bin Laden and his organisation were behind the September 11 attacks.
"Does she have access to CIA intelligence?" Woodbury asked.
Woodbury said she was troubled by Roy's position that the September 11 terrorist acts were the direct effect of decades of aggressive US foreign policy. "Foreign policy will never be perfect," she said. "We have made great mistakes and have made beautiful choices. Foreign policy should always be examined, but not with murderous reparations. Is she suggesting that foreign policy is something you disagree with and acts of murder against innocent civilians are justified?
"If a writer of her credibility chooses to believe and propagate that then it is very sad and her beautiful words disintegrate."
At the beginning of her essay on MSNBC.com, Roy quoted a source from the international coalition against terror as saying that it didn't matter whether or not the evidence against the terrorists would stand up in a court of law.
"Who is she quoting here?" asked Tripathi. "Which US administration official said this?"
In another passage Roy quoted Madeleine Albright as saying the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to US economic sanctions was a hard choice, but worth the price. She said Albright made the statement in 1996, when she was US secretary of state. Tripathi pointed out that in 1996 Albright was still the US ambassador to the United Nations. She became secretary of state in January 1997.
But despite his criticism of Roy's writings Tripathi said he supported her right to express her views. "She should be heard and then debunked. There are people who say she shouldn't be allowed to write. That is ridiculous. And that would mean that I should not be allowed to write and criticise her."
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