Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers
(Haymarket Books, September 2009)
The last few years have seen such rhapsodic support for India’s touted entrée into the economic big leagues, from Thomas L. Friedman’s paean to Bangalore in The World is Flat to the Obama administration’s unconditional patronage of “the world’s biggest democracy,” that one might feel a bit disoriented upon opening Arundhati Roy’s unsparing indictment of the rise of fascism in modern-day India in Field Notes on Democracy. A collection of 11 previously published essays ranging from 2002 to earlier this year, Field Notes takes on what Roy calls capitalism’s “long jihad” and its peculiar metastasis in her country.
Establishing the emotional leitmotif for the entire book, Roy dedicates the collection to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason.” Indeed, this has long been the engine behind Roy’s rhetorical activism, and one of the qualities that makes her so good at it. She displayed the same sort of hope beyond reason when she imagined (and etched into the consciousness of the Indo-Anglican world of letters) a highly improbable love affair between an affluent entomologist’s daughter and the family’s dalit (untouchable) servant in God of Small Things, her first and only novel, now 12 years old. Today, she enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most committed—and outspoken—champions of India’s rural poor. For those who loved her Booker Prize winning novel, the fact that she traded in fiction for advocacy has been a bittersweet sacrifice; Roy is a superb fiction writer, but she might be even better at arguing for a cause.
From the outset, Roy rejects India’s branding of itself as the new land of opportunity. She sees this identification as a marketing ploy that projects unprecedented economic gains as the only significant narrative in the very complex reality of Indian modernity. Amid the ballooning middle class and an ever-expanding industrial sector, Roy sees a “maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the unimaginable callousness and brutality of the world’s favorite new Superpower.” Among the primary victims are India’s 150 million Muslims “who have been brutalized, humiliated, and marginalized,” along with many millions more of the nation’s lower-caste Hindu poor, who benefit nothing from India’s newfound wealth.
Armed with palpable anger and a talent for wickedly apt caricatures, Roy writes essays about occasions for national shame: the treatment of suspects in the 2001 attack on Parliament; the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat; the history of India’s occupation of Kashmir; and ongoing injustices involving “bonded labor, marital rape, sexual preferences, women’s wages, uranium dumping, unsustainable mining, weavers’ woes, farmers’ suicides.” While India’s version of the Patriot Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), continues to chip away at the rights of certain citizens, she asserts that the conservative government is openly complicit with Hindu fundamentalist groups who envision an India without Muslims.
In her most powerful essay, “Nine is Not Eleven” (which first appeared in The Guardian as “The Monster in the Mirror” and is printed in its abridged form here), Roy responds with unabashed disgust at the evocation of “India’s 9/11” following the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. With characteristic defiance, Roy writes that the opulent Taj Hotel, one of the targets of the attacks, is “an icon of the easy, obscene injustice that ordinary Indians endure every day.” She condemns the news networks’ egregious irresponsibility in whipping up hysteria following the attacks, as well as their silence about “the elephants in the room: Kashmir, Gujarat, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid.” It is unexamined claims of victimization and guilt that Roy rejects.
While many of Roy’s critics dismiss her as a Hindu-hating/Muslim-loving Communist (Roy was raised Christian), she is in fact vehemently critical of Pakistan. She expresses fear that India will become more and more like Pakistan, if its fascist tendencies are not curtailed. She, like many Western commentators, reduces the totality of Pakistan’s cultural and political landscape to its more oppressive elements: “If Pakistan collapses, we can look forward to having millions of ‘non-state actors’ with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their disposal as neighbors.” It’s hard to imagine someone making an equivalent charge about India, say, summing up that nation’s ethos with its caste system. But Pakistan’s multifariousness seems to be negated, in Roy’s view, by the tiny minority of crazed extremists within its borders, and ultimately, it is India and its citizens for whom Roy worries.
In 2007, The Guardian announced that Roy is at work on another novel, which is great news for millions of readers. Still, it’s not as though we’ve been denied Roy’s art all these years. Her essays are as exquisite and as enthralling as any novel. Evoking an age-old and increasingly relevant question, and describing her own modus operandi, Roy writes, “I have often wondered whether the attempt always to be precise, to get it all factually right, somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? What we really need is a wild, feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.”