- Roger Ebert (I'm a proud Brainiac)
There are two ways to deal with Arundhati Roy: you can dismiss her views as the angry rant of someone who represents a line or a party or a school of thought that you abhor. You abhor it because it shakes your Bollywood hued fairy tale worldview or it does not contribute (or rather threatens) to your secure-in-my-flat-with-a car-and-latest gizmos lifestyle.
Or you take her views seriously—like that of a prophet of conscience, a prophet who has her ears on the ground, and who can listen to the "grasshoppers", who can make us look what we only see. A true writer-prophet who warns us about our silent complicity in the crimes that are done in our name.
People say she is a one book (novel) wonder. I know why. She’s a writer who knows that we are past the age of novels, that the reality of our world is so dangerous that our short attention spans and parochial worldviews need to be upbraided by the regular hammering of reality through non-fiction, and not lulled into slumber by the gossamer navel gazing of immigrant lives in fictional settings.
Needless to say, I find myself in the second category. In fact, sometimes I feel that only she, among the panoply of Indian writers, points out issues and questions the anomalies in the system that enrage me. That too in a language that is her trademark style. To be fair, though writers such as Pankaj Mishra also ask uncomfortable questions, his touch is a tad mellow, more academic than angry.
Some say Roy creates a maze of words. Maybe yes. But is there no meaning in it?
Others say she is agonizingly repetitive. So what? I guess she has to do it to hammer home the point. Those who allege that Roy is repetitive don’t just get the point. I know why. Because they don’t want to. You have to be fair-minded and you have to have a sense of justice (irrespective of caste, creed and colour) to appreciate Roy’s point. You can’t understand her plea if you seal yourself in a wall of self-righteousness. She challenges you to get out of it.
And then face the truth.
In her essay, Democracy's Failing Light (Outlook), she makes many points about the fissures in India’s democracy. The points she makes can be summarized in a couplet by Allama Iqbal:
Jamhooriyat woh tarz-e hukumat hai ke jis men
Voton to gina karte hain, tola nahin karte
(Democracy is such a system of governance in which
votes are counted but not weighed)
Indian democracy has much strength, many merits. But that does not mean that we should not be aware of its shortcomings—how it is being misused by the powers that be (democracy fused with predatory market economy?). Roy shines her critical light on democracy’s fault lines. It could be our blind nationalism—another myopia—that often prevents us from seeing the truth and acknowledging the elephant in the room. Why do we forget what George Orwell, that brilliant journalist and writer, the creator of Animal Farm and 1984, had said about nationalism?
To question the ills of the system does not mean you are unpatriotic. Nationalism (be it in any form, religious or secular) makes us blind. Patriotism is different.
The Kashmir Issue
Roy draws our attention to the issue of Kashmir, one of the elephants in the room (among many others). She is right. Why don’t we want to talk about it?
None of India's analysts, journalists and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-at-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy—who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast, exit poll and minor percentile swing in the voteshare—talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment. (An armed soldier for every 20 civilians.) No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialised out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious.
No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls. Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to delink 'azadi' and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues—roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades—where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night—might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.
The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again…
We keep hating Pakistan. Why can’t we accept it as a neighbor? Pakistan has created most of its problems without much external help (abandoning Jinnah’s secularism and going for a stringent form of Islam as a state policy, for example; see two articles by Ali Eteraz: Pakistan is already an Islamic State and State-sponsored Sufism) but has India helped it in growing peacefully either?
Why did we not settle the Kashmir issue with impartial justice when the time was right (now we can't even accept it as an issue, as Roy points out, and merely broaching this topic will make one sound unpatriotic in some circles)? What answer do we have for the Pakistanis when they ask us why did we have to meddle in East Pakistan and help create Bangladesh? What answer do we have for them when they ask that we are working against them in Afghanistan (along with the imperial forces) and supporting anti-Pak groups?
Are our hands really clean before we can ask them about fomenting trouble in Kashmir and launching terror strikes against India?
Granted that Pakistan’s agencies are complicit in waging terror against India. But what about us? Are we paying them in the same coin? If yes, then where is the moral superiority of India?
If this goes on we, India and Pakistan, will one day destroy each other. Roy’s metaphor of the fighting in Siachen and its larger impact on the region, deserves our intense attention. Hindu hubris and Muslim masculinity will not save our future. It is bringing us to the brink of collapse.
Is there still hope for this wish of a poet?
Hum aayen gulshan-e Lahore se chaman bardosh
Tum aao subah-e Banaras ki roshni le kar
I hope novelist Musharraf Ali Farooqi is right when he said: "... I think a lot of politicians were eating Viagra for breakfast in those days. I am glad they have switched it to a more appropriate time. I feel that in the subcontinent we talk about war and carnage so very casually because we have no real regard for the sanctity of human life. I also believe that India and Pak situation will improve drastically within just a decade or two, to the extent that it will become unrecognizable. We'll just have to wait for the generation to die that helped create the divide - both before and after the Partition."