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Reading Arundhati Roy: The high price of toxic rage

Reading Arundhati Roy is often a chore. The tone veers inevitably into high-pitched ideological dudgeon, arguments gain a repetitive monotony, and the lack of literary discipline – as she jumps wildly from Kashmir to Salwa Juldum to the Ford Foundation – tax even the most sympathetic reader's attention. And yet... in the over-written thickets of her lengthy expositions are unpalatable, important truths, delivered in devastating prose. Messages that deserve our attention, irrespective of our opinion of the messenger.

The 13-page cover story in Outlook Magazine, 'Capitalism: A Ghost Story', has all the trappings of an Arundhati Roy's Theory of Everything. More so than her other writing, there's an everything-and-the-kitchen sink quality to this one. By page two, the eye has already begun to skim past the too-familiar words: Special Economic Zones, dalits, Chhattisgarh, Salwa Judum... Been there, done that, thinks anyone who has followed Roy's writing.

And in our hurry, we dismiss the greatest land theft in modern Indian history, where "the land of millions of people is being acquired and made over to private corporations for 'public interest' — for Special Economic Zones, infrastructure projects, dams, highways, car manufacture, chemical hubs and Formula One racing. (The sanctity of private property never applies to the poor.)"

We ignore little facts about Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand, as in the 2005 MoUs that turned "over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the free market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5 per cent and 7 per cent.)" And brush past odd coincidences such as these:

Ignoring Roy may feel good, but allowing a knee-jerk loathing as an excuse to ignore the larger issues she raises is just foolish. AFP Photo

Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia, was inaugurated... It turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidised by mining corporations. In the other states, similar militias were created, with other names. The prime minister announced the Maoists were the “single-largest security challenge in India”. It was a declaration of war.

On January 2, 2006, in Kalinganagar, in the neighbouring state of Orissa, perhaps to signal the seriousness of the government’s intention, ten platoons of police arrived at the site of another Tata Steel plant and opened fire on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land.

Do you have to be a die-hard Marxist to worry about land acquisition in India? Do you have to be a Maoist supporter to ask why we need the army to clear land for mega-corporations, and at the expense of human life? No, and yet this is the tragedy of Arundhati Roy: the very legitimate issues she raises are swept aside by the deluge of toxic rage she provokes.

All the responses she elicits are personal — aimed at her ideology, her personality, her life choices. Lost in the sturm and drang are the hugely significant threats to our collective welfare as a nation. Threats that warrant a serious national debate, one which requires citizen awareness and democratic participation. How do we define "growth"? What is the price we pay? And who pays it, both in the short and long run? We may and will disagree on the answers, but these are far more important questions to consider than wasting our energy debating whether Roy is a terrorist/communist/Naxalite-loving traitor.

So whose fault is this? The editors at Outlook are partly guilty for choosing to splash a giant photo of Arundhati Roy across its cover, playing up her personality at the expense of her ideas. As long as Roy sells copies, who cares if her essays have any real impact.

A significant part of the blame must be shouldered by Roy herself who seems more interested in haranguing than persuading her middle class audience. Why write for a magazine like Outlook if she doesn't have any respect for its readership? People who she insists don't care about suicidal farmers or dead tribals, fairness or equity.

And worse why would anyone – middle class or not – respond to a vision of the world where everyone and everything is suspect, compromised or corrupt. In this latest outing, no one is spared. There are the usual suspects, as in the government, corporations, and the media. But also: philanthropists like Nandan Nilekani, Bill Gates, all large foundations, any form of corporate philanthropy, and the artists, writers, filmmakers conferences and literary festivals who receive their largesse. Their books, documentaries, and movies about the poor merely "exoticise" them.

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Nelson Mandela is not above suspicion as the man who killed socialism. Prizes like the Nobel and Magsaysay are dubious and so are its winners Mohammad Yunus, Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, and Kiran Bedi (even P. Sainath, Jayaprakash Narayan and MS Subbalakshmi are smeared in gentler terms as "acceptable" to the establishment). Also on the compromised list are all the kids who received funding to study abroad, liberal feminists, and "a great majority of the Dalit population, the backbone of the Indian working class, [which] has pinned its hopes for deliverance and dignity to constitutionalism, to capitalism and to political parties like the BSP, which practise an important, but in the long run, stagnant brand of identity politics."

Grassroots efforts to alleviate poverty, too, are counter-productive, and serve the greater corporate cause: "Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS — have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos with their own elaborate and precise funding brief. Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could."

This is like rejecting a torniquet that could save a bleeding victim because it is bought on corporate money or administered by a compromised doctor. Better dead than impure.

For the greater cause, Roy even offers herself up as tainted goods:

But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, we sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khate hain. We’re under siege.

Of course, Roy is compromised in a myriad other ways, by the foundations and universities that bankroll her trips abroad, book contracts that pay for her forays into the jungles of Chhattisgarh. But that's beside the point. What is more important is that there is no room for anyone to do anything of value in this claustrophobic, naysaying, closed loop theory of the world. Why would any sane person want to embrace this vision? And what good would come of it? We don't need to shoot this messenger of doom — she is only too happy to shoot herself, albeit in the foot.

None of this lets the rest of us off the hook. In the end, with or without Roy, the problems with our trajectory of growth remain serious and urgent. Ignoring Roy may feel good, but allowing a knee-jerk loathing as an excuse to ignore the larger issues she raises is just foolish.

But we do, dutifully playing our roles in a drama that is tiresomely predictable. "As expected, on this forum, Arundhati Roy generates the most comment," writes Outlook commenter Arun Maheshwari, "As always, she is a poor teacher as she just berates everything and everyone with no solutions — so no one really reads (to understand) her. So no one learns from her, she doesn't learn anything from the comments, nor do the commentators learn from each other — as the views are pre-formed anyways."

The great Arundhati Roy circus rolls on.

[You can read Arundhati Roy's essay in its glorious entirety here]

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