Sunday, May 8, 2011

To be or not to be Arundhati Roy

The Intellectual’s Vocation in the Postcolony 

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(Originally published in Countercurrents

 Link to the article in Spanish:
Arundhati Roy sein oder nicht sein

Link to the article in German:
Ser o no ser Arundhati Roy

Link to the article in French:
Etre ou ne pas être Arundhati Roy

Following the mainstream media’s ‘reproductions’ of her remarks in a seminar on Kashmir in October 2010[1], Arundhati Roy appeared to have been promptly disowned by a majority of the surfing-texting Indian middle class. She had transgressed, it seemed, the farthest limits of discursive protocol of the permissive Indian democracy.
                She had not actually said anything not stated before. It had been her declared position on Kashmir for almost a decade. “I said what I as well as other commentators have written and said for years,” she promptly reminded those baying for her tongue.[2]
                So the adverse notice her remarks attracted says something about the perils, and perks, of the apparatus in which the remarks happened to have been cast: this time she had used not the long and serious political essay but the podium from where her remarks were picked up by the evanescently flavoured media.
                Beyond revealing the media’s patchwork soul, the event bared yet again the middle class’s traumatized conscience. As if sadistically digging her toe nail into their sore nationalist shank, Roy had not only hurt the bloodthirsty, ice-cream licking class but also eluded her appropriation as their ‘good conscience’. They would no longer have her doing their ethical duties for them – of speaking up for the silenced and the ravaged. She had left them – the discreet, word-forsaken, false Hamlets –  with the “rub” of “what dreams may come”, to groan under the weight of their collective but isolated nightmares.
                The Kashmir avalanche was followed by an unusually long lull. A friend commented, “Perhaps Roy has realized she burnt her fingers over Kashmir.” I said she might be busy writing, reading, thinking, living, sharpening her teeth and nails, chasing some darkness. Days later she emerges from her prolonged secret silence to say some crystal-hard things on the recent Anna Hazare-led campaign against corruption. She has formulated the sutra: “. . . [C]orruption [h]as been presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself.”[3] The real issue has been displaced, she pointedly suggests. Hence the middle class’s symbolic – but only symbolic – rebellious gesture: the demand for change and democracy, without either change or democracy. Her final stroke is aimed at morality itself that functions in this gesture of rebellion as both an accelerator and a brake: “In a filthy battle such as this one, in which facts are made up, none of us can ever be pure enough or righteous enough. None of us can hope to emerge untainted. However, the fight will continue. Retreat is not an option”.[4] We must aim, that is, beyond morality and mud-slinging at the pragmatics of political change. We must refuse to believe in the moral bomb as a political incapacitator.
                A derelict of the middle class (in more senses than one), Roy has been accorded a rather curious reception in the halls of the Indian literary critical gymkhana club. A chasm separates her reception as a novelist from that as a political essayist. And this despite the fact that she has been writing essays for far longer and out of an inner, irrepressible compulsion.[5] An investigative critical adventure that traces her academic reception might show the literary critical politics of refusal and assimilation for what it is, torch lighting by the way the spotted and striped Indian homo academicus. Of the issues she digs out in her essays – such as war, humanitarian intervention, democracy, ecology, economy and political economy, poverty, starvation and greed, politics of identities, “genocide”, language, the relation of fiction to truth, etc. – how many are x-rayed in the academic writing on Roy? Some might smell, not unreasonably, a silent self-imposed academic censorship.
                Is this because she is a defender of lost causes, to use a phrase from Žıžek?[6] And conversely, does it show that the academia is only too happy to identify with winning causes, with causes that do not even so much as scratch power’s face?
And does that mean the academy is no longer the space of the intellectual, considering that dissent has been and remains the intellectual’s distinctive badge of honour, her special battle scar? Probably, the academy has generally evolved, over the last three decades, into an ancillary unit of the global capitalist myth-producing industry. Roy, unacceptably, punctures and explodes those myths, not sparing even the sacred liberal myths of democracy, nationalism, progress, reforms, the benevolent private investor, or the humane and beneficent corporate sector. She grimly but nattily exposes what often passes for democracy today as a malevolent dictatorship of the elected, contributing her flash of light to a gathering intellectual bonfire to which Žıžek’s critique of parliamentary democracy as parliamentary capitalism and Sheldon S. Wolin’s idea of “managed democracy”[7] are some other contributions.
She is a theorist if ‘theory’ is about seeing what has been rendered normally un-seeable. And theory in her case arises from a passionate (not sentimentalist) embrace of her fate as one who just cannot “un-see” what she has seen.[8] She, a sakshi[9] of the present as history, bears witness to what is. A people’s theorist, a people’s intellectual – if it is still possible to cognitively reunite the two terms that seem to have drifted apart with the tectonic fatality of continents – for at least the following reasons.
She is an accessible writer. She is rigorous: she leaves no holes in her argument. She is angry without letting anger dim her understanding. She is a dreamer without illusions. She simplifies but does not deny complexity; rather, she unravels complexity. As she says, she joins the dots to reveal the shape of the beast (which implies she acknowledges the perception of the dots as necessary to seeing the larger picture).[10] She weaves a powerful critical metanarrative of an anti-people global corporate political economy. By doing this she exposes, incidentally, the inadmissibility of some of postmodernism’s major claims in our time and place. And so she cheerily spills the spices of postmodernism’s kitchen radicalism in the academy’s ivory penthouse.
The best thing is she takes a position (not unreasonably) and, having taken it, sticks to it with integrity, vigour and wide-open eyes. And yet she acknowledges her all-too-human vulnerability: recall her fear when she was going to be put in prison for contempt of court.
And she holds her own. Edward Said’s “speaking truth to power” does not enthrall her. Power knows the truth too well, she says.[11] And with that insight, which probably seeps in when you have lived among ordinary people like an ordinary person, she escapes the intellectual’s hubris vis-à-vis both power and the powerless.
What is her objective, if it is not to speak truth to power? Perhaps it is to strain and stretch the limits of the unstated and unexamined ‘democratic’ consensus and to create spaces for a genuinely democratic discourse in which freedom is more than a brand of underwear. That probably is the logic of her will to name names, whether that of P. Chidambaram or Manmohan Singh or Justice (retd) B. N. Kirpal. Her sustained critique of the contempt of court provisions, too, is part of the same work: a contribution to an understanding of how the institutions of law and justice may arrogate to themselves, even in democracies, the sovereign power to determine what is and what is not ‘lawful’.[12] A disclosure of the way democratic institutions may tend perversely to raise themselves above law. 
Roy points her finger at the undead monster that the democratic machine has been unable to exorcize; the monster that likely gave sleepless nights to Plato. Democracy’s slumbering, biding monstrous ‘other’ that no people can yet claim to have slain and laid to eternal rest.

[1] The seminar Whither Kashmir: Freedom or Enslavement was organized by Coalition of Civil Societies on 25 October 2010.
[3] “When corruption is viewed fuzzily.” Presented at the Convention Against Corruption, in New Delhi, 29 April 2010. < >. 30 April 2011.
[4] “When corruption is viewed fuzzily.”
[5] “My non-fiction is wrenched out of me. It’s written when I don’t want to write.” The Shape of the Beast, 99.
[6] Žıžek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. London and New York: Verso, 2008
[7] Wolin, Sheldon S. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.
[8] The Shape of the Beast, 49.
[9] Sakshi, in Hindi, is one who sees, bears witness.
[10] The Shape of the Beast, 163.
[11] The Shape of the Beast, 76.
[12] The Shape of the Beast, 84.


Nagesh Rao said...

Just read your piece in CounterCurrents on Arundhati (which was forwarded to me by Sanjay Kak), thought I'd drop you a note to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Although I live thousands of miles away, the Indian middle class antipathy towards Roy and people like her is something that I feel viscerally every time she writes something and is subject to a backlash. Needless to say, I find her integrity and uncompromising radicalism really inspiring. Of course, one can always say that she can "afford" to be radical because of her celebrity status, but that's rather disingenuous, given that there are plenty of celebrity authors and artists who don't have the courage to speak their mind.

You mention in your article the difference between Roy's reception as a novelist and as an essayist. I actually took this my starting point for an article I published a couple of years ago in the journal Prose Studies.



Rohit Reddy said...

I really enjoyed your article on Arundhati Roy. After observing the "Arundhati is a traitor" spectacle by the MSM, it was nice to know that there are still some people left in India who can think for themselves. I was disgusted by the tone the MSM was using to discredit true voices like Arundhati Roy and Binayak Sen.

I just wanted to thank you for speaking out in such a bigoted environment.

Big thanks from New York. Please keep writing.

ML Raina said...

I loved your dyed-in-the purple paen to our doyene of perverse
causes - Arundhati Roy. I don’t doubt your admiration for her, but let me
hasten to add, in spite of your formidable verbal armoury deployed to
buttress her, I am not convinced.
Ms Roy is typical of those Indian intellectuals who, at the slightest
provocation, flail about against Indian democracy. Without doubt there
is a lot unhealthy about our democratic system, but do Ms Roy and her
fellow knigths and dames in shining armour realise that they can
issue their diatribes unscathed only under this system. They would not
be tolerated in any totalitarian system - whether of the right or of
the left. There is a tendency in Ms Roy to denounce right wing
positions, but does she not see the loot, plunder and pillage underneath
the 'liberatory' rhetoric of the Maosit terrorism? She walks shoulder
to shoulder with Yasin Malik in Kashmir shouting slogans for Kashmir's
Azadi, but neglects to admit (a) that Malik is the very same abductor
who took away Rubiuya Sayed, (b) that in Pakistan occupied Kashmir
northern areas have been denied azadi as well. She would lynch Modi but keep mum over the perpetrators of Godhra. I ask why is Ms Roy selective in choosing her targets.

My main quarrel with Ms Roy is that she is not a serious thinker nor even a serious moralist. We find in her writings no political vision based on the practicalities and complexities of Indian political life.

Hers is only a temperament and no coherent ideas emerge from her
writings. She writes at high tension and expresses her
ungovernable desire for a total renovation of our moral and social
life. An absoluutist admitting no middle ground between extremities,
Roy's anarchic politics operates in a void, for there is no concrete
anchor to set it on. She can exhilirate, and occasionally inspire, her readers and audiences, but we cannot take with us any long lasting value system from what she writes and does.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

@ML Raina

You judge her too hastily, don’t you, when you label the causes she espouses as “perverse”. Is it perverse to say that global capitalist dispensation is making the poor even poorer, that a retired supreme court judge should not serve a business in any capacity, that the uprooted should be rehabilitated, that all MOUs with corporate houses should be made public for it is the country’s resources that are being sold to them?
I am not convinced by your description of the really grave “provocations” that set her writing going as “the slightest”.
A critic of democracy is not necessarily an advocate of totalitarianism. When democracy is being eroded and subverted by those in command, it is imperative that we say that we are not happy with THIS way of doing democracy.

I am not justifying Godhra massacre, but does everyone always condemn the excesses on both or all sides? Have the supporters of a violent separatist movement in Punjab always condemned the killings of non-Sikhs and those Sikhs who did not see eye to eye with them? Do Hindus always condemn the extralegal killing of a Muslim, a Christian, or a Sikh? And are they always expected to? Do we brand everyone if he/she does not?

Moreover, it is unfair to fault a writer for what she has NOT written (a writer on 19th century cannot be blamed for not writing on the 18th). Also, one has to take a stance. Like you do or I do, as a result of which we do not say everything that can be said about Roy as a writer. You find fault with her work, but you say not a good thing about it - when several good things can be said.

And then, Roy says somewhere that she “explains”, that she does not “justify”. The difference is crucial, if we want to give the writer a patient hearing. The problem is we practice, in the name of democracy, summary execution of dissenters.

How many will dare to attack Mayawati with their pens? Or a local MLA? Or even their rotten colleague who is a disgrace to the profession? She probably disturbs us with her courage.

And I do not agree she is not a serious thinker. She does not ask abstract, ‘timeless’ questions, true. But she asks questions of here and now, of this actual world. And asks them thoughtfully.

As for some “lasting value system”, not every writer is supposed to do that. Several givers of such systems have left the world only a nastier place. I have not found the best writers offering “systems” for those “systems” can breed dogma and tyranny. But at the same time, the writings of Roy and others are founded on an implicit ethical vision which anyone can discern.

David James said...

i saw yr article at, where i occasionally post, and enjoyed it very much, u write well.

u might find this interesting: i'm an anarchist from seattle and i blog from a radical perspective. i posted this piece and was amazed at the response. it took a lot of hits [for my blog anyway], the lion's share from india, and drew an unusually high number of responses, again mostly from india. all were critical of her, and of the blurb i wrote. Thhere were those who those who felt i'd done an injustice to the interviewer, and were quite blunt about it. my comments about her were unflattering certainly, she's a disgrace, but i was amazed at how much respect/support she commands vis a vis roy.

roy's one of the best essayist/speakers in the anglophone world, i would have thought she'd be a india's favorite daughter.


Amaninder Singh said...

I read your article on Ms Arundhati roy on it was a very well written article.Your article accentuates the thoughtlessness and Ignorance of the Indian Ice-cream licking class-"who have seceded themselves from the rest of India" as MS Roy says- and Anna Hazare's Campaign painted as a Revolution(actually missing all the ingredients of a Revolution).Then I went to your Blog it felt good to run through it, I will definitely read your other articles as they sound quite interesting.