The Prescient Anger of Arundhati Roy
Nine months can make a person, or remake her. In October, 1997, Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her first novel, “The God of Small Things.” India had just turned fifty, and the country needed symbols to celebrate itself. Roy became one of them. Then, in July of 1998, she published an essay about another such symbol: a series of five nuclear-bomb tests conducted by the government in the sands of Rajasthan. The essay, which eviscerated India’s nuclear policy for placing the lives of millions in danger, wasn’t so much written as breathed out in a stream of fire. Roy’s fall from darling to dissident was swift, and her landing rough. In India, she never attained the heights of adulation again.
Not that she sought them. Through the decades since, Roy has continued to produce incendiary essays, and a new book, “My Seditious Heart,” collects them in a volume that spans nearly nine hundred pages. The book opens with her piece from 1998, “The End of Imagination,” but India’s nuclear tests were not Roy’s first infuriation. In fact, in 1994—after she had graduated from architecture school, and around the time that she was acting in indie films, teaching aerobics, and working on her novel—she wrote two livid articles about a Bollywood movie’s unscrupulous depiction of the rape of a real, living woman. That tone has never faltered. Every one of the essays in “My Seditious Heart” was composed in the key of rage.
Roy is often asked why she turned her back on fiction. (Her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” wasn’t published until 2017.) “Another book? Right now?” she once told a journalist. “This talk of nuclear war displays such contempt for music, art, literature and everything else that defines civilization. So what kind of book should I write?” The more interesting question, of course, is why Roy clung to nonfiction, and how she engages within it—the timbre of her reaction to demagoguery, inequality, corporate malfeasance, and the spoliation of the environment. The West’s liberal citizens are beginning to think afresh about how they ought to respond to such provocations: about whether there is virtue in cool balance, or dishonor in uninhibited anger, or utility in mustering a radical Left to counter a hostile Right. They could look to Roy for some answers. She has been ploughing this field for twenty-five years.
In “My Seditious Heart,” Roy rides to battle against a host of troubles. Most frequently, she criticizes India’s fondness for big dams, and its cruelty to the people displaced by them. She lambasts the American imperium and its souped-up capitalism, multinational institutions like the World Bank, and corporate greed. She flays the Hindu supremacists in India, who have sparked pogroms, divided communities, and tightened their hold on power, and she writes with sympathy about Maoists, the militant insurgents in central India who are fighting a state that is plundering the earth of ore and coal. Roy’s preoccupation with these topics has been so absolute that her second novel, when she finally produced it, was stocked with characters personifying her causes. One has a name, Azad Bhartiya, that translates as “Free Indian.” Bhartiya has been fasting for eleven years against assorted evils, and at the site of his protest he lists some of them on a laminated cardboard sign:
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If Roy ever begins a hunger strike, one feels that she will place herself behind just such a placard.
When Roy’s essays appeared individually, in magazines or newspapers, they functioned as little jabs of electricity, shocking us into reaction. Collectively, in “My Seditious Heart,” they remind us that many of the flaws in her nonfiction recur and persist. Her instinct to condemn becomes wearisome, and she gives us only the vaguest prescriptions for the systems she wishes would replace market-driven democracy, or dams, or globalization. She is prone to romanticizing the pre-modern, prompting us to wonder if she speaks too glibly for others. (“In their old villages,” she writes of displaced tribes, “they had no money, but they were insured. If the rains failed, they had the forests to turn to. The river to fish in. Their livestock was their fixed deposit.”) In stretches, the text is burdened by rhetorical questions and metaphors. (An essay titled “Democracy: Who is She When She’s at Home?” features three images in two successive sentences to describe how political parties treat Indian democracy: they till its marrow, mine it for electoral advantage, and tunnel under it like “termites excavating a mound.”) And her presentation of data can be self-serving. Repeatedly, she writes that around eight hundred million Indians live on less than twenty rupees (about thirty cents) a day. That statistic, from a 2005 government report, changed with time; by 2011, when she was still using the figure, the government estimated that nearly two hundred and seventy million people lived on less than thirty rupees a day. Admitting to that reduction would have complicated her arguments, which may explain why she never updated her numbers.
When the dial isn’t tuned to high fulmination, Roy is easier and more moving to read. To form her opinions, or perhaps to confirm them, she travels widely across India. Her narrations of her encounters with people are tender, and her prose becomes marked by rare stillness. In Kashmir, in 2010, it was apple-packing season: “I worried that a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake.” In Undava, a village pauperized by a dam and canal project, Roy meets Bhaiji Bhai, from whom the government had snatched seventeen of his nineteen acres. She recalls his story from an old documentary. “It broke my heart, the patience with which he told it,” she writes. “I could tell he had told it over and over again, hoping, praying, that one day, one of the strangers passing through Undava would turn out to be Good Luck.” Of the town of Harsud, in 2004, soon to be drowned by a reservoir: “A town turned inside out, its privacy ravaged, its innards exposed. Personal belongings, beds, cupboards, clothes, photographs, pots and pans lie on the street. . . . The people of Harsud are razing their town to the ground. Themselves.” That final word conveys the absurd tragedy of it all—of the poor hurrying to dismantle their lives, preferring that to having their lives dismantled for them.
The prototypical Roy essay is “Walking with the Comrades,” which holds both a fluid sense of discovery and a stubbornness of moral purpose. When it was first published, in 2010, it occupied most of an issue of Outlook, an Indian newsweekly. In it, Roy is invited to travel for a few weeks with a squad of Maoists through the forests of central India. The Prime Minister has called Maoists the greatest internal threat to the country’s security, but Roy finds men and women who have been repeatedly dispossessed, and who are trying to organize villagers and local tribes into some form of struggle. The government, for its part, has assembled a militia that wounds or kills those it suspects of supporting the Maoists, so that corporations may better mow down their forests and mine their land.
These are real, grievous cruelties. But, when Roy considers the Maoists’ own use of force, she adopts a gentler perspective. She describes the People’s Courts, where insurgents stage show trials before executing police officers. “How can we accept them? Or approve this form of rude justice?” she writes. Then she does approve it, by invoking the state’s own shoddy trials and executions. At least, in the case of a People’s Court, she writes, “the collective was physically present to make its own decision. It wasn’t made by judges who had lost touch with ordinary life a long time ago, presuming to speak on behalf of an absent collective.” This is a strange way to regard the judiciary, a pillar of the representative democracy she wants so much to restore to health.
Many of Roy’s positions have this kind of hard moral clarity. She declares that the free market undermines democracy, allowing for no complexity in the relationship between them. Grant-making institutions funded by companies are automatically suspect, their agendas serving only as tools to pry open markets and convert people into consumers. She has harsh words for the Ford Foundation—and then, through guilt by association, for any Indian nonprofit that has accepted a Ford grant, without weighing for us, on the page, the work that nonprofit may have done. (She did not, it should be noted, turn down her Booker purse, when it was still being sponsored by a British company that grew rich by using indentured labor in its Guyanese sugarcane plantations.) All big dams are ruinous, she insists, before comparing them to nukes: “They’re both weapons of mass destruction. They’re both weapons governments use to control their own people.”
Her essays tend to close on a call to action. “The borders are open. Come on in,” she writes, summoning us to protest at the site of India’s most controversial dam. In an piece titled “Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?,” she writes, “Our resistance has to begin with a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the US occupation of Iraq.” Go after the companies that benefit from the occupation; refuse to fight this immoral fight. She finds herself almost bewildered that those who suffer most stay silent. It strikes her—as it has struck me and no doubt many others who have lived in India—as something of a wonder that the country, ridden with injustices, has not witnessed a revolution. “Bhaiji Bhai, Bhaiji Bhai, when will you get angry?” she writes. “When will you stop waiting? When will you say ‘That’s enough!’ and reach for your weapons, whatever they may be?”
In their bare-knuckle approach, these essays descend directly from those of William Hazlitt, who advised his fellow-progressives to pull no punches. Like Roy, Hazlitt reflexively distrusted power, “the grim idol that the world adore.” In a polemic titled “On the Connexion between Toad-Eaters and Tyrants,” published in 1817, he offered a template for writerly resistance. First, “be a good hater.” Keep your memory long and your will strong. For the true lover of liberty, a hatred of wrongdoing “deprives him of his rest. It stagnates in his blood. It loads his heart with aspics’ tongues.” (“Aspic,” as he used it, was another word for “asp.”) All his life, Hazlitt railed against the formal dullness of political prose. The language of progressives must be inflamed, he thought, and their imaginations whipped by anger. “Abstract reason, unassisted by passion,” he wrote, “is no match for power and prejudice.”
These qualities, though, have earned Roy the disapproval of her own teammates. She was always certain to rile the nationalists, corporate India, and the state. (In 2002, she paid a fine and spent a day in prison after India’s Supreme Court classified her criticisms of the judiciary as criminal contempt.) But within the Indian left, too, you could detect a lack of warmth for her methods, and doubts that are now familiar. Roy’s brush was too broad, some said. She made convenient moral elisions, as with the Maoists’ violence. Her equation of big dams and nuclear bombs—couldn’t she have been more nuanced about that? Her habit of decrying capitalism, even as some market reforms lifted Indian people out of poverty—didn’t that paint the left as unempirical? Roy spared very few people, and very few institutions, at a time when the left needed everyone it could attract.
Then, while these worries were being nursed, the world made itself more deserving of Roy’s anger. Large companies, particularly in finance and technology, were exposed to be so corrupt that they deformed the nature of democracy. States placed their citizens under surveillance. Economic inequality grew, and the environmental crisis spiked. Nativists and right-wing ideologues lied their way into office, exploiting and widening the divisions of class and race. Reading “My Seditious Heart,” you feel as if Roy has been hollering as extravagantly as possible for years, trying to grab our attention, and we’ve kept motoring on toward the edge of the cliff.
The book emerges into an especially disheartening time in India. In its titular essay, published in 2016, Roy permitted herself a faint glow of hope about the resistance to the “manifesto of hate” enacted by the Hindu right. “Little by little, people have begun to stand up to it,” she wrote. But, in May, the Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power with an even greater mandate, its campaign a multibillion-dollar production of minority-baiting and sabre-rattling. This triumph doesn’t redeem Roy’s elisions and reductions, but it does make her anger the most indispensable part of her writing. Her fury is suited to these horrible and therefore simpler times; it’s more tuned to the reality on the ground than restraint and statistics. Roy started writing nonfiction when the world felt better. “My Seditious Heart” arrives to tell us not that the world has deteriorated but that it was never as fine as we once believed.