Arundhati Roy’s quest for a humane world

A.U.M Fakhruddin
AN intrepid champion of public issues that affect the masses, firebrand Arundhati Roy has been voicing the opinions of the underdog in society for the reason that injustice to the disadvantaged disturbed her since her youth. Straightforward remonstrance against unfairness and grievance typify the nucleus of her thoughts. Roy explicitly articulated her commitment to ethical practice, human rights and has been crusading against brutality of the establishment.
The political issues Roy is now equally distinguished for are environmental activism and the rising communal tensions in modern-day India. “Not only in India but all over the world, an economic system is being created that is driving people apart,” she adds. With strong opinions sympathetic to the oppressed she is a passionate polemicist.
Dazzling, extraordinary first novel
Best known for her debut novel ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997) — for which and won the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction— that afforded her wide acclaim, author and political activist Suzanna Arundhati Roy has been ardently involved in human rights isssues. Highly applauded in major American and Canadian newspapers as a “dazzling first novel,” “extraordinary”, “at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple”, “a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep”, and “a lush, magical novel”, by the end of the year, it had become one of the five best books of 1997 by the Time magazine.
Prior to embarking on novel-writing she wrote and costarred in the film ‘In Which Annie Gives It to Those Ones’ (1989) and later penned scripts for the film Electric Moon (1992) and several television dramas.
Appalling caste system
Set in the caste society of India during political turbulence in Kerala at a time when members of the Untouchable Paravan or Paryan caste were not allowed to touch members of higher castes or enter their houses, her semi-autobiographical novel ‘The God of Small Things’ portrays Indian history, class relations, cultural tensions and dire straits of the Untouchables— a group of people in a state of extreme distress — who were treated worse than animals. They had the lowliest jobs and lived in subhuman conditions. Her narrative shows how appallingly brutal the caste system can be.
The Manusmriti, the most authoritative book on Hindu law, acknowledges and “justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories— Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. The main castes were further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific occupation. Outside of this Hindu caste system were the ‘achhoots’ — the Dalits or the untouchables.
Arundhati’s 20,190-word treatise ‘Walking With The Comrades’ (2010) recounts her visit to the Maoist area in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. “Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists, is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. In the lovely forest villages, the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie in a heap, or they are full of policemen. The deadly war that is unfolding in the jungle is a war that the Government of India is both proud and shy of”, writes Roy.
‘How Deep Shall We Dig?’
Roy disapproves of the unwelcome status quo and wrote in ‘How Deep Shall We Dig?’ in 2004, “The U.S. Government used the lies and disinformation generated around the September 11 attacks in 2001 to invade not just one country, but two — and heaven knows what else is in store. The Indian Government uses the same strategy not with other countries, but against its own people”.
In ‘Shape of the Beast’ (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2010) Roy has consistently unhesitatingly engaged with its changing realities. In the fourteen interviews collected here, Arundhati Roy examines the nature of state and corporate power as it has emerged, and the shape that resistance movements are taking.
Roy has campaigned along with activist Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam project, saying that the dam will displace half a million people with little or no compensation, and will not provide the projected irrigation, drinking water, and other benefits.
Bitter critic of the U.S. foreign policy
A bitter critic of the U.S. foreign policy and war in Afghanistan, Roy in an opinion piece in The Guardian titled “The algebra of infinite justice” responded to the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, finding fault with the argument that this war would be retaliation for the September 11 attacks:
In August 2006, Roy, along with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others, signed a letter in The Guardian calling the 2006 Lebanon War a “war crime” and accusing Israel of “state terror.”
Roy was charged with sedition along with separatist Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and others by Delhi Police for their “anti-India” speech at a 2010 convention on Kashmir: “Azadi: The Only Way.” Following the 2001 Indian parliament attack Roy has raised questions about the investigation into the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the trial of the accused. She had called for the death sentence of Mohammad Afzal to be stayed.
Roy has criticised the Indian government’s armed actions against the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India, calling it “war on the poorest people in the country”. According to her, the government has “abdicated its responsibility to the people” and launched the offensive against Naxals to aid the corporations with whom it has signed Memoranda of Understanding. In other statements, she has described Naxalites as patriots “of a kind” who are “fighting to implement the Constitution, (while) the government is vandalising it”.
For a humane and peaceful world
According to Edward Said’s 1993 Reith Lecture— as Alan Lightman writes in his article on the Public Intellectual in the the MIT Communications Forum — an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. Said’s ‘intellectual’ is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said’s intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force.
Future historians will evaluate the advocacy and activism of Arundhati Roy as an author as well as activist — indeed in letter and spirit— for a humane and peaceful world, which is mired in a morass of intramural scrimmage and interminable, banal, fratricidal conflicts.
Writers are afraid to be political now
Responding to The Daily Star’s editor Mahfuz Anam, Sushmita S Preetha and Moyukh Mahtab, who queried, “You said writers are afraid to be political these days. Why?” Roy’s reply: “They are not afraid in the sense of the Stalinist era—of course in some regimes they are. Here [in Bangladesh] they are afraid; in India people are beginning to be afraid. People have been assassinated and killed”.
Question: “Democracies seem to be taking a backseat globally, governments are more and more powerful, they are usurping the powers of other institutions like the judiciary and the parliament. In the 21st century, why are we losing freedom? Suddenly, democracy is not really the first choice”.
Roy: “When I speak about it in India, one of the ways I explain it is that in the late 80s and early 90s, the government opened two locks. One was the lock of protected markets, and one was the lock of the Babri Masjid. The opening of the two locks unleashed two kinds of fundamentalism: economic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism. Obviously in India it was Hindu fundamentalism; but in general I mean majoritarian fundamentalism. What that did is that it allowed the state to create these bogeymen, anti-development or anti-national—the two have converged now. It allowed the state to militarise.”
[The writer is Associate Editor of the Holiday. He can be reached at]

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