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Liking Arundhati Roy and Disliking Her in Time

It is yet another international award for Arundhati Roy. This time it is the European Essay Prize for her essay compilation Azadi (Freedom), which has an intriguingly indicative sub-title: Fascism, Fiction and Freedom in the Time of the Virus. The honour from France which comes with a purse of Rs 18 lakh, must be, for her, a modest occasion for ‘utmost happiness,’ like the title of her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

But do I rejoice with her and feel on top of the world, for this award or for the long list of awards and monetary prizes from abroad in the past? Or bewail the transformation of a literary icon of the late 1990s into something rich and strange, and occasionally wild or weird?

And what an entry it was in the 1990s! Much before her debut novel, The God of Small Things, got selected for the coveted Booker Prize in 1997 it was the talk of the town, internationally, because of the pre-publication hype associated with the hefty advance of half a million pounds offered to her by a British publisher.

With that the young story-teller from Aymenem, Kottayam, became a household name in Kerala, as perhaps everywhere else, making Malayalees like me vicariously thrilled.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

With that opening paragraph remarkably giving the sights and sounds of a sleepy little village on the banks of the Meenachil River in Kottayam district of Kerala, Aymenem blazed over the literary landscape of the world like a beacon no one can miss. So did Roy, the newest, one of the youngest, curly haired fresh face to lighten up the pages of literary history. She was not merely the girl next door, for many literature aficionados she was one in the family, as were Rahel and Estha,the twins who filled the pages of her novel.

Her prose was simple, but precise. And the narration, almost lyrical.

But the euphoria was short-lived. Next to the The God of Small Things, there appeared to be a void, a blank. No second novel for a noticeably long, long period, making many wonder whether The God and his small things were just a flash in the pan. Was Roy proving the adage that anyone can write one novel based on his or her own life, but for the next there should be that creative spark. Roy did not show that creative spark for the next twenty years, her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, appearing only in 2017.

But the interregnum did not go waste for Roy. Armed with prize money from several awards and the international goodwill she received, Roy gave herself a great makeover as a social activist, crusader and a champion of the marginalised and, most significantly in recent years, an inveterate critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP.

My tryst with the small things of that god was such that the vehemence with which I liked the author never waned. But it was with the same vehemence that I started to dislike her later writing, in the form of a series of essays that, I found, were highly critical of India as a nation, as also the very notion of India and what it stood for.

There could perhaps be an explanation. No funding from abroad is without strings. Whether it is the Lannan Foundation Award, Wallace Action Fund or the Sydney Peace Prize or the umpteen other prize monies she received, it goes without saying that the fund givers while finding her supremely suitable for the honour and the prize money, also think that she will live up to their expectations, if they have any, or at least preserve the image for which they have chosen her for their honour. The funding strings indeed may be gossamer like, and like gossamer they will in time envelope one like cobweb.

In many of her essays, some of them transcripts of formal speeches made abroad, Roy gives the impression of being a one-woman army pitted against the mighty ‘empire’ of India. Indeed, she finds India as still an empire. In Azadi, among other things, she sums up her impression: “Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole.” I find that observation a little out of proportion, if not outrageous.

This is not the only outrageous assumption in her writings. There are plenty and more. For example some of her observations on Mahatma Gandhi are, I find, irreverent, irrelevant and irresponsible.

More outrageous is her article in The Guardian on the Mumbai terror attack. She appears to be more in favour of terrorists of all hues, both domestic and those from across the border, as she puts the blame on the government. The headline and the endline of the article make her flawed judgement abundantly clear: The Monster in the Mirror.

“The only way to contain (it would be naïve to say end) terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We're standing at a fork in the road. One sign says Justice, the other Civil War. There's no third sign and there's no going back. Choose.”

The special character of Roy’s activism is that she seems to have got a finger in almost every NGO pie. She donated her Booker Prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In 2002 when she got the Lannan Cultural Prize of 350,000 dollars she apportioned it among 51 NGOs, environmental activism groups and individuals, thereby extending the tentacles of her celebrity influence. From Kashmir to Kerala therefore she has good company in the many groups of dissenters and campaigners and protesters whose cause she champions. While one can be sympathetic to some of the issues raised by them, it is certain that no one can be sympathetic to all the issues raised by all these groups. That is because some are there to wreck the system from the outside as well as from within.

Though Roy had the loyalty of activists of most such NGOs, there were those who did not share her extreme positions. The best expression of differences of this kind was the famous spat between Roy and Ramachandra Guha in regard to the Narmada Bachao Andolan in which both openly traded highly intemperate language. In his devastating criticism of Roy, Guha had described her as ‘self indulgent and hyperbolic,’ her essay on the Narmada dam project showing ‘a conspicuous lack of proportion.’

The last observation of lack of proportion may also appear to be so valid for many of the essays in Roy’s Azadi  which got her the French honour. The book was published in 2020 in the U S by Haymarket Books which, their website says, “is a radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago. Our mission is to publish books that contribute to struggles for social and economic justice. We strive to make our books a vibrant and organic part of social movements and the education and development of a critical, engaged, and internationalist Left.”

And Roy acknowledges in the copyright page that the book was published “With the generous support of Lannan Cultural Foundation and Wallace Action Fund.”

Many may find in this foreign funded book observations that are highly prejudicial to the interests of India or even construed as anti-Indian to the core. But Azadi is Freedom and Roy has all the freedom provided by this country’s ‘dangerous democracy’ that she seems to despise and denounce.

I am 79, which means that the first four years of my life were in British India and the subsequent 75 in independent India. I like and love this country, its democracy, its plurality, its institutions, all with their blemishes and shortcomings. I can never appreciate or countenance the kind of shrill war cries made against the country by my one time icon.

Roy’s attitude towards and affinity for her motherland can be gauged from this. She has accepted all the awards from abroad, from the so called capitalist nations she does not like, but has declined the one great literary award given by India, the 2006 Sahitya Akademi Award. She was chosen for the award for her book of political essays titled The Algebra of Infinite Justice.

By algebra or arithmetic, how does she explain this infinite injustice to her motherland?


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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