At first, I was resistant to mentioning the biography of Arundhati Roy in this review. What she talks about in the essays included in her new collection My Seditious Heart goes far beyond herself. She focuses on the millions who suffer from poverty, violence, and injustice in India and worldwide, and the means that lead to this suffering, which, as she shows, are often masked in a vocabulary that suggests their precise opposite. But if the reader is going to trust an author for nearly 1,000 pages, turning to her as a guide through the labyrinth of international finance, global markets, local power grabs, and continent-crossing intellectual histories, it is important to know who is doing the explaining. Roy herself is very attentive to the voices and backgrounds of her real-life characters, especially those in a position of power who can make their voices heard through their speeches, policies, or indeed, their books.
So who is Roy? For over twenty years, since she won the Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things in 1997 until the publication of last year’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she has chosen to dedicate herself almost exclusively to the writing of political essays. The essays have won her ardent fans and heckling detractors, as well as a solid base of readers looking for direct language and sensitive frameworks to fit phenomena masked in doublespeak and ignored by the media. According to Roy, the desire to write on such issues came from her own cognitive dissonance:
I was a front-runner in the line-up of people who were chosen to personify the confident, new, market-friendly India that was finally taking its place at the high table. It was flattering in a way, but deeply disturbing, too. As I watched people being pushed into penury, my book was selling millions of copies. My bank account was burgeoning. Money on that scale confused me. What did it really mean to be a writer in times such as these? . . . I had written about love and loss, about childhood, caste, violence and families — the eternal preoccupations of writers and poets. Could I write equally compellingly about irrigation? About the salinization of soil? About drainage? Dams? Crop patterns? About the per unit cost of electricity? About the law? About things that affect ordinary people’s lives? Could I turn these topics into literature? I tried.
Roy was born to a Malayali Syrian Christian mother and Bengali Hindu father, but raised only with her mother, putting her in an uncomfortable and angular position with respect to caste. Perhaps this hybridity, this discomfort with given traditions, contributed in some way to producing the freedom that one feels in her writing, its lightness of touch, its lilt and laughter. Whatever the case, Roy’s linguistic precision and her soft insistence, combined with her hard intelligence and deep research, make a deadly combination. She sees her political writing as an extension of her literary work and her identity as a writer — there is no “activist” in her separate from her writer self — which is perhaps also a comment on the false limits we tend to put on fiction. In a world of inequalities and embedded structures of control such as our own, it is impressive to see what happens when a novelist’s mighty imaginative mind turns toward the material of the news magazine.
Since the texts of the collection move chronologically, there is repetition and a patterning of topics: big dams, globalization, the rise of right wing nationalism, Narendra Modi, anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, discrepancies of prosecution after the Parliament attack, injustice in the Supreme Court, the takeover of communications media, the war on Iraq, Maoists, the equation of poverty with terrorism, the millions of people displaced due to Sardar Sarovar and other massive irrigation projects, the struggles over land ownership, the rise of Hindutva, the insufficiency of “human rights”, the complicity of NGOs and corporate social responsibility initiatives, the building of nuclear weapons, the culture that for profit would sell a woman’s story of rape and implicate her in murder, and the violence in Kashmir, among much else. The Kashmir issue is very fresh — Roy recently wrote a piece for the New York Times against the government’s revocation of Article 370, which gives Jammu and Kashmir special status and prevents Indian citizens from buying property there.
Roy’s overarching concern is with abuses of power that put economic profit over human lives. Some of these essays are focused on national issues and others on larger structural ones, but the local and the global are in constant contact, working in parallel, producing and reinforcing one another in a mad feedback mechanism, an accelerated cycle of chicken and egg.
In the international context, Roy sees wars as being produced by those on the top with vested interests, creating a deadly trickle-down effect that sows the seeds for future violence. Roy wants a deeper change in the political system, though the means of achieving this are unclear — a voluntary boycott of corporations clearly hasn’t happened yet, and will not to the degree to which she hopes. The lure of market forces is very difficult to combat with a willed opt-out, and she herself worries that events like the World Social Forum drain too much time, money, and enthusiasm from areas where they might be put to better use.
In the Indian context, the scale of everything is terrifying; thousands can be affected at one time, and virulence easily goes massive. The threat comes from both multinational corporations and a colluding government, bolstered by an upper-middle class happy to support “growth”. Roy claims that 50 million people have been forcibly expelled from their homes due to the creation of giant dams and other irrigation techniques that require their land, with the promises of relocation exposed to be scams or outright lies. Religion is often also used as a tool of control and persuasion, and violent riots have taken place that involve hundreds or even thousands of people.
Roy insists that in India a special variety of Hinduism is speaking for the entire country, with other religions and lifestyles discriminated against. She says there are two Indias almost at war with each one another, one which she calls India Shining and the other, simply, India, with the economic growth and prosperity of the first group depending upon the tamping down, kicking out, and disappearance of the poor, downtrodden, and “other”. She draws special attention to the Hindutva language of extermination, whose adherents at their most extreme have referred to Hitler as a hero. I am reminded of the only slightly dystopian Netflix series Leila (based on the book by Prayaag Akbar) in which an official Hindu state takes hold, putting its obsessions with purity and exclusion into action.
The phrase “right wing nationalism” is used in contemporary India to refer to a multitude of interlocking policies, people, and beliefs, from the economic to the military. The Congress and BJP parties have become degrees on the same chart, and the Indian government has sent paramilitary troops like the Sashastra Seema Bal to Kashmir and the Central Reserve Police Force (a.k.a. Operation Green Hunt) to the so-called Red Corridor to impose order by whatever means, including killing. Roy attempts to defuse the idea of ordinary people getting caught in the middle of the government and the terrorists; the “terrorists,” she argues, are often ordinary people seeking to make their claims heard in a system that shuts them out, and the region is aswirl in subtle flurries of involvement that build up into a storm. There may be plenty of black money and white elephants in the region, but there are even more shades of grey.
For many people, traditional politics just doesn’t work anymore, Roy argues. Peaceful techniques of the past can also be frustratingly limited. She asks with irony if the political theatre of a hunger strike will work for people who are starving, a riposte to those who think Gandhi’s nonviolence is the answer for everything. She is consistently in favor of the underdog and underprivileged, which often translates into groups like the Dalits (the lowest caste in the Hindu system) or Adivasis (the indigenous peoples of India). Caste is a major issue: one statistic she cites, unattributed, claims that only five percent of marriages in India cross caste lines. Often there is more in common between sensibilities across international lines than between those in the same country. India doesn’t even have a single shared language in which its inhabitants can communicate with each another, but rather dozens with different histories, overlapping but mutually unintelligible. English and Hindi are both fraught with political baggage.
The importance of language is a major theme. For Roy, language has been warped, twisted and turned inside-out by the right. Phrases like “free market,” “deepening democracy,” or “women’s empowerment” have come to mean precisely the opposite of what people think, and can be used to defend the most blatant power grabs and most insidious underminings of equality. The best part of Roy’s analysis is her own use of language: she has a snarky, accessible voice, and she is brilliant at narrative, putting events in order and drawing a line with lucidity through what seems to be an overwhelming chaos. Few people are able to do this well, and one of the weaknesses of the left is precisely that it gets stuck on huge abstractions like “globalization” and “injustice” rather than drawing out specific cases. Roy is interested in realpolitik, the step-by-step analysis of pragmatic decisions. She is particularly good at the paperwork bit — teasing out the complex cover-up operations involved in government arrests and the layers of lies and misrepresentations in cases such as those of the unjustly villainized Afzal Guru, or the unjustly beatified Anna Hazare, L.K. Advani, Mukesh Ambani, even Mahatma Gandhi.
“The Doctor and the Saint”, on the historical importance and continuing relevance of B.R. Ambedkar, is a particularly illuminating essay, presenting Gandhi’s ambiguous biography as a politician in South Africa, suggesting that his political stances were prejudicial to the so-called “untouchables” (today called Dalits) and proposing the political reformer Ambedkar — a contemporary — as a better alternative to Gandhi’s strict Hindu views. Ambedkar, from a Dalit background, questioned the entire system of caste and put the urban setting rather than idealized rural village at the center of his work. Roy’s work is an important part of a current academic and social interrogation of Indian politics in which Ambedkar is undergoing a renaissance and being analyzed with urgency, to explore what alternative paths the Constitution could have taken.
Over the course of her book, Roy goes about offering readers a new selection of idols, or at least people we might read or appreciate today, from Ambedkar to Pandita Ramabai to Anuradha Ghandy to Iyothee Thass to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to whom she prefers to listen in the voice of Abida Parveen:
If dreams are thwarted,
then yearning must
take their place
If reunion is impossible,
then longing must
take its place
For all that she loves a low healing voice, however, Roy is against resignation. “Yearning” and “longing” must become creative emotions. To put one’s ideas into words, to lay out a case articulately over years, is already a form of protest against complacency in a planetary context of money-driven special interests and ideological authoritarianism, which can so often seem overwhelming. As Roy wryly puts it: “There’s no country on God’s earth that isn’t caught in the crosshairs of the U.S. cruise missile and the International Monetary Fund chequebook.”
The “sedition” in the title is a sort of half-joke, like the half letters in Hindi that are pronounced without full emphasis. Roy has been accused of sedition for her ideas on Kashmir, received multiple threats from the Indian Supreme Court and spent a night in jail for “contempt” following her remarks on the Narmada dam. But sedition is also to be taken less literally as an ongoing attitude, an irreverent and often ironic refusal to swallow the words that those in power place on our tongues. Seditious thinking can work as a unifying subterranean layer, without regard to top-down national structures: “I learned never to lazily conflate countries, their government’s policies, and the people who live in them. I learned to think from first principles — ones that predate the existence of the nation-state.”
The weakest points are notably when Roy falls into oversized, broad language. Perhaps the essays that feel most dated are those on the war in Iraq and US politics, in which she writes in the Chomsky-Zinn-Berger tradition. Roy repeats that she speaks as a slave in the US empire, “a slave who presumes to criticize the king”, and many of the essays were first read out before audiences in San Francisco or New York, or published in magazines like The Nation. Well written and gripping as they are, they also lack a certain intimacy, as they must, given that they are discussing events far away and reported at secondhand. Here opinion overtakes original research and Roy’s subtlety goes missing a bit. The “Occupy” essay in particular reads as slightly strident.
That said, having come into this book prepared for a “left-wing” writer railing against the corruptions and abuses of our world, I was surprised by the delicacy of tone, the steel fist in a glove of velvet. In this case the length does Roy a favor: a single piece that might feel too strongly worded can moderate itself, self-correct, find its place within the overall critique. Roy prefers short, punchy, barbed sentences; she states explicitly that she has sought to write without “sentimentality”. According to stereotype, sentimentality is an attribute of both women and the left, and one can understand this bid for legitimacy. But the approach doesn’t mean that she is free of a point of view; she often throws in digs at the opposition and attacks and mocks the language of the other side. “Unsentimental” doesn’t mean statistics at the expense of human stories either, and Roy balances her data points with her gift for tracing a narrative line.
Where does Roy recommend people begin? For a start, she seeks to use the international global forces in which we live in a positive way, connecting with other leftist movements around the world. To take a Chilean example, she takes Neruda’s Captain’s Verses with her to the forest and quotes his “Standard Oil Company” from Canto General, elsewhere discussing the consequences of the Pinochet years. We are unavoidably all in this together, and the structures of power find parallels everywhere, with a local twist.
On a more philosophical level, Roy hints she would rather be content with the simple, godly “small things” around her than privilege explosive growth; she would rather dedicate herself to the preservation of beauty in its primitive natural form than the creation of more massive buildings or more expensive projects altering our natural geography in ways we can’t even predict. Accompanying a group of Maoists in the jungle Roy even claims to enjoy eating their ant chutney. Perhaps we needn’t go so far , but she is a funny, witty, warmhearted companion on our road to understanding the power games being played and the rigid forms of rhetoric that are being used, which destroy lives and inhibit the expressions of thought and imagination that might otherwise grow, slow and sure, like tendrils and roots. Roy helps us to find what is green, firm, fresh, sensual, and resistant in our beings, the best parts of ourselves.
I do wonder at whom these essays are aimed. There is a lot of explanation in her prose, not condescending in the “let me, Expert, explain to you, Reader” way, but still meant for those coming in mostly from scratch, without prior knowledge. Most of the Indian pieces were written for Outlook and other weekly magazines, which makes this approach particularly interesting, as such time-sensitive pieces do not usually “survive.” Clearly there is an intellectual historian in Roy, always contextualizing and looking at the broader picture.
There’s also a lyrical poet. Her “I” comes through clearly, holding out a way through a confounding morass of information. Roy herself becomes a central character, she of the “seditious heart”. Perhaps such a move is unavoidable in a century of personality politics, but it also seems intentional. Roy doesn’t want to be seen as an activist apart from her writing; she sees these as different parts of being a human. And what better way to approach human concerns than to give the people she discusses a clear name and identity, including herself? Roy may be strategic in her wariness of the “sentimental”, but she is also clever in naming the people she respects or criticizes, bringing political issues down to earth, into specific bodies.
These days, when “human rights” has become an empty phrase, something not human at all but a corporate or legal construct, the true human is a fragile creature — one in need of meaning, recognition, and a way to express a voice even beyond the community body to which he or she belongs. When even the international left has become a cold and faceless entity, corporatized as conferences, NGOs, and other personality-free conduits, Roy has brought ongoing situations alive and made them approachable and understandable, readable and intimate. She traces out the historical roots of conflicts, and refuses to settle for temporary explanations. How did we get here? What should we do? How are governments and international institutions like the World Bank or Enron implicated? These are big questions, but few people write as Roy does, in a soft lilting voice that persuades us to walk with her, and to plot our approaches together.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living between Santiago (Chile) and Cambridge (UK). She currently studies the literary relations between Latin America and South Asia. She has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval and the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. In addition, she has translated over fifteen books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.