Responding to Roy

Ever since I read Arundhati Roy’s latest novel travelogue essay, I’ve been toying with a response — and each time, tossing the thought aside for want of both time and energy.

Now I can stop “toying”, thanks to good — if elusive — friend Salil Tripathi, who constructs the counter argument with his usual skill in Mint. The payoff:

Fascination with Maoism is beyond moral sensibility. It is a parallel universe, where recalling Gandhian hunger strikes evokes hysterical laughter; where poor treatment of women in the forests is equated with their poor treatment in the cities. This takes moral equivalency to a new low. This is amoral nihilism.

It is also Roy’s Hanoi Jane moment. She is a voyeur, with the sky as her bed sheet, stars as her guiding light and birdsongs as her alarm clock. She connects those stars to form an intricate pattern. To us, it is Ursa Major; to her, an AK-47. In this surreal landscape, children don’t go to school, but learn to kill from ambush videos; tribals and rebels are one; and majoritarian justice by a show of hands is considered fair because everything else has failed. This is where cultural relativism leads us: In this Maostan, they probably speak Na’vi, and Roy is their Avatar.

Also read an earlier take-down, by Sivaram Srikandath:

But where she loses the  plot is in making her world is so strikingly mono-chromatic. Just black and white, with barely a  shade of grey. No prizes for guessing who is black and  who is white.  The villains in the story  are those who wield power – vast, unfettered power, namely the Indian State  – and the heroes are the Maoists of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army operating in the Dandakaranya forest of Central India.

The heroes and the villains live in starkly differing worlds and the author  adroitly paints the two  in opposing semantic shades as an effective literary device.. The devious universe of the Indian s tate is best described, and lampooned by ominous sounding phrases  like Gentle Giants Who Really Care,  Gravest Internal Security Threats, Killing Machines, Looti Sarkar,  etc; the capitalized alphabets  being Roy’s cute,  trademark style marker.The Maoist  reality on the contrary is romanticized as a peaceful  way of life that leaves a “lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.”  It is a world of stars and fireflies; of private suites in a thousand star hotel; and  of  sweet Bastar tamarind trees “watching over the land like a  clutch of huge, benevolent, Gods.”  A forest where the floor is a carpet of gold,  and the air is suffused with the slightly heady smell of the flowering mahua.

9 thoughts on “Responding to Roy

  1. I think most of her critics find themselves absolutely clueless and out of their sheer disgust because of their inability to answer the questions she raises resort to desperate measures of personal remarks.

  2. Pingback: What ails the left – Arundhati Roy « Stranger in a strange land

  3. Prem,
    Im a little confused with what you/Salil/Sivaram/Anirban are arguing with/taking down. As I’d asked you on Twitter, is it Roy’s writing style, her romanticization of militant Maoism or her dichromatic black-white portrayal of the issue?

    Although Im not a fan of Roy’s writing style myself, I was glad she’d written on this topic with the perspective she chose. It seems to me that there is not enough coverage of the Naxalite ‘issue’ from the perspective of the poor cliched aam aadmi – in this case, the marginalized people in these areas who are consistently neglected by both middle class India, the State apparatus and a majority of the media. So much so that, most of us in middle-class India have not the slightest clue about what’s really going on in these areas, apart from the State’s version.

    From that point of view, I am glad that she went there and I am glad she reports an alternate view. Yes, her version is cheesy, and yes, its like the Indian print version of Avatar. Sure. But, some of her facts are difficult to argue against – especially when some parts are corroborated independently (I volunteer with AID in Boston – some AID volunteers have visited Dantewada, spoken to the locals there who agreed with some of what Roy writes about regarding Salwa Judum/State oppression).

    I don’t condone Maoist violent methods but the issues they are trying to address are worth taking a look at, no?

    She’s speaking here at MIT tomorrow. Hoping to get waitlisted tickets to go watch, maybe ask her a Q or two.

    • Dear Pavan,

      You have heard from some volunterrs who went to Dantewada. I myself have been to Dantewada and have first-hand knowledge of what’s happening there. Yes, Salwa Judum is indefensible. But why did Salwa Judum come up? What are the facts? That Dantewada is under-developed? You bet. Under-developed is in fact an under-statement. But, what are the solutions proposed by Maoists (or Ms Roy)? As far as I could see, the only “business” or “industry” (if we can call that) Maoists were capable of was what is called hafta in Mumbai. Oh yes, they also collect “toll” from all the vehicles that pass through “their” area. I can go on and on. But, I am not ambitious enough for a Man Booker.

      • Raag,
        Thanks for the post.
        Again, I want to emphasize that Im not taking a stand for the State or the Naxals – neither of which are all good or all evil. In a sense Im only saying that while we keep hearing State-centric views its also good to hear the alternate in mainstream media. We need to be able to see & understand the grey between the black and white.
        The fact that the aam-aadmi is caught between the State and the Naxals is the true sad story. My Q to Prem was really out of curiosity: I wasn’t certain which part of Arundathi’s essay he was objecting to: if it was her writing style, her interpretation & presentation of the Naxals or what she claims as facts.

  4. Prem, Why give this nutcase Roy all this publicity when we all know it’s a lost cause, no possible logic or argument will get through to her and people like her are probably perpetually stoned.

    • I don’t think the idea is to convince Roy, or show her an alternative way of looking at things, Arun. The problem is, Roy has in the Western mind been enshrined as THE voice of the right-thinking Indian; by default, her rants are taken as representative of what the majority of us think. Unless alternate viewpoints surface, that perception will grow — to our own discomfiture. Hence the reason some at least of us tend to keep nagging away at her.

  5. She repeatedly comes back to how sweet the kids smile was, how admirable those women comrades were. I have not followed Mao movement much not am I familiar with terms referred to here, but I ask a simple question, Is there any possibility that the smiles of the children of policemen maoists killed could have been less endearing, there widows less affectionate?

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