Arundhati Roy: Goddess of Small People
“Arundhathi Roy is just a celebrity trying to enhance her own popularity; she doesn’t really contribute in a constructive way or add value”, an Indian friend of mine recently said of the novelist and activist who won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things.
His sentiment is hardly unique; I’ve read and heard similar diatribes about Ms. Roy from many middle class Indians (mostly men). To them, she is a needy, narcissistic woman whose polemical tone serves to stroke her ego, preach to the converted and alienate everyone else. This view, I think, is in need of serious correction.
The egoism argument strikes me as quite irrelevant. Since it is difficult to discern someone’s motives with certainty, individuals ought to be judged based on more measurable outcomes or impacts. It is also hard to see the value in trying to ascertain motives, even if they were assumed to be true. Are we, for instance, to disregard Mohandas Gandhi’s meaningful and substantial contributions to Indian independence because of his alleged narcissism, which some experts have documented? I think not.
Some see narcissism in Ms. Roy’s exclusive devotion to the high-profile issues that consume India’s frenzied media. But one of the cardinal principles of activism is choosing one’s battles strategically in order to disseminate a broader message with limited resources. That is true of everyone from Ms. Roy to Amnesty International or the International Rivers Network. But it becomes particularly important in a large country like India which is rife with problems and raging with debate. Her decision to focus on big-ticket items is thus an example of strategic activism rather than an expression of narcissism.
But what exactly is Ms. Roy’s role? For The Guardian, she is “The Debater of Big Things” like her Kashmir kerfuffle with the Indian government last October. This characterization, however, massively distorts her role. Her writings and speeches are diatribes, not debates. Her book, Power Politics, is filled with incendiary remarks and fantastical images. She labels privatization a “process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history”; rants on about scholars becoming “parasites who feed off despair and dispossession”; and calls the World Bank a “colonizing army”. Similarly, her romanticized stories empathizing with the Maoists in India are not tempered by a condemnation of their violence and brutality.
She adopts this stance because she is a polemicist trying to be the voice of the poor and disaffected, not a consensus-builder articulating a balanced view from all sides (like what this blog aims to do). When challenged about her approach in a recent interview, she said unapologetically:
Suppose there are 10 people in this room. Seven are starving, one is winning medals, and two are doing OK. And I say, ‘Look at these seven people who are starving’, and you say, ‘Oh don’t be so negative, no, things are not so bad – look at the other three’. Really?
It would thus be more apt to view Ms. Roy as “The Big Voice for Small People”.
Does this approach really add “value”? I’d argue it does. Everyone has a role to play in society and should be judged on how they play that role. In Ms. Roy’s case, she serves as a critical voice for the powerless and reminds the Indian middle class and government that there are over 800 million of their countrymen who are not yet part of the increasingly globalized, materialistic and self-confident India. She uses her eloquence and fame to inject dark images of slums, downtrodden indigenous and displaced peoples, and a militarized Indian state alongside more romantic visions of India to push key grievances and injustices past their tipping point and into the national consciousness.
Though they may be steeped in hyperbole, these assaults often do result in greater awareness or expose flaws in the very structures she rails against. Her campaign against the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River, which resulted in a book and brief imprisonment, helped energize opposition to the project led by the “Save Narmada Movement”, with the Indian government finding last year that environmental safeguards were indeed inadequate on almost all counts. Her remark that Kashmir “has never been an integral part of India” at a seminar last year, though hardly novel, was seen in some quarters as “sedition” and opened up a much-needed debate about how the colonial-era sedition law undermined India’s democratic credentials. In both cases, she added value.
As for her supposed quest for greater popularity, there are far easier ways of achieving that goal than the path she has chosen. Despite the roving success of her first book, she refused to write another like it because producing the first one “felt like four years in jail”, turning her attention instead to activism. Far from merely cultivating a foreign left-wing audience as critics claim, she tours India’s small towns and cities extensively, drawing thousands of tribal people from several districts who sometimes walk for days just to hear her speak. And she is never afraid to speak her mind despite having been sent to prison and received death threats.
Ms. Roy could be more polite. But, like it or not, her polemical style allows her to challenge the status quo, empower the powerless and push through agendas that may otherwise be sidelined. And it works. If it ain’t broke, why should she fix it? Part of democracy is living with hearing what you may not want to hear and seeing what you may not want to see. As Arundhati Roy continues to enrich the world’s largest democracy’s deep tradition of argument with the perspectives of hundreds of millions of aggrieved Indians, she makes India better for it.