Arundhati Roy’s fulminations are like the bile that rises up one’s esophagus causing a burning streak along the passage after eating a particularly rich meal. The sour lava that eructs from the stomach comes as a reminder that the meal may have been greatly satisfying but the aftermath is grossly uncomfortable.
In describing India’s latest election as throwing up a “democratically elected totalitarian” government in an interview with Tahir Mehdi of the Dawn newspaper , Roy yet again demonstrates her flair for creating powerfully contrarian word pictures. However, that is all those are—contrarian word pictures. In Arundhati Roy’s world there is nothing to celebrate in life. It is a post-apocalyptic hellscape where joy has to be garroted to death.
I have this image of Roy sitting by a massive tin tub filled up diarrheal water and stacks of blankets. Every time something happens that the society at large feels optimistic about she dunks a blanket in the fecal water and throws it at the world. “Before you feel joyous for any reason at all, take this you suckers,” is what she seems to be saying.
I have tried pretty hard to defend her in my own distilled little ways because I think she does highlight all the right reasons to be pessimistic about. Even for me though a stage has come when I can no longer tolerantly look at her default position of the world spiraling toward an irredeemable and irremediable doom. In a rather efficient and brutal takedown, Omar Ali, a Pakistani-American physician, in a blog on the Outlook magazine’s website describes Roy and others like her, including writer Pankaj Mishra, in these terms: “They are proudly progressive, but they also cringe at the notion of “progress”. They are among the world’s biggest users of modern technology, but also among its most vocal (and scientifically clueless) critics. Picking up that the global environment is under threat (a very modern scientific notion if there ever was one), they have also added some ritualistic sound bites about modernity and its destruction of our beloved planet (with poor people as the heroes who are bravely standing up for the planet). All of this is partly true (everything they say is partly true, that is part of the problem) but as usual their condemnations are data free and falsification-proof. They are also incapable of suggesting any solution other than slogans and hot air.”
Roy tells Mehdi how India’s development model has a genocidal core to it and asks, “How have the other ‘developed’ countries progressed? Through wars and by colonising and usurping the resources of other countries and societies. India has no option but to colonise itself.”
The problem is Roy has been exceptionally incisive in identifying the essential cruelty of a country in development but has absolutely nothing to offer by way of implementable and scalable solutions. If her prescription to the grand lethal malaise is that India and countries around the world should altogether cease any form of development that inconveniences even a single human being—a hugely noble aspiration, by the way—then she should say so. What is forgotten in this debate is that the human race has had to make up economic models ever since it became organized into large societies. It is one massive trial and error that continues till today. Progress is always at the cost of someone, somewhere who got oppressed often without realizing it. It is tragic but that is the way it is. If Roy wants to change that order, then she should take the plunge in that very order and dismantle it from inside. I have zero moral right to advise her or anyone else for that matter because my life has been nothing but a selfish survival gig. However, even someone like me clearly sees the limit of forever protesting anything and everything. Derision and cynicism have their value but a time must come when one needs to get more constructive.
One significant part of the reason why voices like Roy’s rile a vast section of Indian society is because they are eternally bereft of joy and optimism. Her idea that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascension has been achieved via some fiendish corporate-political skullduggery may or may not have merit but to view everything in that light serves no real purpose other than generating some quotes. “What he [Modi] will be called upon to do is not to attack Muslims, it will be to sort out what is going on in the forests, to sweep out the resistance and hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations,” she has been quoted as saying by the Dawn. “The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years. He has been chosen as the man who does not blink in the face of bloodshed, not just Muslim bloodshed but any bloodshed.”
Precisely because India is a democracy, however much flawed it may be, it is essential that people like Roy test their case against the popular will. Of course, it is her right to be forever a brutal contrarian. Her vision of an inherently just and compassionate society is laudable but can we now please have a way to get there?