Arundhati Roy is at her best in the essays that have been written through the eyes of a novelist, and not those of a political commentator
In her latest book Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction., Arundhati Roy continues her dissenting voice as a writer-activist that had begun with her essay in political criticism, ‘The End of Imagination’ (1998). While reviewing Azadi, I would like to reflect on the nature of Roy’s political criticism.
Azadi is a collection of nine essays, some written for magazines and periodicals, and some delivered as public lectures between 2018 and 2020. The pieces offer a strong criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the network of forces associated with his regime. The essays, therefore, cover mainly the contemporary political turbulence in India — mob lynching, attacks on minorities, the Kashmir problem, the crisis in Assam, demonetisation, CAA-NPR-NRC, the arrest of activists, the conspiracy of Pulwama and Balakot attacks, and the mismanagement of the pandemic, among others.
Language of rain
What gives unity to these standalone articles is an attempt to frame contemporary happenings with the idea of ‘azadi’ — freedom for Kashmir and novel-writing as freedom with responsibility. But Roy is at her best in “the essays that have been written through the eyes of a novelist and the universe of her novels”. The very first one in the collection and also the most appealing of her pieces, ‘In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?’ formulates novel writing as an art of translation. While narrating the story of the separation of Hindi and Urdu, it demonstrates how her ‘novels are written in one language but imagined in several languages’. Another essay, ‘The Graveyard Talks Back’, skilfully weaves the making of her literature and political criticism, reflecting on fiction in the time of fake news.
‘The Language of Literature’ ruminates on her own experience of being a writer during these times, particularly in India. These are indeed worth our time. But the rest of the essays are a quilt woven with facts meant to denigrate a predetermined enemy.
Certainly, Azadi is an instance of fearless speech, speaking truth to power. Roy confronts the authorities and forces that are larger than the nation-state and packs her condemnation with facts, statistics, examples, and anecdotes drawn from newspapers and other media. But the manner of her criticism is questionable — the way she reads contemporary events symptomatically to suit her agenda.
Roy’s political criticism does not develop an adequate critique of Modi’s governance and allied forces. It lacks the very nature of an ideal critique, the practice of not only showing what is wrong with the object of criticism, but also accounting for why things are the way they are. For example, the essay ‘Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy’ reads like a charge sheet, hardly developing any explanation. It, therefore, would have been useful if her criticism had accounted for the conditions of possibility — the forces that produced the present government, including the people who wanted this regime.
Most of these pieces seem to believe in changing the world with rhetoric and polemics. In her ‘Statement at Hum Dekhenge All India Convention of Writers and Artists,’ addressed to comrades-in-arms, Roy gives a clarion call to “artists, writers, musicians, painters and filmmakers to prepare themselves to be unpopular and to put themselves in danger in order to win a world”. Her political commentary, however, advanced more with preconceived hatred than an enquiry-based political philosophy, does not make us think; nor is the language of the writer-activist fashioned to influence Modi followers. For example, notice the diatribes in another article, “This government has wounded India’s soul so very deeply. It will take years for us to heal (…), we must vote to remove these dangerous, spectacle-hungry charlatans from office”. This kind of language thrills only Modi critics, but does not make any attempt to convert the other side.
Azadi, in the end, remains a book of records that fashions facts with rhetorically intense prose — witty, lyrical, overwhelming. An uncritical reader or lover of beautifully knit clauses and sentences is likely to be enchanted by the aestheticisation of her polemics. However, if we have followed the news at least once a week, Roy’s narratives won’t treat us with new facts and insights. They certainly offer meaty stuff to foreign readers and, of course, some speeches and pieces were indeed originally addressed to audiences abroad.
If it is unfair to expect a social scientist’s mode of critical inquiry from a novelist, but at least intuitive critical reflections from a public intellectual’s position, such as U.R. Ananthamurthy’s (who also critiqued the Modi era in his Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, 2016), would have served her project of achieving ‘freedom’ better.
Arundhati Roy’s political criticism engages with matters of concern but remains an incomplete critique. It shows less and shouts more. Nevertheless, it is fruitful if it nudges us to think about what kind of political order we need to imagine in order to create a good democracy.
Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction; Arundhati Roy, Penguin, ?499.
source: The Hindu