Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Desi Lit Links from the Literary Saloon; and a Short Rant Critique of Arundhati Roy

Literary Saloon has a number of posts relating to Indian literature up right now:

--Another James Laine book on Sivaji has been banned in Maharashtra. Apparently the offense this time is Laine's claim that Chhatrapati Sivaji was an "Oedipal rebel," which basically means he fought with his father. A pretty laughable reason to ban it, but then, there are never good reasons to ban books. (Stop the Maharashtra government before they ban again!)

--Neha Sharma has something in Asian Age, on the status of Hindi literature. Unfortunately, the link is already dead (though Lit Saloon has a couple of paragraphs quoted).

--The same Lit Saloon post also links to this story about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's presiding over the re-release of two books by Premchand. Interesting to hear the PM's thoughts on some works of literature...

--And Arundhati Roy has turned down a Sahitya Akademi award for best writing in English, for The Algebra of Infinite Justice.

Whoa. A shrill -- and dated -- tirade is the best piece of writing to have come out in English by an Indian citizen last year? And didn't she publish that essay four and a half years ago (and the accompanying book three years ago)? That she's turning them down serves them right; they could do a lot better.

I'm critical of the Indian and American governments for many things, but I'm so over Arundhati Roy. (Read the original essay from September 2001 at the Guardian.) Over the course of the essay, Roy says many things that are true, and that I agree with -- she certainly sees clearly where George W. Bush is going with "Operation Enduring Freedom," and presciently predicts the failure of a "war on terror" that, since the invasion of Iraq, has gone completely astray.

But Roy also makes some very paranoid generalizations in that essay, which I believe are unsupportable. Here is one of the worst:

But who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's dark doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of "full-spectrum dominance", its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think. Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. (link)

She might have a point that the wrong of 9/11 is no worse than, for instance, the wrongs the U.S. has at times committed in the name of freedom or justice, or which have followed indirectly from its actions (as in, 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians since the beginning of the most recent war -- a war which didn't need to happen in the first place).

But I don't see the point in claiming that the two types of violence are "interchangeable," or that Osama Bin Laden is America's "family secret" and also its "doppleganger." No, he's not: they are separate evils, and merging them is sloppy thinking. And I don't see the point in bringing in multinational corporations -- their function is quite different from that of the U.S. military, even if some function as auxiliaries for military projects. But McDonald's and Microsoft are not the same as Halliburton, and the mere fact that all three have well-paid corporate executives does not make make them all evil.

I'm not that far from Roy on some issues of substance (at least in this particular essay; I do think many of her positions on other issues are absurd [see her comments last year on cell-phones in India, for instance]). But I'd rather describe things plainly, as they are, and without the breathless ramification of rhetoric that she seems to relish so much.


Falstaff said...

I couldn't agree more. It's always seemed to me that Roy is more concerned with the way she puts things rather than the content of what she's saying - so that her essays feel more like hyperbolic rants than clearly thought out points of view. The fact that I actually agree with her on some things means nothing - if you threw darts at random at all the ultra-liberal points of view you could find, you're almost certain to hit a few things that I firmly believe in. What was the Sahitya Akademi thinking?

6:36 AM  
Suhail said...

Well said about Roy. It is this kind of MNC-bashing rhetoric which then creates a perfect effigy of her, that her opponents then use to pull her down. And along with that all the sane points she make regarding war, riots etc also get invalidated and deemed idiotic. At the same time I believe there is some substance in her anti-capitalism stand too (eg: media voices bought and controlled by organizations etc) However the rhetoric part drowns out the valid points, which should otherwise generate a healthy debate. I've read the Algebra of Infinite Justice. It's a collection of her essays over the years, including the anti-Nukes, Narmada dam, on Guj riots and the 9-11 war etc. Most of these essays have already been published in newspapers and magazines. The book is just a collection of all these essays.

I also agree with falstaff, in that she is more concerned with the way she puts things rather than what. But I will cut her some slack there. Come on, after all she is a writer. And she has herself acknowledged in any number of interviews that as a writer her goal is to stir up most apathetic reader and make him/her take notice. And on that count, I must say she has been successful. Atleast for me, her indepth and well-researched writings on Narmada dam told me much much more than all the combined output of all disjointed media voices over the years. Certainly a layman is not going to read 1000pg indecipherable tomes from WTO or WorldBank. Atleast she has done that, and gone through all sorts of charts and data and crystallized it down for readers. The book is certainly worth a read and makes an impact.

Her gross generalizations and tirades like recent rant against cellphones is something I've tuned myself to filter out. But I respect her for the fact that she is putting her money where her mouth is. These days there are very few people in the public space, be it on either side of the debate, who do that. Also, the fact that in any number of interviews she has constantly reflected on her own role in all this, so definitely she's not living in an activist-bubble.(read her recent interview in Tehelka)

I just feel sorry that if she continues this way, her intelligible points will be lost on a majority of readers, because people will continue to pull her down on her paranoia. But I guess we it's an unchangeable situation and we got to learn to live with it.

(Ironically, I've still not been able to complete her signature novel, GoST. Maybe someday...)

1:00 AM  
Chandra said...

I think Roy is bit of a nut case. I remember reading her article in Outlook right after Congress/UPA won in 2004 elections. Apparently both Congress and BJP are the dark forces and only Communists can bring any social change. One wonders who was on the other side U.S. during the cold war murdering millions of their own, building nuclear weapons, and, guess what, practicing and preaching dictatorship in the name of socialism - Indira Gandhi fell for it.

Apparently Harper, which made her millions, is not a multinational and not cutting down trees to publish her book and all those wonderful anti-capitalist publishers.

It's funny how some are defensive and claim that they agree with some of her writing, just not all of it. It's okay to disagree with all her writing and still be thinking person.

6:52 PM  
siddhartha said...

yes, and it's also ok to agree with some of her points and disagree with others.

suhail, you're right on. i think arundhati lost the plot not long after she got it in the first place. she's become part of the spectacle. a shame.

8:00 PM  
Archana said...

I do agree with you on AR’s paranoia and missed timing (like the essay right after 9/11 - ouch!), but check out this blog post at dailykos for a scary vision of the similarities between Osama Bin Laden and the extreme right-wing supporters of the Bush administration – perhaps she has a point about religious fundamentalism, but took it too far with the twins hypothesis... (http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2006/1/24/105337/675)

9:45 PM  
shashank said...

Arundhati obviously blazed a trail and I think she still does. I think anyone getting "so over" her may have never really got her original insight in the first place..
What the heck is "say it plainly"? neither here or there and no value..
(amardeep, this is my first post, sorry a bit negative, but I have enjoyed your blog immensely except that sometimes it's too reasonable!)

5:57 PM  
Anonymous said...

With all due respect to you, amardeep, I think you are yet another of those so-called intellectuals who adopt a wishy-washy, neither-here-nor-there stance on every issue, and claim that it is 'reasonable'.

You say: "And I don't see the point in bringing in multinational corporations -- their function is quite different from that of the U.S. military, even if some function as auxiliaries for military projects. But McDonald's and Microsoft are not the same as Halliburton, and the mere fact that all three have well-paid corporate executives does not make make them all evil."

If you don't know about the very direct and indirect role played by the corporate world in US foreign and domestic policy, then, forgive me, but you understand very little. (or maybe you do not have the integrity to admit the real truth)

2:54 PM  

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