by Arundhati Roy
A review by Ian Buruma
Brilliant people can be remarkably obtuse. The critic and novelist
John Berger declares, in his introduction to Arundhati Roy's
collection of political essays, that the American war in Afghanistan
is an "act of terror against the people of the world." He also states
that the nineteen hijackers "gave their lives" on September 11 "as
did three hundred and fifty-three Manhattan firemen," as though there
were no difference between people who die to commit mass murder and
those who die to save lives. And the killings in New York and
Washington, Berger informs us, were "the direct result of trying to
impose everywhere the new world economic order (the abstract,
soaring, groundless market) which insists that man's supreme task is
to make profit."
The soaring market in Algeria? The new world economic order in Sudan?
Profit-making in Afghanistan? Ah, if only. There were no doubt many
reasons for the suicidal murder spree at the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, but global capitalism surely comes low on the list.
Islam ism flourishes precisely in places that are relatively or even
absolutely untouched by IBM or Motorola or even, strange to say,
McDonald's. If the new economic order were the problem, why didn't
the terrorists come from Bangkok, or Hong Kong?
Still, John Berger is the right man to introduce Arundhati Roy's
collection of political polemics. Few intellectual voices have been
as ubiquitous as Roy's after September 11, and few quite so shrill.
Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, a novel read by
millions all over the world. Her articles have appeared all over the
world, too, in -- among other publications -- The Guardian, Le Monde, El
País, and Der Spiegel. One reason people listen to her, apart from
her literary fame, is that she has positioned herself, successfully,
as an authentic Third World voice. And like Lee Kuan Yew, a very
different kind of Asian voice, she is highly articulate in English, a
Roy does not like to be called an "activist," but she has stuck her
neck out for a variety of causes. Some of them, such as the protest
against potentially catastrophic dam-building projects in India, are
certainly worth fighting for. So for that she should be commended.
Yet, at the same time, Roy has a tendency to sound preposterous. Her
reaction to the events of September 11 was that we would never know
what had motivated the hijackers, but that "Mickey Mouse," that is to
say, the United States, was not a viable alternative to "the
mullahs." (She made this pronouncement on "Nightline" on November 3,
2001.) The snobbery of her tone alone betrays the lingering, if
perhaps unconscious, influence in India of British lefties from the
end of the Raj. It is the language of the Bloomsbury drawing room.
You could well imagine Bertrand Russell taking this line.
The question is whether Roy's preposterousness undermines the causes
that she promotes. Ramachandra Guha, a well-respected scholar and
writer in India, thinks that it does. In a sharp attack on Roy's
political statements, published in the newspaper The Hindu in
November 2000, Guha argued that Roy should stick to writing novels,
because her vanity and her self-indulgence devalues the work of more
serious activists. He mentioned as an example her efforts on behalf
of the movement against the huge expensive dams in western India,
which will displace hundreds of thousands of poor people. The cause
is just, but Guha believes that Roy's grandstanding on its behalf,
which recently earned her a well-publicized night in jail, made a
spectacle of her at the expense of the anti-dam movement.
The quarrel between Roy and Guha has implications that go beyond the
Indian borders. It touches upon celebrity culture, on the uses of
literary fame in political causes, on the public role of the writer
in a democracy, and on the intellectual roots of anti-Americanism.
For these reasons alone, Roy's recent writings merit closer attention.
Arundhati Roy may have come late to the anti-dam movement, as
Ramachandra Guha says, but she did so in 1999, when the movement was
in poor shape. She revived flagging spirits among the activists and
put their goals back in the public eye. Building huge dams has been
almost a fetish of Indian governments since Nehru, who made the
famous statement (later regretted) that dams were "the temples of
modern India." The Hoover Dam was the original model for this kind of
thing, but it was Soviet-style nationalist machismo that inspired
developing countries such as India. Dams are the very models of
Stakhanovite enterprise, the perfect symbols of massive modernity.
The Chinese are still at it, too.
The results, as Roy has been at pains to point out, have often been
disastrous. During the last fifty years, as many as fifty million
mostly poor, low-caste Indians have lost their homes and livelihoods
as a consequence of big dam projects. The benefits go mostly to the
urban rich, while many peasants still have no access to safe drinking
water. And even the benefits are often exaggerated. In the case of
one big Indian dam, only five percent of the area that was promised
irrigation actually received any water.
All this is bad enough, especially for the dislocated poor. There is
really no need for tasteless comparisons. But Roy writes: "Shall we
just put the Star of David on their doors and get it over with." It
is not immediately clear what gallery she is playing to here -- her
essays were written for Indian readers -- but the effect diminishes the
power of her message.
The Sardar Sarovar plan to build 3,200 dams on the Narmada River,
which runs through three states in western India, is designed to be
the biggest dam project of all. Roy says that it will submerge and
destroy 4,000 square kilometers of forestland, and displace hundreds
of thousands of people without adequate plans for re location or
compensation. The other odd aspect of this huge irrigation scheme is
that it will benefit only one of the three states, Gujarat, while the
sacrifices are all to be born by villagers in the other two,
Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Guja rat is naturally all in favor of
this, as was the World Bank, at least initially. An enterprise that
began as a form of Third World mimicry of Soviet methods now finds
its most vociferous defenders among free-marketeers, right-wing Hindu
chauvinists in the Indian government, and Western corporations. One
of the most disturbing stories in Power Politics, Roy's essay against
the dams, is about the way Enron squeezed billions of dollars out of
the state of Maharashtra for a power plant that most local industries
cannot even afford to tap.
Critical studies of big dam building began to appear in India in the
1980s. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a movement of protest
specifically against the Sardar Sarovar dam, organized demonstrations
and strikes through the 1980s and 1990s. Independent reports,
commissioned by the Indian government as well as by the World Bank
and the World Conservation Union, were highly critical of the dam,
for environmental reasons as well as social reasons, and after much
pressure from activists the World Bank withdrew its support. Still,
the Indian Supreme Court, after being petitioned by the NBA, decided
to let the project go ahead anyway.
Anti-dam activists, including Roy, were smeared in the pro-government
press as traitors, and accused of assaulting a group of lawyers at
the Supreme Court. There was no evidence for this, but the case went
to court, and Roy wrote in her affidavit that this showed "a
disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence
criticism and muzzle dissent." As a result, she was charged with
contempt of court, spent her night in jail, and paid a fine. Unwise,
perhaps; but more people read about the dam problem because of her than
would otherwise have been the case.
When Roy got involved in the anti-dam movement, she was already a
famous writer. But it was not her first brush with organized protest.
Her mother, Mary Roy, is a well-known promoter of women's rights in
India, so Arundhati imbibed dissent with her mother's milk. But she
is also rather melodramatic about the public role of the writer. To
be a writer, she says, "in a country that gave the world Mahatma
Gandhi ... is a ferocious burden." Quite where Gandhi fits in is
unclear. Still, Roy writes about politics not as a famous novelist,
but as a citizen, "only a citizen, one of many, asking for a public
explanation." She has no "personal or ideological axe to grind." She
has no "professional stakes to protect." It is simply "time to snatch
our futures back from the 'experts.' "
There is nothing wrong with this. Experts are fallible. Famous
novelists are citizens, too. But there is in fact something
professional at stake here. For Roy goes further than saying that a
writer should use her fame to promote worthy causes. She believes
that what "is happening in the world lies, at the moment, just
outside the realm of human understanding." But help is at hand: it is
"the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who
can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing it into the
realm of common understanding." Some of the reactions among the
writers, the poets, and the artists to the events of last September
make this kind of special pleading less than convincing.
Roy's efforts on behalf of the victims of dam-building show her to be
a good citizen; but if her aim, as a writer of political essays, is
to promote common understanding, she is less than a success. The
essays express her convictions and her prejudices with great passion,
but by her own account she aims higher. Roy wants language to cut
through platitudes and lies: "As a writer, one spends a lifetime
journeying into the heart of language, trying to minimize, if not
eliminate, the distance between language and thought. 'Language is
the skin of my thought,' I remember saying to someone who once asked
what language meant to me." If so, her thoughts could do with a
course of Clearasil.
Roy showed a fondness in her novel for overlush imagery and showy
stylistic flourishes. The same thing is true in her essays, where her
literary mannerisms often obscure understanding. The text is
pockmarked with flip haiku-like clichés of the following kind: "My
world has died. And I write to mourn its passing." (This is about
India's development of the nuclear bomb.) Or this tired old dictum:
"One country's terrorist is too often another's freedom fighter."
There is also the constant hyperbole, which actually weakens the
power of language. Privatization, Roy writes, is a "process of
barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history."
Really? On the same topic: "What is happening to our world is almost
too colossal for human comprehension to contain. But it is a
terrible, terrible thing." Well, perhaps it is, but this judgment
does little to help my own human comprehension of international
economics. And if we are really dealing with matters outside human
understanding, then human reason is obviously an inadequate tool, so
why bother to write an essay at all?
It doesn't help either that Roy adopts the patronizing tone of a tour
guide for schoolchildren: "Allow me to shake your faith. Put your
hand in mine and let me lead you through the maze." And her attempts
to find a literary expression for her contempt of American capitalism
are equally childish. America is likened to Rumpelstiltskin with "a
bank account heart" and "television eyes" and a "Surround Sound
stereo mouth which amplifies his voice and filters out the sound of
the rest of the world, so that you can't hear it even when it's
shouting (or starving or dying) and King Rumpel is only whispering,
rolling his r's in his North American way."
In the end, though, how much does it really matter? Does Roy's style
really do as much damage to the substance of her cause as Ramachandra
Guha thinks? In the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam, the merits of her
involvement surely outweigh the limitations of her prose or the
manner of her public presentation. The cause is clear enough. There
are many more sober, more scholarly, more considered books and
articles to read, for those who take a serious interest in the
matter. And for those who would rather not be bothered, such as
millions of Indian voters, Roy's passionate advocacy at least brings
it to their attention.
But when Roy attempts to tackle a wider world, fulminating against
the American intervention in Afghanistan, or against "globalization,"
her tone and her stylistic tics become more than irritating. Her
demonology of the United States takes on the foaming-at-the-mouth,
eye-rolling quality of the mad evangelist. Un fortunately, it is this
side of her, and not the campaigning against dam projects, that has
found a worldwide audience. Roy has become the perfect Third World
voice for anti-American, or anti-Western, or even anti-white,
sentiments. Those are sentiments dear to the hearts of intellectuals
everywhere, including the United States itself.
The litany is well-known. America is the most belligerent power on
earth. Its government is committed to "military and economic
terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and
un imaginable genocide (outside America)." The economic policies of
the United States, otherwise known as globalization or imperialism,
are "merciless" and rapacious, destroying economies "like a cloud of
locusts." This means, in Roy's view, that "any Third World country
with a fragile economy and a complex social base should know by now
that to invite a superpower like America in ... would be like
inviting a brick to drop through your windscreen." This rather
ignores the historical fact that it is precisely America's old
"client states" in East and Southeast Asia -- South Korea, Taiwan,
Thailand, Japan -- that have done rather well, politically and
economically. South Vietnam, had it remained under American
patronage, would no doubt have been among them.
If American economic imperialism is bad, American militarism is
worse. Not only is America responsible for the deaths of millions in
Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, but
also, according to Roy's account, in ... Yugoslavia! So the belated
American intervention, which saved countless Bosnian and Albanian
Kosovar lives, is now also a part of America's bellicose record.
Rumpelstiltskin's empire is an evil, evil place. To drive this home,
Roy uses the usual tricks of the demagogue. One of those tricks is
the misleading quotation. The other is what used to be called, in
Cold War days, moral equivalence.
One quotation pops up in many an anti-American diatribe, including
Roy's. This is the way she reports it: "In 1996, Madeleine Albright...was asked on national television what she felt about the fact
that five hundred thousand Iraqi children had died as a result of
U.S. economic sanctions. She replied that it was `a very hard
choice,' but that all things considered, `we think the price is worth
it.'" This sounds pretty horrible. In fact, Albright had already made
it clear to Lesley Stahl of CBS, who asked the question, that the
Iraqi children were not dying because of the sanctions. Iraq can buy
as much medicine as it wants. She admitted that sanctions did have
negative consequences, but she argued that this was a price worth
paying for containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The moral-equivalence argument is crudely employed. Terrorism, Roy
writes, is "as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike."
Terrorists move their "factories" from country to country "in search
of a better deal. Just like the multinationals." This is true, as far
as it goes, but the business of Pepsi is not exactly mass murder. The
terrorists, Roy goes on to say, are "the ghosts of the victims of
America's old wars." Osama bin Laden is "the American President's
dark doppelgänger," and "the twins are blurring into one another and
gradually becoming interchangeable....Both are engaged in un
equivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously armed...." And so on
and so forth. One gets the drift.
Now why would an Indian novelist get so overwrought about the United
States? And she is not the only writer to do so. Consider Harold
Pinter's description of America in the latest issue of Granta
magazine: "The `rogue state' has -- without thought, without pause for
reflection, without a moment of doubt, let alone shame -- confirmed
that it is a fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster."
For a start, it must be said that American corporations -- Enron being
just one instance -- have not always played a pretty role in India.
Union Carbide's involvement in the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, which
killed more than ten thousand people, was horrendous. And American
foreign policy, especially its support of Pakistan during the
Bangladesh war, has distressed many Indians. Indeed, over-sensitive
though Indians may sometimes be to slights (or imagined slights) from
Western powers, Washington has not done nearly enough over the years
to cultivate goodwill in Asia's biggest democracy. But there must be
more to Roy's rage. For, in fact, American corporations have played
a fairly minor role in postwar India, compared to many other parts of
There is one verbal tic that keeps recurring in Roy's writings that
may help us to understand her feelings -- for that is what they are,
more than coherent thoughts. She refers a great deal to India's
"ancient civilization," usually to show how humiliating it is for an
ancient people to defer to a jumped-up, uncivilized place such as the
United States. About President Clinton's visit to India, she
observes: "He was courted and fawned over by the genuflecting
representatives of this ancient civilization with a fervour that can
only be described as indecent." This speaks of the same snobbery that
informed Roy's remark on American television about Mickey Mouse and
Rich, rampant America shows up the relative weakness and backwardness
of India. This is hard to take for a member of the intellectual or
artistic elite, educated by nationalist professors, whose thoughts
were often molded by British Marxists from the London School of
Economics. The genuine popularity of American pop culture among the
urban masses in India makes the elite feel marginal in their own
country, which sharpens their sense of pique. For India, you could
also read France, Italy, Japan, or even China. Thus Roy's voice is
less representative of the Third World than of a global
intelligentsia, floating from conference to conference, moaning about
the effects of globalization.
Being more civilized, wiser, older, and more spiritual is the last
wall of defense against superior power. Again, about September 11,
describing the reaction in the supposedly more civilized parts of the
world, Roy notes "the tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around,
eventually comes around." How could the callow denizens of the New
World ever match such ancient understanding? Since many American
intellectuals, be they novelists or academics, share Roy's contempt
for American pop culture and the vulgar patriotism of the American
media, some are inclined to applaud her sentiments. This in itself
would be of little consequence, were it not that better informed,
more intelligent criticism of American policies, foreign and
domestic, is needed more than ever.
Arundhati Roy's overheated prose gives criticism a bad name. She
makes it too easy for unthinking patriots to dismiss any foreign
skepticism toward American policy as mere envy or prejudice. And the
effect of her voice in the non-Western world might be worse. The
Iraqi intellectual dissident Kanan Makiya observed in his book
Cruelty and Silence that Edward Said's Orientalism contributed to a
pervasive lack of a sense of responsibility among young Arab
intellectuals for the problems of the Middle East. If everything is
the fault of a supposedly omnipotent America, or of ingrained Western
colonial attitudes, then there is nothing to be done at home, except
lash out in a rage.
Roy is someone who has taken responsibility for problems in her own
country. There her anger found a target in a concrete cause. In the
wider world, however, it gets dissipated in hot air and petulance.
The simple-minded demonization of the American monster is pure
Occidental ism, or Said in reverse, which only helps to undermine the
political self-scrutiny without which a democracy cannot work, or,
more to the point, without which an authoritarian society cannot
become a democratic one. This cannot be what Roy set out to
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing
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