As tinsel town has in recent months decided to cast it’s rose coloured carpet over the harsh ‘Slumdog’ world of India’s poor (and has made millions in the process), it seems as if the public is still missing the ridiculously large and colourful elephant in the room: Democracy. Arundhati Roy cuts right through the distracting commercialised versions of Indian culture that has been ebbing its way onto our T.V. screens (say it with me… “Jai Ho!”) and attacks the political jugular of ‘democracy’s greatest experiment – India.’ What ensues is a gripping, educational, and emotional account of some of the most critical moments in modern Indian history.
Arundhati Roy is the critically acclaimed author of the 1997 Booker Prize winner “The God of Small Things”, who has also written two screenplays as well as several collections of essays. She is a high profile political activist and has been involved in many issues ranging from India’s nuclear weapon policies to the US military invasion of Afghanistan. “Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy” is her latest anthology of non-fiction essays, which tracks the chaotic and changing political environment of modern India. The essays span a period of six years (2002-2008), all of which are presented in their original form. The eleven essays included were written either during or directly after the events of which they are concerned with, resulting in an impassioned yet factual collection of political thought and emotional outrage. Through these essays Roy not only smashes any preconceived notions we may have had about modern India through fact and evidence, but she grips onto our heart strings and plucks them raw, as she laments the pain of her people.
Roy begins with an overview of the topics she will pursue, such as genocide, famine, corruption and nuclear policy, and outlines the issues that she has with what ‘Democracy’ has come to mean. We are presented from the start with Roy’s dominating intellectual polemical power and her stance of anti-globalisation. She states that the “democracy and the free market have merged into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit,” and suggests that a need for a more long term political vision is called for. She exposes the dangers of a democracy where a violent minority can manipulate the political systems to influence the masses and thus gain a majority vote. She draws attention to the surging economic growth and evolving commercial market within India, and juxtaposes it against the six-hundred million poor who have a daily struggle to survive. Roy proposes that government policy has pushed the impoverished population to the brink of starvation but not over the edge, as this would provoke the unwanted attention of ‘Free Press.’ Obviously she is not set out to make many friends through this book, and this is just the introduction…
Admittedly my knowledge of India is not vast, but the atrocities Roy reveals have opened my eyes to the violent underbelly of ‘the world’s favourite new super-power.’ The first essay “Democracy: Who’s She when She’s at Home?” written in 2002, rips its way into the reader’s consciousness and confronts us with the carnage of the aftermath of the Godhra train fire. The fire killed fifty-three people, mostly of which were Hindu. Resultantly (Roy states) the Bharatiya Janata Party (the ruling party of Gujarat state) took this opportunity to enforce its campaign of Hindu nationalism, and so blamed the fire on Muslim members of the state (incidentally the fire was ruled an accident in 2005 after an enquiry by the railway ministry). Consequentially over eight-hundred people were killed and officially recorded, however independent studies have suggested the death toll is closer to two thousand. Prior to my research for this article I had never heard of any such event, and it horrifies me to think that maybe it just wasn’t widely reported outside of India. Through the course of my research for this article I typed in “India 2002” and before I had even entered the rest of my question the list of options offered to me consisted merely of “Miss India 2002,” bitterly ironic really since sexual violence towards women was repeatedly used as weapon during this terrible time. The intention of this book thus seems to be the wish to reach a wider audience, and to expose the corruption and violence that has been covered under the veil of democracy.
Genocide is not the only despairing subject which Arundhati touches upon in her influential and thought-provoking essays. She covers the corruption of the Supreme Court – a court which has sway over every element of life from cleaning the slums to editing school text books; but it is a system that is inherently corrupt where ‘even truth is not considered a valid defence.’ Not stopping there, Roy casts her cutting critical gaze over India’s nuclear policies, the military occupation of the Kashmir region and the thousands of deaths which have occurred over a twenty year period. The main thing that I have taken from these essays is the astounding style and manipulation of the English language that Roy implements. She doesn’t merely use these distressing topics as cheap means of creating an emotional reaction in her reader, but is deeply emotionally invested herself. Roy addresses the issue of what style she will use to discuss such controversial subjects and tells us that she is worried that she is being “railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.” There is no doubt in my mind that Roy has successfully fused evidential facts with a ferocious emotional position. Arundhati thus presents to us a profoundly didactic and intelligent text where the sweat, blood and tears of the innocent courses through every sentence and is backed up with astounding levels of fact and truth. Arundhati’s resonating “feral howl” pierces suppositions about India, politics and democracy in general and leaves us reeling with regards to how we will continue to view not only Indian politics but our own.