Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Listening to Grasshoppers

While the dust from the Meter Jam debate is only just settling, I happened to read this passage from Arundhati Roy's "Listening to Grasshoppers". For those of us familiar to her dogma (and she's never subtle about its dissemination) she unwaveringly bats for the folks that "development" has left behind. She points us to the peace-time collateral damage that the middle class has learnt to ignore. And this extract made a lot of sense in the context of the recent debates:

"Ironically, the era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India - the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere up in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world's elite. This Kingdom in the Sky is a complete universe in itself, hermetically sealed from the rest of India. It has its own newspapers, films, television programs, morality plays, transport systems, malls, and intellectuals. And in case you are beginning to think it's all joy-joy, you're wrong. It also has its own tragedies, its own environmental issues (parking problems, urban air pollution), its own class struggles... This India has its own People's Movements and candlelight vigils (Justice for Jessica, the model who was shot in a bar) and even its own People's Car. It even has its own dream that take the form of TV advertisements in which Indian CEOs (smeared with Fair and Lovely) buy international corporations, including an imaginary East India Company. They are ushered to their plush new offices by fawning white women (who look as though they're longing to be laid, the final prize of conquest) and applauding white men, ready to make way for the new kings. Meanwhile the crowd in the stadium roars to its feet (with credit cards in their pockets) chanting 'India! India!'"

When I started reading "Listening to Grasshoppers", I gave the author a hard job by already picking up a bias, thanks to this review that I had read a few weeks ago.

I confess that I'm settling somewhere left of center in my own political beliefs and Roy did test me. I see the need for a matured democracy and a responsible form of capitalism and so I cringed while Roy unapologetically attacks both those ideals. She sets her tongue on fire and lashes it about wildly. Even when she uses humour it's not to lighten anything. I labored on despite these put-offs because she takes up issues that have always left me with a lot of questions - plebiscite in Kashmir, naxalism, Afzal Guru, Narendra Modi- and represents the side of the issue that has been completely abandoned in the debates in the mainstream media. I gradually started to get convinced of her intellectual honesty in her treatment of the Kashmir issue, as her question whether India needs independence from Kashmir more than the other way around really lingered (not unlike the pitch in this classic). I was finally won over in the title essay in which, in a speech delivered in Turkey no less, she likens the Turkish treatment of their Armenian minority to the Muslims in Gujarat. This book is worth a buy for that essay alone.

In sum, I can't help feel that she would be a lot more useful to the people that she lends her voice to if she could only remain objective at all times, and if she deigns to occasionally acknowledge that not everything is black or white. By continuously spitting venom at the establishment she becomes easy to dismiss. If she only tried to educate and enlighten rather than confront I'm sure she'll land herself a lot more converts. At several points in the book I kept wishing that she stops frothing at the mouth and ventured some real solutions. Yet, she's vitally important, not least as a counterweight to the idiocy that someone like Arnab Goswami can preach from his pulpit. I'm proud that this system that she so vengefully condemns, despite all its flaws, lets her be openly heretic. She's, for me, the canary in the coal mines. As long as you hear her sing, everything's not lost.
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