Very few writers have the kind of impact on contemporary literature such as Arundhati Roy. 

Her canvas of topics ranges from India’s Nuclear program, to the Narmada Bachao Andolan to her perennial obsession with Kashmir. Her writing is designed to elicit a reaction to the injustices of our times. Arundhati Roy’s passion for her worldview, a utopian otherworld-esque just world, is jarringly at odds with a reality that is grossly unfair. 

The purpose of this post is to offer fodder neither to the extreme camps, India’s cultural nationalist wings which detest and deride her as an ‘Urban Naxal’ for her Kashmir views, nor to the fan club groupings on India’s liberal arts campuses. 

Rather it is about time that Arundhati Roy is zoomed out from the local binaries and situated in a milieu which she has ‘rightfully’ positioned herself to be in, the global pantheon of progressive intellectuals. As she writes in English, her audience has been a different target group, while her political opponents in India have misread the script. 

The more she is attacked for her controversial views domestically, the higher the face value of her proverbial stock rises in the eyes of the western intelligentsia.

She for them is the ‘authentic’ voice of reason from India, given her decades-long immersion with people’s movements such as the NarmadaBachao Andolan and social justice activists working in Chhattisgarh. She has done jail time and converted her experience into an essay. A writerly chore par excellence. 

Ever since she won the Booker Prize for ‘The God of Small Things’ more than two decades ago, the trained architect has focused her energies on writing a series of brief, topical, analytical essays on topics of the day. She began with opposing India’s Nuclear Tests in Pokhran, and her critique of American invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and interviews with Edward Snowden in Moscow made her a darling of the western universities’ speaker circuit. 

She wrote an exegesis of India’s internal war with the Naxals in the mineral rich heart of the country, during the heydays of the Congress-led UPA rule. She referred to the then Home Minister P Chidambaram as a ‘Harvard Man’, which, surprisingly, Prime Minister Modi borrowed in his call ‘Hard Work, not Harvard’, a jibe on the liberal elite. In our strange post-modern discourse, even the trenchantly opposed can share a common vocabulary. 

While Roy has been a ‘secular’ critic, from the Congress to the Left in Kerala, she, however, reserves her wrath for the institutions of the cultural right. 

Roy and ‘The K Factor’

As a writer, there is plenty to learn from her craft. Her writing has a soul, with clever word play and wit. The politics behind the polemics is loud. 

Her second work of fiction, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’, is politics and non-fiction wrapped up as fiction. It is a deeply political story of a transgender with myriad sub-plots related to Kashmir. The greatest truths have been conveyed in the garb of fiction; it’s easier as the sub text is for all to see with the blind spots. 

Arundhati Roy has called Kashmir the most densely militarised zone in the world. She wrotean Outlook article questioning the fairness of the trial of a now deceased Kashmiri academic’s conviction as an accomplice in the Parliament Attack Case. While there is conjectural truth in her analysis on Kashmir, as in Vishal Bharadwaj’s film Haidar – another work of art critical of India’s Kashmir policy – there are other facts which remain hidden

As a writer, I would like to shed light on the thousands of Indian soldiers and policemen martyred in Kashmir too, in the service of Bharat Mata, the motherland. Why is this not addressed in their work? Are not these precious lives as well? 

Will politics blind one’s judgement so much? Then what is the difference in between an intellectual and a troll?

Roy and ‘The Saint’

In a chapter-long introduction titled the ‘Doctor and the Saint’ to Dr BR Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘An Annihilation of Caste’ and a Lancet Lecture at the London School of Economics, Roy reveals the unsavoury caste and racial politics of Mahatma Gandhi which is written out of our hegemonic textbooks. 

The essay decentres the notion of the saint or the Mahatma, a national sacred cow which liberal writers do not like to scramble. Roy’s choice of relaunching an out-of-print book and prefacing it with her own thoughts is eclectic. It is as if rebelling against the hagiographic idea of the cultural creation of the ‘Mahatma’, a moniker bestowed by Nobel Laureate Kobiguru Rabindranath Tagore. 

Roy: The Global Progressive

Roy is a permanent fixture on the progressive circuit from a constant presence on ‘Democracy Now’, a socialist media platform in the United States, to Hay Market Digital Teach-Ins, to talks at the Edinburgh Book Festival where the First Minister of Scotland herself lands up to interview her. 

The power of being Arundhati Roy as a global intellectual is a two-decade old project, carefully nurtured to fruition. When she writes for the feted Financial Times that the pandemic is a portal to the next world where we can leave behind the toxic baggage of the past, it resonates with the world. However, she references Kashmir there yet again, even though it is completely out of context with the theme of the article at hand. 

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis of DIEM25 has launched the Progressive International, an international organisation bringing the best of the intellectual and activist left together in a starkly populist world of Brexit and ‘America First’. Arundhati Roy joins Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Aruna Roy among an all-star cast on its advisory board. She has finally cemented her place with her hero, Prof. Chomsky, whom she has modelled herself on. 

Arundhati Roy, in her late fifties, has inspired the next generation of Indian writers and journalists such as Washington Times Columnist Rana Ayyub, another Modi baiter. Through the writing of Roy, the politics lives on, as she keeps looking for the next essay in the troubled times we reside in.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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