Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why Do We Hate Arundhati Roy?

(By Kanishka Lahiri, a Bangalore-based professional in the semiconductor industry. To provide feedback about this piece, please email him directly at kanishka.lahiri@gmail.com)

In middle-class educated circles, it has become unfashionable, in fact, often downright ludicrous to quote Arundhati Roy. In a recent email exchange with contemporaries (with whom I shared the experience of attending one of India's elite engineering schools, yes, you guessed, one of the highly trumpeted Indian Institutes of Technology) she was described as "worse than a cockroach that infests the sewer systems in our country", and the "greatest con act of an activist anywhere in the world", an anti-national who "could be convicted for treason". 

I believe many people in similiar echelons of Indian society share this view, but don't necessarily articulate them as clearly. The majority just simply refuses to read her essays based on a reasoning that goes something like - "she's just out of control, she's anti-national, there are no facts in her writing, how can educated people even consider reading her". This exchange set me thinking as to why a lot of people, including some people who's opinions I respect on other matters, dismiss this person with such venom. What provokes deeply emotional responses from people, responses that suggest that Roy has somehow insulted them at a personal level? Perhaps the hatred is not really directed towards Roy the person, or Roy the essayist. Maybe it's really directed at the idea of Arundhati Roy; the idea that such a person could actually exist.

At the end of this piece, I am dead sure many of it's readers are going label me as an "Arundhati Roy sympathizer", as if she's some sort of terrorist. Those that do, will serve as perfect illustrations of the point I am trying to make. I don't believe Roy's writing is flawless, or readers should necessarily agree with her opinions, but a refusal to even listen to her line of argument, and separate her facts from her personal opinion seems to represent a strange intent to blindfold oneself to the realities which surround us. That is downright strange, since if anything, the urban middle class rightfully prides itself on being well informed. So what's really going on with the public vs Ms Roy? 

Interestingly, most of the hysterical rhetoric flung at Roy that I have come across comes from male quarters, ranging from celebrity historian Ramachandra Guha to my IIT buddies. Could it just be that Indian men feel slighted that she can provoke the highest establishments of the land, like the Supreme Court, which have always been traditional male bastions, being a woman? Saba Naqvi in an article published some months ago in Outlook suggests the resentment may even have something to do with her sartorial taste and hair-do, which hypocritcal Indians might find more acceptable if she was say, part of the intellectual diaspora living in New York City. In the grassroot Indian context, which is Roy's habitat, to many, her physical appearance and shrill voice seems out of place in a society where where female Bollywood leads are expected to retire after they get married. The question is, if Arundhati Roy was a man, or if she tied her hair in a bun and wore a bindi, would we have aimed our collective automatic weapons at her with such deadly precision? 

I'm not trying to defend the factual accuracy of her writings, or praise her prose. The point is, so what if she's guilty of less than civil writing? So what if she's got a few facts wrong? If we the public were as effective in scrutinizing and passing judgment on the administration as we are on Ms Roy's writing, India would be a different country. It seems pretty clear that the anti-Roy rhetoric has got more to do with the fact that she raises uncomfortable topics which makes for extremely unpopular drawing room conversation in middle-class English speaking households. If these "readers" (the skepticism is rooted in an observation that several of my acquaintances are eager to dismiss her writings without even having read them) are so contemptuous of what she writes, if they think she has all her facts wrong, if she's really just an average essayist looking for attention, then why do they get roiled up at all? Perhaps it really is to do with the threat Arundhati Roy poses to the "shining" Indian middle-class and it's beloved diaspora. Maybe folks fear that she actually is a capable and knowledegable person, wielding a mighty pen and power brandishing inconvenient truths about the Indian state. Maybe deep down, the upper-middle-class Hindu knows that the train to utopia they are riding could very well be derailed, or delayed by this puny writer from Kerala. A utopia in which big dams supply water and electricity to the cities while decimating rural populations and destroying the environment, where Muslim youths are shot on sight on the flimsiest suspicions; where India's nuclear arsenal is large enough to annihilate a subcontinent that is home to a quarter of the world's population; where power is absolute and autocratic, as long as it serves the interests of the urban elite. 

India doesn't need an Arundhati Roy. We need a few thousand. From the collective screaming, there are higher chances that truth will emerge, and minor errors made by individuals such as Roy will get drowned by the availability of a quality of information that we are denied today by a media stifled by politics and profit. In the tradition of the argumentative Indian, I invite people to
counter Roy through intellectual debate, rather than calling her names.


Sudipto Das said...

Thanks Kanishka for these comments!! It's always nice to have various thoughts on the same point. After all we are a lot of argumentative people and debate is the best form of learning!!
Thanks again for the wonderful essay!!

Uday said...

Hi Kanishka

I just find it contradictory that Roy's writings are buried in so much of "super" English tand yet her habitat is grassroot Indian context. Really ? Waht if me and lots of non-IITians think that she has hit writer's block long ago after TGOST and is looking at being in the limelight because of the Booker and a woman and puny and with a carzy hairdo and from Kerala? I admire her for taking on the establishment - she's got guts; but some of her 'activities' reduces the aura about her. Btw, one AR will do, not thousands !!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kanisha
I guess I will be one of those that you mentioned :-)
I agree with a lot of what you said, I think what ticks me off is that in times of crisis (whether its 9/11, Narmada or something else), Roy is projected as an expert. Medha P has spent half her life on the Narmada movement, yet Roy will get more press time from the media. Its dangerous to blur the line between being a spokesperson and an expert. BTW R Guha is a big fan of NCBS from what I understand :-)

Sudipto Das said...

by Subhashis Satpathy, ssatpathy_us@yahoo.com

It has always been fashionable in Bengali middle class circles to take a contrarian view, never mind the sheer absurdity or indefensible nature of one’s position.Why doesn’t it surprise me then that many amongst us derive some amount of perverse pleasure in debasing and belittling middle class values and taking on the establishment and Arundhati Roy is no exception. I am not against challenging the status quo but just taking an anti-establishment position for the sake of drawing attention to oneself smacks of narcissism and egotism.

I am no misogynist, but the hard truth is that many of the Nuevo-Indian- feminists/activists are but poor imitations of their counterparts in the West shouting themselves hoarse over issues that have little relevance in a second world context, but it pays good dividends because it sounds romantic and resonates well with the International press corps who are always looking to paint the second and third world in a poor light. A celebrity tag couldn’t hurt either, can it ? People take us more seriously when we have a little stardust on our shoulders. Never mind the fact that we rarely live as we preach.Consequently, the most vociferous environmentalist falls for the materialistic temptations of a million dollar mansion in the middle of a National reserve ! How’s that for leading by example !

Let’s put aside all that black sarcasm aside for a minute and let’s take a look at the real impact the likes of Ms. Roy are making on our society ? India is a country that is seriously challenged on many fronts. We have more finger pointers than we need already. India now needs “doers” and fewer “hoaky preachers”. The most admirable of Indian activists are not the affluent, attention-seeking con-artists like Ms. Roy but the humble, faceless, nameless social workers who pound the pavements of the red light districts of Mumbai and Sonagachi, working off the street of shanty town communities that are making a real difference. Action on the ground is worth a hundred words and a thousand hollow sermons at fancy book signing ceremonies at “standing room only” venues overflowing with phonies. Celebrity activists like Ms. Roy are also gifted with an uncanny sense of timing. Therefore she shows up at hot spots as the crescendo seems to be building towards a climax, only to be whisked away by hired hands at the slightest sign of unrest or trouble. Her appearance in Singur alongside Medha Phatkar bears testimony to that. Two months later, Singur is a forgotten chapter, even as the atrocities mount against the villagers, unleashed by a vengeful CPM Junta. The cameras have panned away from Singur and so have our celebrity activists.

So my friends, I have my reasons for feeling the way I do about Arundhati Roy. Yeah right, we should all thank our bloody stars that we have only one phoney activist to deal with at a time, not a few thousand !

kanishka said...

New essay from Roy has appeared on Outlook India about the Mumbai attack. URL (may appear broken):

bittu said...

I have also spent 4 yrs in that prestigious engineering college I guess it is iit kharapur for u as well and based on my interaction and obervation of both bhadralok bengalis and normal worker on road I must say bengalis are biggest curse on india who try to provide intellectual justification for all absurdities of life be it socialist policy of congress governments, be it muslim terrorists, be it western attack on indian culture during british time.

by winning a booker price she does not remain just another writer. She gets space in magazines and chance to speak at public fora because of that tag. for your information booker award is sponsored by a hedge fund of the same corporate world of which she is so critical.

her facts are not merely wrong but ill intentioned and draws wrong analogies. actively hides muslim and communist idiocacy and degrades hinduism and indian culture.

Anonymous said...

Your post and ideas about why the middle and upper class Indians hate Ms Roy is as rambling and fanciful as Roy's own essays. No wonder you like her so much. "Maybe we dont like her physical appearance? If she tied her hair in a bun and wore a bindi , would we still get riled?" Geez ,dude - take a break. You are waay off target.

The reason why I get riled by Roy is that she constantly provides justifications for actions which cant be justified at all. So while we are shell shocked by the attack on Mumbai , she comes out and declares grandly - "All these are blowbacks for years of injustice. " Oh really - so how far back do we need to go looking for justice ?

World Citizen said...

Arundhati Roy, with her all her flaws and shortcomings, is what makes this world so beautiful; so worth living.

"Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the US government (myself included) have been called "anti-American". Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology. The term is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely - but shall we say inaccurately - define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they're heard and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride."

Just substitute American with Indian. It is the same story everywhere you go. I know. I have been everywhere.

The subcontinent is not kind to people who are different. They have little tolerance for criticism, and none for dissent.

History, in the subcontinent, is not written in books or journals. It is written in the streets and fields. In this "uddayan" or that. It is manufactured instantly at the whim of politicians. What goes for history in the subcontinet are the daily obscenities that come out from the leaders, the elite, the politicians, in their public speeches and gatherings.

Roy poses a threat to all that. She poses a danger that this time...That this time history might just get it right.

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. It is the same old story with a different name.

We need more Arundhati Roys even though we don't deserve them.

Chaitanya said...

This is a very good question. The answer to this question will answer many other questions like "what is wrong with Indian society in general and Middle class in particular?", "What is wrong with Indian Media?",....

The refusal of the Indian Middle class to read Arundhati Roy is the beasts refusal to look into the mirror. AR is holding a mirror in front of the Middle Class which they don't like.

One main reason is the Indian media. Indian media omits so much and manipulates the rest and finally presents a very sanitized version. suddenly there is so much gap between the main stream media version and AR version and the main stream media version tastes better than AR's bitter truth version. so the reader naturally feels an aversion towards the AR's bitter truth version. Here AR challenges the main stream media and the middle classes belief in the main stream media. Unless somebody has already concluded that main stream media is manipulative, people will have tough time to acknowledge the media's manipulative nature.

At another level, these beliefs are similar to following a religious guru. If somebody follows a certain guru for some time and then there is news about guru's crimes/devious nature, then the follower wont accept that the guru is a bad person and he has followed a wrong person for some time. instead he starts believing that there must be some scheme / conspiracy to defame his guru but in reality the guru is a good person. his own ego is not allowing him to accept the truth about his guru. He can not accept that he has made a wrong choice and has been fooled by some crook for so long. He might have already recommended his guru to so many of his friends and relatives, now he can not accept that his guru is a crook so needs an alternative narrative.

so the same logic is at work here. when somebody hears a very different version from his guru's (trusted media) version, that too an inconvenient version, then they try to discard it and attribute motives to it.

one more thing about these so called IIT or other educated Indian people is that they are very ignorant. let me make this clear. I am not saying that they are not informed. They read all the news but very few of them really question all the underlying assumptions and point out contradictions in them and resolve those contradictions correctly. Unless one resolves those contradictions correctly, reading news and all the math and science knowledge are not going to help a person understand the world.

There is still so much to say. I will write another comment another time. Thanks for raising a very relevant question. We definitely need more people like Arundhati Roy.

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Amita said...

Fantastic essay! Really like your critique on the indian middle class Keep on writing more

Anonymous said...

@Chaitanya: Excellent analysis. We hate the mirror. The intense hatred for AR is very personal, bordering on irrational.

@Sudipto: Do you exist? I teach in an IIT and professors and students alike buy the shining image hook line and sinker. Great to know you passed through an IIT without getting corrupted.

Sudipto has already said something similar, but here goes: If the Indian middle class were a tenth as angry on the Telgis and Kalmadis and Modis, India would be first world before you could say "CWG". Whatever wrong AR has done to the Indian state (whatever that means), these mofos have gone far beyond. Yet, people secretly envy them, not AR.

O tempora, o mores!

Ami said...

Thanks for this blog. My thought exactly. Why such venom? Of course there is a lot of misogyny in the discourse. More importantly, she dares to ask those uncomfortable questions that dangers to shatter that 'Imagination Land' many of us are trapped in. As she says, the most successful secessionist struggle is of the middle class and the rich into outer space. I hope we have a 1000 Arundhati Roys and a million Sudiptos! ^^