Arundhati Roy is a writer, environmentalist and — a label that she probably would not approve of — an activist. My Seditious Heart, a complete collection of her non-fiction writing, is about the harrowing tales of globalisation and ruthless capitalism, injustices carried out in the name of religion and caste, and genocide and fascism which have become terrifyingly commonplace in today’s world. This book is about the voiceless humans, animals and environment that have fallen victim to ‘progress’. Roy describes the essays as “pieces of laundry — poor people’s washing strung out across the landscape between two monuments, interrupting the good news bulletins and spoiling the view.”
My Seditious Heart is breathtaking in its scope. In the foreword, Roy states the dilemma she faces as a writer when confronted with issues surrounding her: “Although writers usually walk alone, most of what I wrote rose from the heart of a crowd. It was never meant as neutral commentary, pretending to be observations of a bystander. It was just another stream that flowed into the quick, immense, rushing currents that I was writing about. My contribution to our collective refusal to obediently fade away.” It is this honesty that breathes fire into Roy’s merciless pursuit of the truth.
In ‘The End of Imagination’ — an essay devoid of politics, liberal or otherwise — Roy’s commentary on the 1998 nuclear tests carried out on both sides of the border is a frightening glimpse into a post-apocalyptic future; a painstakingly detailed look at the implication of what “mutually assured destruction” means. It is not till the end of the essay that the reader can grasp the magnitude of the nuclear bomb: “If you are religious, then ... this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: we have the power to destroy everything that You have created. If you’re not (religious), then look at it this way. This world of ours is 4,600 million years old. It could end in an afternoon.”
Arundhati Roy is a fiction writer reacting to the world around her with facts, which is why her words have the effect that they do
In ‘The Greater Common Good’, Roy deconstructs the myth of Big Dams that were meant to rescue India from poverty, writing about the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam that displaced 320,000 people, making them refugees in their own country. Successive Indian governments and their calculated policy of isolating and then burying villagers in bureaucratic red tape in order to dilute their right to land has been a master stroke for the government along with the private and global stakeholders of the project. Villagers were promised compensation, but then left hanging to confront their own poverty.
Roy argues how the Indian government has continued trying to make water a commodity, to be managed and maintained by a single authority, the implications of which are not difficult to imagine. Layer by layer, she explains how institutionalised corruption and caste politics work to displace those who have rights to the land and whose livelihoods depend on the rivers and forests. The dubious role of the World Bank as the “friendly neighbourhood” moneylender is not hidden. Roy illustrates the environmental and human disaster brought about by the Big Dam projects in a way that makes it seem very personal: “Power is fortified not just by what it destroys, but also by what it creates. Not just by what it takes, but also by what it gives. And powerlessness reaffirmed not just by those who have lost, but also by the gratitude of those who have (or THINK they have) gained.”
Roy’s precision of thought is well displayed throughout the book. She is a fiction writer reacting to the world around her, which is why her words have the effect that they do. In ‘Democracy: Who Is She When She’s At Home?’, she chronicles the Gujarat riots of 2002 carried out under the benign, almost complicit support of India’s now second-time elected prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The riots are often cited as a ‘snap-reaction’ to the Sabarmati Express incident where 58 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death by alleged Muslim ‘terrorists’. Roy lays down the facts: thousands killed, 150,000 made homeless, women stripped and gang-raped and parents killed in front of their children: “There was a deliberate, systematic attempt to destroy the economic base of the Muslim community.” She minces no words when describing the future of the Muslim community as resigning itself to living in ghettos, as second-class citizens, who will “creep around the edges of the society in which they live.”
With masterful clarity she explains the frustration and the fear at the growing and unpunished fascism in India, often pausing midway through her essays to take a step back and evaluate the implications of events such as the Gujarat massacre, perhaps to comprehend the magnitude of hatred that can be festered against one’s fellow man. The sheer import of the horrors that unfolded in Gujarat is compounded by the fact that the perpetrators were given state protection then, and walk free today.
In ‘Azadi’ [Freedom], she clarifies that Kashmiris are not looking for peace alone; they want freedom and references history to describe India’s forceful subjugation of an entire people as colonial and brutal in nature. She writes this essay against the backdrop of the Indian government’s attempt to transfer 100 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board and the massive protests that followed. Roy’s writing, like her views on this subject, is fuss-free and lucid; “Raised in a playground of army camps, checkpoints and bunkers, with screams from torture chambers for a soundtrack, the younger generation has suddenly discovered the power of mass protest, and above all, the dignity of being able to straighten their shoulders and speak for themselves, represent themselves. For them it is nothing short of an epiphany. They’re in full flow; not even the fear of death seems to hold them back. And once that fear has gone, of what use is the largest or second largest army in the world?”
In laying bare the hypocrisy and dichotomy with which the world operates, Roy’s anger at the state of affairs in India is raw and palpable, but her greatest strength is the facts. She chronicles history as it is, warts and all, to gain insight to the future. She uses her fame and incredibly poignant command of language to hold up a mirror and, in doing so, she has done a great service to her countrymen — if only they would pay heed, because it is only when we confront the malice within that we may heal.
However, when reading Roy as Pakistanis, it is important that we do not relish or gloat in the exposed ugliness of the world’s biggest ‘secular’ democracy. We must step outside of our insulated world — as Roy has in her book — to evaluate whether we are any different. Are we any better? Our draconian blasphemy laws that predate Partition are still alive and kicking, terrorising minorities and inflaming sectarian violence. We must take note from Roy and bring down the walls we have built, acknowledge that which exists around us and learn from our mistakes before it is too late.
My Seditious Heart is precise in its pursuit of the truth and demonstrates the real cost of ruthless capitalism, combined with the aggressive growth of fascism in India and around the world. Roy’s almost Chomsky-esque command over language bridges the gap between thought and language which lends an earnestness to her writing, but she wonders if the attempt to ensure precision “somehow reduces the epic scale of what is going in.” Perhaps what we really need, according to her, is “a feral howl.”
The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature
My Seditious Heart
By Arundhati Roy
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 13th, 2019