NON-FICTION: LESSONS FROM ROY'S AZADI

Published November 1, 2020
A vehicle set on fire during the Gujarat riots of 2002, which is a topic Arundhati Roy revisits repeatedly in her book | AP
A vehicle set on fire during the Gujarat riots of 2002, which is a topic Arundhati Roy revisits repeatedly in her book | AP

Arundhati Roy is a darling of the right wing in Pakistan for many right reasons. So much so that, in 2016 in the Punjab Assembly, a member of the then ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) demanded the government invite her to speak in the assembly on the Kashmir issue. The demand by a centre-right conservative party member to invite Roy to the assembly shows how much the right in Pakistan admires the Indian novelist — an outspoken critic of Indian human rights violations and the political mayhem the country is going through. However, the same right wing hates, at home, the values she represents.

Roy’s new book, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction., was much anticipated here and sold like hot cakes as soon as it hit the shops. I had to wait for some days to get my hands on it, as the earliest stock disappeared in no time. More than her novels, Pakistanis in general adore Roy for her activism and resistance, for calling a spade a spade. Hence, this non-fiction book was exactly what they wanted, as it’s a collection of her columns, essays and lectures printed or delivered round the world over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, while India has a dismal record of rights abuses — more so in recent years — Pakistan itself does not have a record that any country can be proud of.

The tone of the book is set with the introduction and the subjects under discussion include the continuous lockdown in Kashmir, Covid-19, the Delhi riots (which Roy does not like calling ‘riots’) and American President Donald Trump’s visit to India.

One of the best chapters is the lecture on literature and language, ‘In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?’ — a line taken from Chilean poet and Nobel prize-winner Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection, The Book of Questions. Roy is confronted with the question of writing in a foreign language that has the tag of colonialism attached to it, and her writing in English being considered — as one British historian put it — a tribute to the British empire. The chapter looks at the reasons why she adopted English as the medium for her works.

For one, there is the linguistic diversity of India; around 780 languages and dialects are spoken in the country, but English is understood by a large percentage of the population. Another reason she gives is that the English language was somehow imposed on her by her mother, and out of Malayalam, Hindi and English, she went for the last one. This chapter takes readers through Roy’s childhood, her parents, upbringing, education, filmmaking and her journey from The God of Small Things to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The answer to the question of language posed by Neruda is found in ‘translation’ by Roy, whose books are translated quickly in all languages. She also believes that language is never given, “it has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked.”

The primary audience for Arundhati Roy’s latest book may be Indian, but Pakistanis can learn as much from it

Another lecture that stands out is ‘The Language of Literature’, which deals with the question of Roy’s non-fiction, or her work on social issues. “When will you get back to writing fiction?” she is often asked. As a response, she writes, “Over time, an unspoken compromise was arrived at. I began to be called a ‘writer-activist’. Implicit in this categorisation was that fiction was not political and essays were not literary.”

She recalls a professor who suggested that she should write political essays instead of fiction, and another asking her when she would start writing fiction. She rests her case with a reference to Booker Prize-winning novelist and art critic John Berger, who wrote to her, “Your fiction and non-fiction — they walk you around the world like your two legs.”

Roy playing the role of Radha, in a still from her 1989 film In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones
Roy playing the role of Radha, in a still from her 1989 film In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones

In the lecture, Roy discusses the issue of anti-nationals, or traitors — something that many Pakistanis can relate to as, once again, ‘tis the season to be charging people with sedition in Pakistan. Roy herself has been put on India’s list of anti-nationals. Two Maoists were arrested in India and the charges included a reference to copies of Roy’s books found with them.

After the publication of her first novel, a court case was filed against her by five lawyers for obscenity and corrupting public morality. Even more interesting is that The God of Small Things offended not only the right wing, but Roy was also termed ‘anti-communist’, which means that those on the left also had very fragile egos.

In other chapters, she takes on the politics of hate that is at its peak in India. She writes about the National Register of Citizens, the abolition of Article 370 — which gave some autonomy to India-held Kashmir — and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political manoeuvring before elections, including the Pulwama attack and the so-called surgical strikes in Balakot. She discusses big dams, demonetisation — where the Indian currency was modified and many people lost their life savings, as well as their lives — and everything she felt strongly about during the last two years, including the pandemic.

A topic she returns to again and again is the Gujarat riots of 2002, where the slaughter of 2,000 Muslims was spurred by the killings of dozens of Hindus in a train. These incidents gave rise to the politics of hatred, spearheaded by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Roy particularly takes on Modi’s rise to power after 9/11 and the Gujarat riots, and exposes the pattern behind his rise, where everything, including bomb attacks and the escalation of tension at the borders, looks manoeuvred.

Many readers must have already read some parts of the book, especially those essays published in the international media, so there is a kind of repetition of the issues that Roy revisits. However, given the nature of the book — based as it is on lectures and newspaper articles — one reckons it only natural.

Still, there are quite a few lessons to learn from Azadi, as these are as much needed in Pakistan as in India. These include the emphasis on the right of opinion and freedom of writing. The actual role of a writer, even a fiction writer, is to shake the conscience of society, especially if there are increasing curbs by the state on members of that society. As such, in 2015, as a part of a writers’ and filmmakers’ large-scale protest against the government’s complicity in the killings of writers and thinkers, Roy returned the National Film Award for Best Screenplay that she won for her 1989 film, In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones.

We in Pakistan need more public intellectuals in the mould of Roy, who can write and speak against the oppression of the government. Writing cannot be done in a vacuum. Every piece of writing, such as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is political, and it is important that writers make the current state of affairs the subject of their works, instead of just waiting for time to pass and then write books on what was once now, but has now become the distant past.

In Azadi, there are no national security issues too sensitive to discuss. Roy turns the tables on the Indian state about the Balakot incident and its so-called surgical strike, its atrocities in India-held Kashmir and the threat of nuclear war.

There are no sacred cows, either. Roy highlights the issues with Hinduism regarding class and caste and the problematic politics of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi regarding caste, especially in context to his time in South Africa. Remember, Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India.

The best lesson we can learn from the book is that democracy is the best option even in its worst form, compared to power in the hands of any unseen force. Despite Roy’s scathing criticism of the government, her book is available to buy in India’s bookshops. Juxtapose that with what happened recently in Pakistan to a translation of a harmless novel, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, with it being seized from bookshops and its publisher’s office raided.

Nothing of the sort happened to Roy’s book that openly attacks those currently in power in her country. Through her book, the acclaimed writer is ‘fighting for the soul of India’, but is there anybody fighting for the soul of Pakistan? One hopes that Roy’s Azadi inspires more azadi in India as well as in Pakistan.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.
By Arundhati Roy
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0241470022
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 1st, 2020

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