You may wonder about taking the persuasive Arundhati Roy seriously. But if not her, then who, asks Apoorvanand
BROKEN REPUBLIC, a collection of essays by Arundhati Roy is welcome for more than one reason. It centre-stages the essay as a form in popular imagination. The essay is not only a form of writing, it also represents a form of thinking and imagination. In these impatient times when we do not read but surf, (even when confronted by words that demand our time) when most popular writers have agreed to cage themselves in a 1200 word frame, Roy is the only writer in our recent memory who has repeatedly rebelled. She is also unabashed about the overtly political, largely anti-State nature of her essays.
You may be forgiven if you find her too predictable. Roy doesn’t want to be unpredictable about certain fundamental issues. She is fiercely anti-war, anti-capitalism and anti-nation. She would automatically be an enemy to many readers. This contradicts what William Ernst Henley says, “Your true essayist is in a literary sense the friend of everybody.” She speaks, as Henley recommends, “with ease and opportunity to all” and is “personal, candid and sincere”.
The three essays are about the broken promises India had made to Adivasis. It is also about the way we want to ‘develop’ our nation. The essays should remind you of the famous discussion that the Adivasi leaders of Chhotanagpur — Jaipal Singh (leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha) and Ram Dayal Munda, had with Nehru. Shiv Visvanathan writes of this: “Nehru talked about history, the new tryst with destiny. He felt at ease. Singh was also a Cambridge don, a hockey blue. Singh listened and told Nehru he did not believe in history. He asked Nehru whether he had heard of the new word which had just been invented by President Truman. He called it ‘development’. An innocuous word, colourless, odourless like most poisons and equally lethal. Munda warned him that development would claim more victims than any religion, any dogma. Nehru was distracted and wondered what he was talking about.”
Broken Republic speaks for the victims Munda prophesied. Roy refuses to see Adivasis only as victims. She travels to the deep jungles of Dandakaranya, Chhattisgarh, to trace the footprints of the long march of resistance that she feels is the making of the Adivasis. It is a bloody war but Roy, in the very persuasive way of a fiction writer, portrays it as a necessary stage of creating beauty of humaneness.
We may refute her understanding of resistance, how she justifies the summary public trials enacted by the ‘revolutionaries’ in the name of saving the revolution and also her ranking of the acts of resistance. At times, she looks smitten with the idea of armed revolution.
Roy doesn’t want to criticise the Maoists as she feels they are fighting a just war. Her mocking references to Gandhi make you wonder if she can be taken seriously at all. Her portrayal of the Maoists as the inheritors of the Telangana uprising raises doubts about her understanding of the Communist movement’s history in India. But as Roy herself has wondered in another context, “Who can fill this giant pair of boots? Perhaps it cannot, and should not be a single pair of boots. Sometimes it seems very much as though those who have a radical vision for a better, world do not have the steel it takes to resist the military onslaught, and those who have the steel do not have the vision.”
Apoorvanand is an activist and literary critic
The chakravyuh of things past
A skilfully-written epic where no one gets exactly what they desire, including the reader, says Harsh Sethi
THE MAHABHARATA, it is often claimed, provides a universal template of the nature of human experience, even if it is not the same for all people in the world. A tale of morally ambiguous, complex and tortured characters seeking to fulfill their individual destinies in an environment characterised by profound changes and uncertainty, the epic explores profound dilemmas woven around concepts such as dharma, satya, kala, daivya, ahimsa and purushartha. Little surprise then that it has inspired numerous creative reimaginings. Few, however, have built on the debates around its origin and transmission. Was the Mahabharata a fully evolved tale with Vyasa as its sole author? Or was it a simple bardic tale, which, through generations of retelling, finally look the shape we are familiar with. The many scholarly efforts seeking to isolate (and free) the original from subsequent interpolations are somewhat meaningless because additions by different dominant groups help us capture the evolution of ancient Indian society from pastoralism to settled agriculture and the beginnings of urban life. Leela’s Book, by centre-staging an ‘imagined’ dispute between Vyasa, the composer, and Lord Ganesha, the scribe, plays a creative disruptive role by asking us to imagine a different Mahabharata.
The plot revolves around Leela — described as alluring, taciturn, haunted. She returns to India after two decades in New York with her husband. The occasion is the wedding of her husband’s niece Sunita to Ash, her late sister’s son. Sunita’s father, Shiva Prasad, senior functionary of a right-wing party, is an ideologue obsessed with establishing and recovering the greatness of India’s Vedic past by freeing it of ‘revisionist’ interpretations. Ash’s father, Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, a Sanskrit scholar, represents all that Prasad holds in disdain. He is modern, secular and successful. To complicate matters, Leela, Vyasa’s sisterin- law, shares a secret past with him — shades of Amba and Ambalika, who were impregnated by Ved Vyasa.
Both fathers hope that their childrens’ marriage would be mutually beneficial. Events however unfold unpredictably. There is Bharati, Vyasa’s hedonistic daughter, who arrives from London. She gets involved with Pablo, a journalist who uncovers an old secret about the true authorship of Bharati’s mother’s poems as also the secret of her birth. It turns out that Bharati was Leela’s daughter from Vyasa. There are side stories — of Shiva Prasad’s daughter, Urvashi, who he had disowned for marrying a Muslim, and intriguingly, Linda, a young British academic and Bharati’s friend who too is Vyasa’s daughter. All this makes for a complicated brew. Woven in is a fire in a slum, reflections on police brutality, the growth of Hindu majoritarianism and consumerist culture — all reflective of modern India.
Expectedly, nothing for the key characters turns out as expected. Families that hoped to come together through marriage discover fresh lines of rupture. And even as Leela reunites with her ‘abandoned’ daughter, Bharati, everyone remains captive to the capriciousness of fate. In this, Leela’s Book is true to the epic — no one gets quite what they desire. What doesn’t work is the playing out of the starting premise — Ganesha, as author not scribe, exposing Vyasa’s wrongdoing in writing him out of his assumed centrality in the epic. To use Linda to ‘demolish’ Vyasa’s theory of Ganesha as a subsequent and illegitimate interpolation and that too in a seminar by him, is a bit like a Hindi film ending. Though written with skill, insight and empathy, in the end, the burden of the epic seems too difficult to bear for a tale otherwise engagingly told.
Sethi is Consulting Editor, SeminarMagazine
‘Nostalgia is never an innocent thing’
Summer, they say, is a great time to visit Kashmir. The bone-chilling winters are long gone and the breeze is fragrant. Summer 2010 was all that till a stone was thrown and bullets were fired in return. In a new anthology of Kashmiri writing from that ill-fated summer, journalists, social activists, a graphic artist and a rapper, chronicle the moments that altered the course of turbulence once again. Sanjay Kak, the editor of Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, speaks to Karuna John about why this book is both for policy wonks and university students.
Why did you want such varied works?
An anthology is not just a collection of writing. It also tries to editorialise. What I was interested in was drawing attention to a kind of clarity of craft and intelligence. I did not want the reader to walk the old, tired pathways through which Kashmir is always represented. Where it is about the poor Kashmiri getting squeezed between the army’s boot and the militant’s gun, between India and Pakistan. That argument was a satisfactory explanation for anything 10 years ago.
How do you rescue that argument?
That is when you turn to good writing. But I did keep an eye out for reportage because it was not insignificant to me. I have picked two news reports that appeared in international publications. Even there, you can see the shift in how Kashmir is represented.
The book shuns nostalgia. Was that deliberate?
Nostalgia is never an innocent thing. Particularly nostalgia that is thrown at you by the mainstream media is often a means of covering up the present-day reality. To me, the kind of clarity that some of the younger writers are bringing, whether it is through short fiction, rap, essays or journalistic writing or even a graphic novel, does several things. It tells a story but it is also imaginative. The book represents a kind of optimism, it believes that ideas and clarity matter.
‘Kashmiris are usually represented as squeezed between the army’s boots and the militant’s gun’
Why was there so much independent writing from Kashmir in summer 2010?
When the youth came onto the streets, a kind of threshold had been crossed. They made a statement — that they have had enough of being humiliated and pushed around. Writers had also reached that space. They knew they could write and be read, and then someone else would follow up. It’s like on the street, one person pelts a stone, then someone else follows and takes the lead. On the Internet, hundreds of writers are reading each other, commenting and being supportive. This is how the volume can be read. It is not just Kashmir 2010. Even the young middle-class kid is cutting loose. When I started going back to Kashmir in 2003, I realised how smart the young people were and how unexpressed. There was a lot of fear then. Armed militancy was making it easy for the State to come down heavily on the people.
Sometime in September last year, it was becoming clear to me that there was something happening in the writing [from Kashmir]. I realised that we can’t forget what happened in 2010. For me, this book is a political act of remembrance. It is optimistic political reading. The pieces were selected because I believe that by putting these pieces together, there is an argument that we are constructing. The chapter, Summers of Unrest, is a description about what happened that summer, Captive City is a meta narrative, and eventually in the last section, A Place of Blood and Memory, to me is a hopeful section, an alternative way of thinking about Kashmir that does not come from politicians. It is just people imagining what Kashmir could be. A place of hope and not just for Kashmiris.
Karuna John is the Deputy Editor of Time Out Delhi