Sunday, 23 August 2009



Beyond her literary domain, Arundhati Roy is known as an activist and a strong voice for those hapless millions who often suffer the heartless actions and apathy of the administrative juggernaut in India. Through most of her essays, appearing in several publications over the years, Arundhati raised several uncomfortable issues within and without India, especially the human rights violations by the security forces, exploitation of natural resources by the profiteering multinational business establishments and communal violence. Some of these essays have been now compiled in a book titled Listening to Grasshoppers---Field Notes on Democracy.

The book contains 11 essays and a fictional text (titled The Briefing) that were written between 2002 and 2008, along with the Introduction and Endnotes. The essays are scathing, supported by fact and mostly offer an alternative view of the world as we see it today.

The first essay (Democracy---Who's she;When She's At Home) deals with the ugliness of the communal hatred in reference to the Guajarat riots of 2002. While writing about the violence there, Arundhati has delved into the history of the players who allegedly perpetrated hatred. While she praised the national press who “startlingly” has been “courageous in its denunciation” of the Gujarat riots, Arundhati has cautioned that fighting communalism will also mean “not allowing your newspaper columns and prime-time TV spots to be hijacked by their spurious passions and their staged theatrics, which is designed to divert from everything else”. I wonder, how that statement will go down with those media bosses and editors who hanker for TRPs and readership, and love to fill in the time and space with frivolous content.

Among the other essays, perhaps the most controversial will be the one on Kashmir. Titled Azadi, the piece suggests that India must give up its hold on Kashmir. She describes the mood in the Kashmir Valley in summer of 2008 and how people there are opposed to India. According to Arundhati, India is occupying Kashmir and spending “unimaginable sums of public money” for that. This money, she argues, might have been spent on the schools and hospitals, and food for the impoverished population of India. Point noted. But welfare measures need not stand in contradiction to the sovereignty of a nation. Arundhati's criticism of the Indian “deep state”, as she puts it, doesn't seem to have appreciated the diversity of this vast country. If religious affiliation would have been the criterion for territorial integrity, then there wouldn't have been any Bangladesh.

Being an author of international repute, Arundhati has also delved into the situations in other countries of the world. An interesting essay, titled Listening to Grasshoppers---Genocide, Denial and Celebration looks into the parallels of atrocities meted out to minority communities by powerful people in Turkey, Nazi Germany and in India. An interesting observation in the essay is the connection between “progress” and “genocide”, especially in the Ottoman Empire where the Armenians were murdered in thousands by a political party that called itself Committee for Union and Progress. It is such historical facts viewed in modern context --- as when India visibly aligned with Israel and the USA after the collapse of the Soviet Union and there was a surge of Hindu nationalism and economic reforms --- that makes the book interesting, whether or not a reader agrees with Arundhati's opinions.

The strength of the essays, and hence the compilation, lies in clarity of Arundhati's language and her no-holds-barred views, many of them being “written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something”. Among noted other inclusions in the book is the essay on custodial confession; the fictional speech of US president George W Bush before his visit to India in March 2006 is rather hilarious. My pick is however the essay titled Scandal in the Palace. You have to read it to vouch for or discard my choice. A little clue: It is all about the travesties that we all know of, but cannot talk about.

All in all, Arundhati's essays are thought provoking and can be an useful reference material for anyone studying modern India. One last point though: Arundhati has been sarcastic about democratic India; she calls it “demon crazy”, as was described by one protester in Kashmir Valley. But if wasn't for our democracy, Arundhati wouldn't have been free to express her views and I to review her book.


Book: Listening to Grasshoppers
Author: Arundhati Roy
Publisher: Penguin-Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 252
Price: Rs 499