Sunday, March 21, 2010

ROY AND THE ROMANCE OF THE RED ANT CHUTNEY

Arundhati Roy has written another long story,"Walking with the comrades", in Outlook magazine, about her latest royally deferential conducted tour of Dandkaranya (DK), the land of the Maoists, the "Gandhians with a gun."

This tale, which is almost unreadable after a few paragraphs despite Roy's powerful, compelling prose, is notable for little new other than Ms Roy's much celebrated story telling ability. For those who have never ventured into India's countryside, Roy's vivid and romantic description of the places she visited during her tour and the simple, frugal and seemingly liberating living conditions of the poor who have turned 'red', will be gripping, even moving. But, what she won't say, or perhaps does not know, is that the poor in most remote parts of India still live in near identical conditions. In many other parts, they did so a generation or two back, before development and education changed their lives and environment forever. For the better, one must add, after the pain of transition had been endured: no one wants to reverse the clock and move back into the forests that their ancestors struggled to live in.

Roy, however, is an exception. Or at least pretends to be one. The way she romanticises sleeping under the stars on bare ground on which a blue plastic sheet, a "jhilli (without which they will be no Revolution)", has been spread, as " my private suite in a thousand star hotel", and walking in the forest at night as "the most beautiful thing", one would imagine that she would make Dandkaranya her home and never return to live in the hated, polluted, developed city where she lives and drives a swanky SUV, or use any of the fancy gadgets without which she would feel helpless and cut off from even her own self.

But no. Roy has neatly divided her life and her beliefs into two separate, water-tight compartments that are not allowed to "pollute" each other. May be that is way she is wired. Otherwise how can anyone, means anyone, argue that the tribals of DK "do not need to learn to count beyond 20 and are best off if left alone?" For them, she sees absolutely no good whatsoever coming out of development, and wants them to continue living just as they have been for thousands of years. And to protect that way, the culture of the gun, the use of wanton violence, is seen by her as a "Gandhian" response, fully justified against a brutal, rapacious state that wants to usurp their land for the benefit of people like Roy who live in the big cities.

Ms Roy admits that she is a "directional dyslexic". That impairment is evidently not just along the physical dimension. Unknown to her, it seems to have penetrated her logic too. If the world follows her foolishly romanticised path, then change, the only constant, will become a bad idea, to be opposed at all costs, by all means. Roy, ensconced safely in her comfortable, modern silk cocoon, is effectively condemning the people whose cause she seeks to promote. She can't see the tyranny of it precisely because she does not have to lead that life for her whole life. What for her is an exhilarating "thousand star" holiday is a grind from which the ordinary tribal and his children will be only be happy to be liberated.

Roy can pick up any group of people resisting change for any reason anywhere in the world and reproduce what she has written, with only minor changes. There are many "thousand star hotels" even in the Hindu Kush mountains. And, to some, the Talibanis there are also as angelic as the Maoists here.

It is not that Roy is all romance and no sense. She knows her politics only too well. She is acutely aware of what she needs to mention in her story to prevent action against her for her vile, seditious words. That is why Rahul Gandhi figures in her tale as the "People's Prince". That is why Hindu organisations working in DK are berated, even equated with Nazis - "Dhwij/Nazi sentiment." That is why there is not even a whisper about the activities of Christian missionaries there. That is why the Indian state is portrayed by her as "an essentially upper-caste Hindu State...which harbours a reflexive hostility towards the ‘other’. One that, in true colonial fashion, sends the Nagas and Mizos to fight in Chhattisgarh, Sikhs to Kashmir, Kashmiris to Orissa, Tamilians to Assam and so on."

Wonder where Roy has imbibed so much of hatred from.

It cannot be anything but extreme insensitivity that makes Roy romanticise the fact that in the 21st tribals have to eat red ant chutney, not as a delicacy in a fancy restaurant, but as part of a bare jungle meal to survive. Roy samples it like royalty in DK and says it is "nice. Sour. Lots of folic acid." Perhaps it is her so-called love for everything "Red" that makes her miss the real point, the tragedy. Otherwise, how can she not see that what she and others like her are trying is to ensure that DK becomes a giant national park for tribals, in which they, like tigers and lions and other wild animals that have no voice, can continue to live in their wild natural habitat as they always have been, even as across the river others who are just like them live as if on a different planet?

A few months back, Arundhati Roy had written a similar article, "Mr. Chidambaram's War". I had responded with a detailed post then. This piece of hers, if you keep the many short stories of her DK travel aside, is little more than a cleverly re-packaged version. That is why I have not commented on the main issues that she has raised again. The response to them can be found in the earlier post that can I am appending below for the benefit of readers.

Picture source: Outlook

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Long before many of us were born, there lived a man in India who raised his voice against exploitation of India's resources and its citizens by the state that was then run by a colonial power. This man, despite being born into wealth and privilege, and educated in the land of the exploiting kingdom, chose to fight for his countrymen to free them from that oppressive yoke.

Like many before him, he too could have wined and dined in Delhi and Bombay, written fine articles in the language of the master whose ways he had adopted, and filled himself and the oppressed with hatred, to incite them, from the comfort of his home or wherever, to wage war against the 'state' by picking up a gun, or the bows and arrows that they had been using since 'long before there was a country called India'.

But, no, he did something else altogether. He shed almost everything that represented the repression he was fighting against, and took to living the life of the poor people he wanted to awaken and help. Without hatred or violence, that man in a loin cloth electrified India and overthrew the greatest empire on earth.

63 years after Independence, the state run by its own people remains the oppressor and exploiter in the eyes of over 800 million Indians for whom freedom and democracy are words that still have no meaning whatsoever. They remain poor, uneducated, hungry and as developed as they were hundreds, even thousands of years ago. And now, their land is under threat too, ready to be taken over by large corporations ready to extract bauxite, iron ore and much more, to feed the needs of an India that is growing and developing rapidly, unconcerned that a large part of it is still stationary and therefore moving farther away.

Many tribals, failing to find a real leader who can lead them into light, have fallen prey to a few who have made them believe that like Mao, they too will free them from the yoke of a state that has done nothing for them, a state that cannot be distinguished from the colonial regime that preceded it, a state that suppresses them using the same tools of governance that it found demeaning when their reins were in white hands.

Those few - call them Maoists, Leninists, Naxals, whatever - left a viciously violent legacy, wherever they held sway, be it the Soviet Union, China or Kampuchea. In the last century, they murdered close to 110 million people, many more than the 38 million who were killed in all the wars of the century put together. That is what they will do in India too, should they get power in the name of the people whose cause they are championing. What they did recently in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere in India should have left no one in any doubt that this path has the same ending, no matter where it is followed.

Enter a new breed of educated 'liberators' of India's downtrodden tribals, most ensconced comfortably in 21st century enclaves in cities, and loving it. They are the unlikely defenders and champions of Maoists, and are not willing to open their eyes to any but their anachronistic notions of a solution based on a discredited, violent ideology that they watch and cheer from a safe distance.

One of the most prominent of these romantics, for want of a better word, is a celebrated author armed with the Booker and, as Sagarika Ghose puts it, luminous prose. Arundhati Roy has been angry with the state for a very long time, for reasons that may be revealed in a future novel or autobiography. I have not followed her closely and have not read her 'God of Small Things' or her latest, but I do remember reading, among other things, that some time back she had seceded from India and become an independent mobile republic of one.

This republic is at war with India again. This time on behalf of the poor tribals who live in a vast forest area that was once called Dandkaranya.

Roy knows her statistics well and knows how to use and conceal them creatively to show you just the kind of picture she wants, the kind that will impress many but move a few, notwithstanding her incandescent words. One is almost charmed by the canvas she paints to lull you into believing that there is real pain in her heart for the forest people, that she wants nothing more than seeing that their lives improve, that her opposition to the state is born out of such feelings alone. But, at the end of it, like in her Outlook article entitled 'Mr Chidambaram's war', she emerges looking no better than an artificial flower; it looks very real - can't tell - but simply doesn't have the right smell.

Roy rejects the model of development that India is following and wants to dismantle and replace it, not really knowing with what and how; that does not concern her. Her focus is on destruction and violence, not construction and peace. You know what she wants, or at least what she wants you to believe, when she says that the bauxite and other minerals that are going to be mined should 'remain in the mountain', because if the hills are destroyed, 'the forests that clothe the tribals will be destroyed too'. She is convinced - not erroneously, given the unforgiveable track record of the Indian state thus far - that the tribals will have to pay the price of progress. So, she doesn't want them to pay that price, like most of us don't. But, unlike most of us, she is comfortable condemning them to paying a far greater one.

The only way to protect the tribals, as one can surmise from what Roy says, is by keeping them just where they have been for thousands of years. They should stick to bows and arrows, live on forest produce and let the forest clothe them. From that it must follow that they should also never cook their meals in aluminum utencils on steel stoves, and never take a bus or train - none of these has ever been made without mining ores from a mountain somewhere and changing the lives of the affected forever. So what if has been for the better in recent years elsewhere?

If the bauxite had remained in the mountains, how would Roy have travelled to get her Booker? Now that she has discovered , like a certain Gandhi did nearly a century ago, that to keep her and 'neo-colonialists' like us motoring and flying and connected to the whole world, the tribals of India will have to pay a price that she finds unacceptable, why does she not walk the Gandhi talk? Why does she not begin by making a personal sacrifice to reduce the burgeoning demand for metals and minerals worth trillions of dollars that lie inside the mountains? Will she, or anyone else, like to go back to the lives their ancestors led a few hundred years ago, to save the environment and to effectively ensure that those who have missed the progress bus do not catch it ever? Or would she rather live in a country that follows the development model of, and is run by, the likes of Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot? Does it matter to her that China, not the one that Maoists want to emulate, produces 10 times more steel than India? Have China's tribals paid a heavy price or are they happier, wealthier and better fed than ever before?

Roy is not going to do either. There is a big difference between genuinely wanting to do something for others out of empathy and deliberately provoking some others to attract attention to ones own self. No? Why is she not unequivocally denouncing the violence unleashed by Maoists and others? Why is she cleverly hiding behind selected views of others to mask Maoists and convey her support for what they are doing? Why is she not talking about the fact that arms and ammunition that Maoists have require money which tribals don’t have, as she herself admits? Why is she silent about the manner in which Maoists are extorting money from the very corporate houses and mining companies that they are supposed to be fighting against? She will, of course turn around and say that all reports pointing to this are false and that the latest CNN-IBN report to this effect is another manifestation of the state unleashing its most potent weapon, the 'embedded media'; Maoists can do little wrong.

Why is Roy focusing selectively on castigating the state for the force it is belatedly using to reclaim its writ, however faulty? Why is she craftily picking faults with any and everything that the state is doing and has done, knowing fully well that will not help set things right for the people whose cause she has picked up? Why is she deviously casting aspersions on everyone's integrity, Prime Minister downwards, only because India's mineral wealth has to be exploited to support the needs and improving lifestyles of millions, Roy included? Why does she want the state out of the forests where people are living sub-human lives and leave them at the mercy of armed thugs? What is it that makes her hate and oppose the state so much that she can see little wrong with those who oppose it, whether it is in the vast jungles of Dandkaranya or in the 'tiny valley of Kashmir'?

It is not love for the environment or the poorest of the poor - or anyone else - that resides in Roy's heart. That there is no space in it for anything except for hatred, particularly for the institution called the state, is evident from the fact that she has a problem even with the setting up of 'a brigade headquarters in Bilaspur (which will displace nine villages) and an airbase in Rajnandgaon (which will displace seven)'. As far as she is concerned, the state is always against the people, never for it; armed forces of the state only kill its people, not defend them - only those who fight against them do! To prove this to even herself, she sometimes lapses into imagining and inventing simplistic, childish scenarios. Sample this nursery story: "Kashmir used to have a Hindu king and a largely Muslim population, which was very, very backward and so on at the time, because at the time, you know, Muslims were discriminated against by that princely—in that princely state."

Arundhati Roy may have divorced the Indian state and seceded. But that unpleasant parting has evidently neither satisfied her, nor given her peace. On the contrary it seems to have left her even more embittered. There is violence inside her, not love. She wants the big world to believe that violence was done to her and that she did, and is doing, right. That is perhaps why she will not speak up against the Maoists; for her the only violence that is unacceptable is that of the state. Her war is against it. It is not for the poor she is talking about; they just happen to be on her side of the international border.

She does not want the state to correct its many flaws and empower and enrich its forgotten poor; she wants it to abdicate.

She says provocatively that the state needs a war, that the Maoists are to the Congress what Muslims were to the BJP. That may or may not be correct. But one thing is certain: Ms Roy doesn't want any war to end. As long as her luminous prose - that beautiful body that lacks a soul - helps her fight her personal wars from afar, as long as there are non-state actors across the world telling her from the sidelines that she is right, the poorest of the poor can remain just where they are - clothed by the forests that they have been living in long before there was a country called India.