Posts Tagged ‘Arundhati Roy’

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

June 3, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

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Wanted: A Real People’s Party

July 31, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people.

The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth.

Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India.

This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect of people.

First, Pakistan’s social problems are not due to the bogey of over-population. Bangladesh has a similar sized population and China’s is over five times larger.

Second, Pakistan’s problems are not due to its interrupted democracy. India, with uninterrupted democracy since 1947, is socially speaking an embarrassment of colossal proportions with some of the worst human development indicators in the world.

Third, China’s success is not just due to its authoritarianism. Decades of authoritarianism in Pakistan made things worse not better.

Fourth, Pakistan’s problems do not stem from a lack of money. Bangladesh has forged ahead with fewer resources.

What then is the answer and where is the source of optimism for a better future?

Sen believes India suffers from the absence of vision and the political will to implement it. He puts his faith in the middle class and wants to shame it into shedding its indifference to the wretchedness of its fellow citizens. Pointing to the response to the recent rape in Delhi, he believes the middle class can be moved and once it is positive political action would follow.

Many in Pakistan subscribe to the same perspective but this begs a number of questions.

First, how does one explain the lack of vision? Why does China, or Bangladesh for that matter, have a better vision than India and Pakistan? Sen himself expresses befuddlement as to how governments and the middle classes can’t see the economic and ethical costs of not investing in people.

Second, what is the basis for reposing faith in the middle class? Sure, there will always be members of the middle class who would align themselves with the people in the struggle for rights. But would the middle class really be a part of the political vanguard?

The evidence is not convincing by any means. Arundhati Roy seems more on the mark when she observes that the upper and middle classes are seceding from the rest of the country. Her characterization of this secession as vertical and not lateral is particularly evocative – “They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.”

This trenchant observation ties in quite seamlessly with Sen’s characterization of India as pockets of California amid a sea of sub-Saharan Africa. The middle class wants more pockets of California – without load-shedding and low pressure gas supply, with clean water and secure perimeters – and it doesn’t really mind if that comes at the expense of the people. If the latter’s habitats need to be razed for development, so be it.

History seems to validate Arundhati Roy and not Amartya Sen on this count. People have never been given their rights by a benevolent and visionary upper or middle class. On the contrary, people have extracted their rights through protracted struggle with the assistance of committed members of the upper and middle class.

Whether one looks at the French Revolution, where extended dissemination of ideas about human equality, liberty and fraternity paved the way to an end to the rule of privilege, or Brazil today, where citizens are in the streets demanding better services, the lesson is the same – people have to mobilize for effective political action.

It is that kind of a mass movement which changes the orientation of society, realigning it from a vertical patron-client axis to a horizontal one, in which all citizens are politically equal. In fact, it is that kind of movement that transforms a subject into a citizen which could well be considered amongst the most profound transformations in human history.

Only on that foundation of political equality can be built the edifice of representative governance in which representatives are accountable to citizens. Without that equality, governments would revert, in one way or another, into caricatures of the monarchies that they never outgrew.

The transformation from subject to citizen has yet to occur in India and Pakistan where the old privileged elites remain in dynastic control. To some degree, and with all its peculiarities, it has transpired in China with the People’s Revolution and in other countries in East Asia that were forced to undertake extensive land reforms to forestall the threats of popular insurrection.

Sen concedes this reality. In his latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the last chapter is poignantly titled ‘The Need for Impatience.’ And there is a telling quote in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

It is said that the only photograph in Sen’s study in Cambridge is that of Rabindranath Tagore who named him Amartya. But now, towards the end of his incredible intellectual journey marked by an exemplary gentility, he expresses a grudging admiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Tagore was too patient, he says; Nazrul Islam urged action.

The author is indebted for anecdotes and quotes to Madeleine Bunting’s review of An Uncertain Glory in the Guardian.

Sen and Dreze have held these positions for a considerable length of time. See the reference here to California and sub-Saharan Africa in Ramachandra Guha’s 2007 book.

Sen and Dreze provide a comparative table of human indicators for South Asia and China here. This article is archived in The Best from Elsewhere section of the blog (#80).

For two comments on Sen’s earlier book, The Idea of Justice, see here and here.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 30, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Literature in the Fortress

March 26, 2013

By Hasan Altaf

in The Millions:

ScreenHunter_150 Mar. 26 15.40

From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work. (more…)

Development and Violence: Some Clues?

May 30, 2010

How does one characterize the Indian state and understand its actions? In three posts (here, here and here) we have used the interaction of the Indian state with its tribal population to try and find some answers. None have been fully convincing and in this post we try a different vantage point to push the analysis further.

The facts at hand point to a situation of neglect at best, exploitation at worst. There has been undeniable injustice and the resulting problems are being addressed with force, not through politics. And yet, there are very few voices speaking up for a fair deal. How are these outcomes possible in a liberal, democratic state? (more…)

Arundhati Roy and Martin Luther King

May 26, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

My post in support of Arundhati Roy’s position on the rights of Adivasis had drawn an analogy with the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the US. The point I made was that in the latter case the political spectrum offered a range of options from the very extreme to the very moderate and that this facilitated convergence on an alternative in the middle of the spectrum. With this in mind I asked why the spectrum was so sparse in India with Roy almost being a lone voice easy to dismiss by the mainstream as extreme and unrealistic.

We still don’t have an answer to the question but the comments on the post made me go back and look at some of the source documents pertaining to the civil rights movement in the US. The most relevant for our purposes is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written in 1963 in response to those who criticized his actions as “unwise and untimely.”

This is a document that needs to be read in full and I would urge readers to do so (the link is provided at the end of this post). All the points that were raised in our discussion are addressed here with reference to a real-life instance of injustice. Here I extract some of the key points that bear on the theme of our debate.

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  • You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
  • In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made…  As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.
  • You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
  • We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
  • I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
  • In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?
  • I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency… The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence… I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.
  • Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever… If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history… So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

We can now go back to the issues raised in our discussion of Adivasi rights in India and look at our positions afresh.

The complete text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail is here. It was written in response to this call for unity.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail was included in Dr. Kings’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. Here is a review of the book by J Hornsby published in 1964. I found two items of particular interest in the review. First a comment by Dr. King’s assistant: “We have to have a crisis to bargain with.” Second, Dr. King’s conclusion that segregation was on its deathbed: “The only imponderable is the question of how costly they will make the funeral.”

 

In Support of Arundhati Roy

May 22, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens.

Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal rights of all its citizens, this is not supposed to happen, and unless we subscribe to a utopian idea of everything turning out well on its own, the fact that the systematic problem exists should force us to ask some difficult questions. (more…)

Tony Judt on the State, Democracy and Religion

May 1, 2010

A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end.

You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The “liberal state” itself is a historically specific creation, isn’t it? (more…)

Arundhati Roy

April 14, 2010

By Vijay Vikram

I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India’s choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it – along with Bollywood – is the source of much of our “soft power”, whatever that is. (more…)

Pakistan’s Favorite Indians

October 10, 2009

By Ibn-e Eusuf

I still wish India success but now without much hope.

The point of the story is different from what the sentence seems to convey; and thereby hangs a tale. Let me explain.

When I was young I desperately wanted India to succeed. Looking at Pakistan, I could see it was a basket case, the quality of its leadership decaying at such a dizzying pace that the prospects of internally driven progress were non-existent. The only hope was in a miracle or in a dramatic breakthrough in India. The latter development would make Pakistan’s citizens see the light and make them demand change from its leaders who kept feeding the myth that Pakistan was doing better than India. Or so I thought, and so I prayed for India’s success.
(more…)