~By Dilip Bobb
India’s most famous Provocateur has, inevitably, made it to the global high table known as the United Nations General Assembly. Equally inevitably, Arundhati Roy’s name figured in the toxic and over the top exchanges between Indian and Pakistani speakers.
Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, in her response to India’s verbal assault on Pakistan, misquoted Arundhati Roy: “As one of India’s most famous contemporary authors recently said and I quote ‘These horrific murders are only a symptom. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the next assault would come’.” India is disadvantaged there. There are many Pakistani journalists and authors who write critically about their government but none with the celebrity status and global resonance that Roy commands. For Lodhi to quote, or misquote her, was an attempt by Pakistan to hoist India on its own petard, in a manner of speaking.
There is no question that she is a very sharp thorn in the side of the Indian government, whether Congress or BJP led, who see her as being guilty of a multitude of sins— an agent provocateur, seeker after publicity, misguided missile, dissident a la mode and also public enemy number one.
The problem is that storied publications in English speaking democracies love to carry anything she writes; much like they would Solzhenitsyn and his criticism of the Soviets were he alive. Abroad, she is the God of Small Things, as in the causes she takes up, from Narmada to Kashmir, globalisation to neo-Imperialism and industrialization to injustice of any kind which affects the poor and the disadvantaged. She is, unquestionably, a rebel without a pause. Now that she has come out with her second book, as brilliantly crafted as her first, the derisive taunt of a one-trick pony no longer carries credence.
Indeed, it is hard to define Arundhati Roy. Author as activist is hardly a new phenomena. From George Orwell to the aforementioned Solzhenitsyn and the recently deceased Liu Ziaobo, a long and distinguished list of writers have played a special role in unsettling the government of the day.
Roy is different in that she is an attractive single woman a la Gloria Steinem, dresses unconventionally but fashionably, has an enviable mastery of words and polemic, and her celebrity status as a Booker Prize winning author means she cannot be easily dismissed or even disapproved. She does go over the top in her criticism but which dissident has not? It comes with the territory.
There are many in the so-called liberal media who are uncomfortable with her anti-establishment stand on a variety of issues but are equally reluctant to be openly critical of her views. On Pakistan specially, the Indian media speaks in the voice of the government—to not do so would invite charges of being anti-national from the likes of Arnab Goswami and his ‘right minded’ fellow travelers. In fact, only one publication, Outlook magazine under the late Vinod Mehta, had the testicles to publish her, the rest were painfully patronizing, and determined to keep her at arm’s length. There was a level of hypocrisy involved in that. They may not share her views, admittedly they are often extreme, but to treat her as an untouchable was their loss not hers.
Under that unruly shock of grey hair is a mind that is unconventionally erudite and engaging. She speaks much like she writes. “The world is a millipede that inches forward on millions of real conversations,” she said while talking about Things That Can And Cannot Be Said, an unlikely collaboration between Roy and Hollywood actor-producer John Cusack, and also featuring whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Her mastery of language is as effective when applied to her multiple real-life causes as it is to her fiction. She is provocative and sets out to be so, but where is the crime in that? As Cusack wrote of his co-author: “She can disarm you at any time with her friendly hustler’s grin, but her eyes see things and love things so fiercely, it’s frightening at times.”
You can fault her on some issues—her support for armed resistance movements—-but very few Indians have as strong a sense of moral righteousness. In her mind, there is no grey, just black and white. Few writers in India have such complexity of thought and such compelling ability to articulate them.
In an India where intellectuals and thinkers and writers are soft targets, and misogyny is an acceptable adjunct, a writer with her talent and rebellious nature deserves more than to become a diplomatic football in the unending India-Pakistan jugalbandi