THE BLOG

Arundhati Roy, India's Conscience?

Where art thou, Arundhati Roy? The silence of India's only winner of the Booker Prize is deafening after the country's Maoists, whom she strongly supports, massacred a number of senior politicians recently.

Arundhati also pitches strongly for the rights of Kashmir's Muslims. India's chatterati despises her as the shrill bitch, the tormentor of Kashmir's Hindus, the denigrator of India. Is Arundhati then keeper of India's conscience, or is she someone, who unfairly, and needlessly, rubs dirt in the country's face?

How you see her depends upon your vantage point. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, came out in 1997 and took the world by storm. Noticing a woman giggling all over the French edition in the Paris metro then made me so proud of being Indian.

As Arundhati herself says, her natural trajectory would have been churning novel after novel, and becoming an international icon for India. Instead she veered away into becoming India's fiercest critic, spurning fiction for rabid political commentary.

When Barack Obama visited India in 2010, he applauded the country for listening to every voice. Since no one in India shrieks with as much felicity as Arundhati, quite possibly he had her in mind.

The international acclaim that Arundhati gets adds to her aura, of a Joan of Arc taking up cudgels against the mighty Indian state, but also bares her to charges of hypocrisy. If India, as she claims, has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Kashmir's Muslims, then why does she point the finger from forums in America and Britain, who stand accused of massacring close to a million Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the displacement of millions more?

Another criticism of Arundhati also seems credible; that when she bats for someone, she gives no quarter to the other side. So when she takes up the cause of Kashmir's Muslims, she pays little heed to the plight of Kashmir's Hindus, who have been ethnically cleansed from Kashmir. The separatist Kashmiri leader, Ali Shah Geelani, wants to impose Sharia law in Kashmir, but that has not prevented Arundhati from becoming his fervent admirer. Imagine how she would fare in the world of Sharia if she comported there as she does now.

She labels the Maoists, "Gandhis with guns," and justifies their violence. While ranting and raving, she seems to reserve all the rant for one side, all the rave for the other.

Most of her detractors concede that she is blessed with a piercing pen, which makes her even more dangerous as a provocateur. India's former home and current finance minister, the Harvard-educated P. Chidambaram is her perpetual bête-noire. Even he concedes that while he disagrees with her, he wishes that he could write like her. He could well be trying to get her off his back though to ease his path towards India's prime ministership, upon which his eyes seem firmly set.

If her opponents are not able to placate her, they seek to diminish her. Arundhati has not written another blockbuster after The God of Small Things. Her belittlers question why not. Has she lost the gift of the plume? In all fairness to her, she has been consumed with activism. In any case, she does not need to prove her writing credentials to anyone.

Arundhati has almost single-handedly changed the national discourse around the Maoists, and to some extent, Kashmir. The Maoists were considered sub-human obstructionists, who needed to be cleared from their lands for India to develop. The Indian government was once even considering bombing them. But Arundhati's relentlessness forced the country to reconsider its stand. In the wake of the recent Maoist attack, the government seems to be creeping toward some form of fire from the air though.

More than anything else, it is her fierce support for Kashmir's independence that makes many Indians see red. They fear that the region will became a bastion of Islamic terrorism against India, and hope that she disappears into the black hole that Geelani and his ilk intend to create. But here too, her intransigence has made the government become more sensitive.

That she maintains a house in one of Delhi's most posh neighborhoods, into which she retreats after every excursion of activism, is another cause for mockery. And that Western media, in which India's chatterati craves recognition, gives her so much air time to bash India, is an unending sore spot.

Despite all her supposed ills, Arundhati, like no one else in India today, holds a mirror in front of the country, exposing its biggest warts. Perhaps she draws inspiration from Émile Zola, who pilloried the French president for anti-semitism in the late nineteenth century in the seminal J'accuse.

Arundhati's causes are the very ones that the Indian government would most like to sweep under the carpet. She must realize though that there are two sides to every coin. The Maoists have legitimate fears of being stripped of their land, but the country also needs to exploit minerals. India has valid concerns about Kashmir, just as its Muslims want the government's jackboot off their necks.

Earsplitting as she is, the nation needs her, and more like her. But she would be more effective if she were less partisan, less grating, less accusatory. Only then can she hope to become India's conscience-keeper.

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