Friday, November 26, 2010

Read Arundhati Roy But with a Pinch of Salt

I have been following Arundhati Roy’s writing for sometime. Among her latest offerings are Listening to Grasshoppers, Field notes on Democracy and the occasional columns she writes for Outlook. She also writes articles for foreign magazines but I haven’t got my hands on them as yet. Since her first and only novel, God of Small Things, she never authored another work of fiction, but she has continued to write on the causes she espouses as an activist. Now, she is more of an activist who also writes rather than a writer who is involved in activism.

There is little doubt that she writes really well, but I find her views to be gross exaggerations. She randomly lifts statements and half facts and uses them to support a larger point she is making. Based on remote statements, she reaches extreme conclusions. For example, in a ToI advertisement on TV, Amitabh Bachan says,” There are two Indias: One the assertive India which is on the rise, the “other” (poor India) India is straining at the leashes (trying to break free). The “other” India should come and join the assertive India.” In her essay, Roy interprets the coming and joining of the “other” India as meaning: if they can’t come and join, wipe them out by genocide.

Her criticism has bite, but it’s mostly repetitive. She sometimes borders on insane bitterness with no care for the other person’s point of view. Sometimes facts also become causalities of her rhetorical flourish.

Her views are mostly on these lines:

India is home to an indifferent middle class which doesn’t care a damn about the poor and suffering and are pursuing their conspicuous consumerism even as a section of the society continues to be pushed further and further to the margins. The rich are constantly growing richer at the expense of poor. The Indian government has become a promoter of corporate interests.

The excesses of the erstwhile Soviet Union and other Communist countries are acceptable if compared with what the big Indian political parties have done. India has become a militarized country with military occupations in various parts of the country, including Kashmir and North East.

The scourge of terrorism affecting Afghanistan and surrounding places and the Maoist problem troubling certain parts of India are one and the same: they are a tribal uprising. Maoists are fighting an oppressive corporate state and their only savoir is guns, and so they are justified in aiming to go all their way gunning to toppling the state and replacing it with a Maoist state. (Give me a break, Arundhati!)

Her views have merit but only partially. Here are the other halves.

a) It’s true that the middle class is largely indifferent and have a ‘for me it’s only me that matters’ mentality but there are exceptions. And then if a middle class guy enjoys his success which he has had to work hard for, what's wrong with it?

b) In it’s zeal for development, governments have sometimes overlooked the interest of the marginalized (Maoist) but the answer is not killing people to avenge marginalization becasue (a) violence won't allow the government to have talks with Maoists as a government can’t turn a blind eye to citizens being killed; it’s responsible for them; (b) there is no alternative to development. In fact, development can be used for the good of the marginalized through diversion of a part of the revenue generated by development for welfare of the people affected by it. You need transparency and proper laws.

c) Some Indian political parties are guilty of human rights excesses (through riots and anti-insurgency activities), but their excesses fade in comparison to what happened (s) in the Soviet Russia and current Communist states.

I guess many would share my views; they are purely commonsensical, if a little naive.

But, in all fairness, probably activism and balance don’t go together. It’s easy to give rounded views when you see problems through TV screens and newspapers, but difficult to be neutral when you are personally involved with people and their plight, as Roy is, being an activist. If you truly feel for an issue, you become lop-sided. I think that’s Roy’s problem. Or is she a publicity hound?

All I know is I will continue to read Roy but take her with a pinch of salt.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Voice for Green

Environment is one of the most talked about issues today. You read about it in newspapers, magazines and hear it debated on television. You see National Geographic–type pictures showing how abuse of environment has left various forms of lives, including humans, affected. You also have people leap at you on road and say, 'Can I talk to you for two minutes – I am from Greenpeace?' Concern for environment has become fashionable. The old divide between the poor and rich is obsolete. Now it’s all about people who care about environment and the ones who expand their wealth at the expense of it. Environment has become a drawing room discussion. Political parties have made it part of their manifestos. Not surprisingly, it also made its way into a humble cyber café I had visited for printouts (I don’t have a printer at home).

While I was at computer, adjusting the configurations of a page to be sent out for a print, a girl stepped in and started a conversation with the shopkeeper. Initially, I dismissed her as a sales girl. But then I realized the conversion wasn’t about sales: it was about environment.

“So they finally had the tree felled?” questioned the girl.

“Yes, yesterday they had a few guys come and do that. I wanted to complain because a branch of the tree used to guard my shop from the sun, but I didn’t. Who will complain about these Reddys of Koramangla; they are very big people here. And I suggest you don’t investigate this case; otherwise, you will get identified,” warned the shop owner somewhat dropping his voice.

“What identified?! I am a journalist and I am doing my job. All I’m doing is creating awareness about trees being felled at will in various parts of Koramangla,” the girl answered indignantly.

“Which paper do you write for?” a boy asked looking away from his computer screen interrupting the conversation. “Hindu,” replied the girl with a trace of pride.

I also wanted to participate in the conversation, but kept quite.

I found the conversation interesting because to me it presented the two sides of the environment concern, the personal and the impersonal. To the shopkeeper, the concern is that the branch being cut has exposed his shop to the sun; to the girl the problem is larger; shrinking greenery. I felt all of us contribute to environmental degradation in our own way, like here I was doing my bit by taking paper printouts. Each time we don’t object to the shopkeeper packing our purchase in a polythene bag, instead of a paper bag, we are guilty of it. My colleagues who have fashionably included 'Print this mail only if you need it; contribute to a safe environment' in their office mail footer smugly walk in with a polythene bag returning from their occasional shopping spree from our office campus (nowadays every IT complex has one).

For next couple of days, I searched for the article on tree felling in Koramangla but didn’t get. Probably I missed the article because I am not a regular subscriber to Hindu  (I just go a grab copy from the stand sometimes). But I appreciated the initiative they have taken up and also how the girl was going about her job.

On a hot day, when I walk on familiar street and suddenly don’t feel the cooling shade of the tree I had felt last time and look up to find an open sky instead of my view obstructed by the foliage which protected me last time from the sun, I realise someone has to stand up so that trees don’t fall. Thankfully, many are doing so and at least they have been able to make us spare a thought for the environment.

It was time for me to leave the cyber café.
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