October 2009

Arts & Letters

Feral howl

By Tim Soutphommasane

Arundhati Roy’s ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’

As a schoolboy in Sydney, I found that my summertime lessons would inevitably be drowned out by the clicking of cicadas. Many find the sound of cicadas somewhat soothing, but for me it was always an unbearable cacophony. Cicadas aren’t the same creatures, I understand, as grasshoppers. But even so, Arundhati Roy didn’t win herself favours from me by calling her latest book Listening to Grasshoppers (Hamish Hamilton, 304pp; $39.95). Much like the singing of cicadas, Roy’s volume, I suspect, will be met with two emphatic responses: it will be music to some people’s ears, but others will do all they can to shut out the noise.

There is certainly a lot of noise generated within this book – subtitled Field Notes on Democracy – which collects essays written between 2002 and 2008. After winning the Booker Prize with her debut novel, The God of Small Things, in 1997, Roy abandoned lyrical fiction to write fiery polemics, with sometimes unlikely subjects. There are the more mainstream causes, such as her opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her environmental politics. But Roy has also been a champion for the Kashmiris, who she believes have been wrongly condemned to death for attacking the Indian parliament in 2001, and she has campaigned to draw attention to the high rates of suicide among India’s farming poor.

Roy offers a radical counterpoint to the conventional wisdom about her country. There has emerged an almost universal opinion in the West – reflected in books such as Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and Robyn Meredith’s The Elephant and the Dragon – that India should be welcomed into the club of superpowers. In contrast to authoritarian China, India is a more attractive emerging power because it is a democracy (the world’s largest) characterised by vibrant public debate and a secular political culture. To borrow Meredith’s labels, the Indian elephant seems less menacing than the Chinese dragon that breathes fire, not only on dissenters within its borders but also on those it perceives to be sympathising with them outside (recall Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer’s recent visit to Australia).

According to Roy there is in fact a dark underbelly of Indian society, which admiring outsiders don’t always recognise. She begins her introduction to Listening to Grasshoppers by asking, “Is there life after democracy?” What she really means to ask, we quickly discover, is whether “the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ nature of governance and subjugation in India” has destroyed liberal democracy. For Roy, the task is to offer “a feral howl” in order to “uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favourite new Superpower”.

Two particular ideas promoted by Indian political elites attract her savage denunciation: Union and Progress. Union stands for the virulent strand of Hindu nationalism (‘Hindutva’) advanced by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Roy reminds us that within weeks of taking office in 1998, the BJP, led by prime minister AB Vajpayee, had initiated thermonuclear tests and introduced a new language of jingoism directed increasingly at India’s Muslim communities. In 2002, only months after September 11, an estimated 2000 Muslims were murdered during a riot – Roy calls it “genocide” – in the western Indian state of Gujarat. But in Roy’s story, Hindu nationalism has been more than an end in itself; it has been instrumental in providing cultural fuel for the engine of Indian free-market capitalism – Progress. “Hindu communalism and nuclear nationalism, like corporate globalization”, it is argued, “have vaulted over the stated ideologies of political parties.” These days, according to Roy, anyone who opposes market reforms is roundly dismissed as “anti-national”, even though the benefits of liberal economic development haven’t always been enjoyed by India’s poorest:

Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it – and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and Special Economic Zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

Roy clearly isn’t an Indian progressive who believes in a national project of Progress, but it is difficult to discern the unifying structure to her thinking. Perhaps it is due to the unevenness of the writing in this volume – which includes lectures, magazine articles and even a short and rather childish play about George W Bush; the analytical core of Listening to Grasshoppers proves elusive.

Granted, many progressives will celebrate Roy as a classic cosmopolitan, given her misgivings about Hindu nationalism. As she has said in an interview, she refuses to countenance questions about even defining India or Indian nationhood: “I don’t think along these lines … I think perhaps that the question we should ask is, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” Yet throughout Listening to Grasshoppers, Roy appears to be an old-fashioned radical who believes everything about the world can be explained by imperial economic determinism. In the chapter that gives this book its title, Roy argues that “genocide politics” is no more than “a multinational business enterprise”, characterised by “an aggressive process of high-end bargaining that belongs more to the World Trade Organization than to the United Nations”. The United States – “the richest and most powerful country in the world” – is lambasted for being the “World’s Number One” in “Genocide Denial seedings”.

And so, rather than a prize-fighter who picks their moment to land the decisive blow, Roy is a street brawler who comes out of her corner, at the chime of the bell swinging wildly. Too often, social and political evils are lumped together in a manner that is not terribly helpful. Suppose, for instance, that you agree that in India “democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism”, and this is supported by “the hoary institutions of Indian democracy – the judiciary, the police, the ‘free’ press and, of course, elections”: what else can you do but despair?

For all of her justified indignation about inequalities and injustices, Roy offers no positive vision of what Indian democracy should look like. There is instead a strange and hyperbolic fatalism, driven by the belief that democracy may well turn out “to be the endgame for the human race”. In short, Roy fails to move beyond anger, rage and limitless pessimism. While she dedicates Listening to Grasshoppers to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason”, there is little hope in these pages, and what reason Roy offers is hard to hear above all the feral, howling noise.

Tim Soutphommasane
Tim Soutphommasane is a philosopher and political theorist. He is a research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, fellow of St James Ethics Centre and senior project leader at Per Capita think tank. His books include All That's Left and Reclaiming Patriotism. @timsout

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