How Arundhati Roy chose the dangerous life of a dissenter
5 min read.Updated: 20 Sep 2020, 10:00 AM ISTTT Ram Mohan
Arundhati Roy may be incorrect in her reading of the causes she has chosen to take up, she may not have the answers to the problems of our times. But we need her to pose the questions
Arundhati Roy’s assault on the establishment is all-encompassing. She has questioned the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted for his role in an attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001; condemned the Congress for its role in the Sikh riots of 1984; castigated Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the communal riots that happened in Gujarat during his tenure as chief minister; lashed out against American imperialism; railed against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians; criticized the government of Sri Lanka for human rights abuses during its confrontation with the LTTE; spoken out against the surge in Hindu nationalism in recent years.
It’s hard not to admire the energy she brings to her causes. Roy has the capacity to burrow through mounds of literature on any subject, be it irrigation or power generation. She may not always be able to persuade but she certainly challenges you to think through your own position. Take her essay on the hanging of Afzal Guru, for example. Roy raises doubts about Guru’s culpability in the attack on the Indian Parliament. Her account is bound to leave the reader unsettled; you are left wondering whether the case was not cooked up by the law-enforcement agencies. She could be wrong about Guru. But it’s hard to dispute her basic contention: wherever we look, what we have today is a brutal and iniquitous system that pits the elite against large numbers of ordinary people.
When you ask what is to be done, Roy leaves you groping for an answer. Roy would like the existing structures to be razed but she does not tell us what should take their place. If governments, political parties, corporates, the judiciary and the media are all fatally flawed, where do we begin in terms of setting things right? Parliamentary democracy and capitalism have their shortcomings but what alternatives do we have? How do we progress other than by bringing about incremental change, demanding greater accountability? Roy has all the right questions; she provides no answers.
What Roy is clear about is that she is a compulsive dissenter. ‘The only way to keep power on a tight leash is to oppose it, never to seek to own it or have it. Opposition is permanent.’ She adds, ‘There are people who have comfortable relationships with power and people with natural antagonism to power. I think it’s easy to guess where I am in that.’
Taking on the establishment the way Roy has done is not easy anywhere in the world, certainly not in India. A lesser person would probably be in jail on some frivolous charge or the other. Or she could get bumped off, as has happened to several dissenters such as the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi or the journalist, Gauri Lankesh. Roy’s international stature is, perhaps, what keeps a vengeful state or corporate and other interests from harming her.
But she is well aware of the tenuous nature of the protection her fame gives her. She told an interviewer, ‘. . . it’s become really frightening. There are people who say, “She should be shot. She should be jailed." I’ve had rocks thrown at my house . . . If I’m supposed to speak somewhere, these gangs of storm troopers gather, shouting, “Arundhati Roy, she’s a traitor, she’s a friend of Pakistan"—all just stupid stuff.’
She is equally aware that when you are so completely at odds with the establishment, it is vital to have sources of sustenance. Roy finds sustenance within herself and in her friendships. She told a writer from the Guardian, ‘. . . It’s a game of survival, and if you allow yourself to become unhappy, you will lose everything . . . I think it’s important to patrol the borders of your happiness, to understand your sources of joy and to protect them, and to know that, so often, it’s only when that happiness has gone that you know what it was. But you can be cooking or listening to music and think, I don’t need anything else to happen or anyone else to be any other way in order to be happy.’
She calls her friends ‘extraordinary people’ who have learnt to deal with her fame and money and who have kept the ‘democratic nature of our relationships’. The Guardian interviewer writes, ‘Happiness for her, she says, might be going to the market and choosing glass beads after weeks of late nights drafting an affidavit, or just lying on the floor all day with friends under a ceiling fan in the Delhi summer. Even gossiping with friends about relationships as the police move in to break up a demonstration at a dam site.’
It’s not easy to be Arundhati Roy. It takes extraordinary courage to have lived the life she has lived—whether it was leaving home at sixteen to study in Delhi; living in a tin shack while pursuing her studies; marrying somebody several years her senior and then separating; standing up for the underdog in Indian society and elsewhere; railing against top politicians and businessmen.
It would have been simple enough for Roy to use her stardom to find a cosy niche for herself in the establishment. She could have become a member of the Sahitya Akademi committee, India’s national academy intended for the promotion of literature in Indian languages, won state honours, become a nominated member of Parliament, or obtained government land for a cultural organization she wanted to set up. She could easily have become a member of Delhi’s Lutyens elite, attending lavish parties and rubbing shoulders with ministers, bureaucrats and other members of the establishment.
Roy has eschewed these safe sanctuaries in favour of the dangerous life of a dissenter. She may be incorrect in her reading of the causes she has chosen to take up—Kashmir, dams, Naxalism, economic liberalization, globalization, etc. She may not have the answers to the problems of our times. At times, her criticism may seem to border on nihilism. But we need her to pose the questions. We need her to speak up for the oppressed, to challenge and shake up the establishment.
Not many of us can speak up as freely as she does because we have jobs to protect and we lack the means to withstand any onslaught that any serious challenge to the system would bring. If Roy is willing to use her celebrity status to hit at the establishment, more power to her. In a world of conformists and cowards, Roy’s courage inspires and kindles hope. Roy sums up her philosophical outlook aptly: ‘Whether you’re fearful or fearless, what happens will happen. It’s idiotic to be fearless, but it’s not worth living in fear.’
Excerpted from Rebels With A Cause: Famous Dissenters And Why They Are Not Being Heard by T.T. Ram Mohan with permission from Penguin Random House India.