Arundhati Roy

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

Arundhati Roy, John Cusack

Given that Ms.Roy is one of the authors, it is only fair to expect a fair amount of radical thought in the book. In just over a hundred pages, it does just that, helped by John Cusack, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, who is described as the Snowden of the 60s.

The content is in the form of observations and conversations with one another. Arundhati Roy is in great form as she articulates thoughts that are not only profound but also vastly out of line with the propaganda that we are so familiar with. After all, even the resistance, as she says, has been quite domesticated. I found some of her observations quite astute. e.g. how “non violence is radical political theatre” and effective only when there is an audience. Or how “human rights are fundamental rights” and should be our minimum expectation, but they have become the maximum, whereas the goal really should be justice! My favourite though was on patriotism – how a country is just really an administrative unit but we end up giving it an esoteric meaning and protecting it with nuclear bombs!  More

An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire

Arundhati Roy 

Arundhati Roy continues right from where she left off (actually she never has) in The Algebra of Infinite Justice. This time, contexts and facts get repeated in essays, and that might put you off, but that should not take away from the messages.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, published in 2004, a couple of years after the other book, consists of 14 articles written between June 2002 and November 2004. The theme of the book is the working of the Empire, not the traditional imperial one built on a smattering of trade and an all powerful military, but the more modern, relatively more subtle one with many simultaneous strategies – ‘neoliberal capitalism’ aided by the IMF, World Bank etc, corporate globalization spearheaded by multinational corporations, and finally a healthy dose of good old state sponsored military might. As Roy writes, add oil and mix. Not to forget the media that makes the entire effort come out smelling of roses. “In this era of crisis reportage, if you don’t have a crisis to call your own, you’re not in the news. And if you’re not in the news, you don’t exist. It’s as though the virtual world constructed in the media has become more real than the real world.”

A lot of the conversation is around Iraq, where the latest version of the above drama is being played out, but in many essays there are historical references of how the US has honed its ‘process’ through various wars it has fought. Creating, funding and then making a huge hue and cry over eliminating armies/heads of state who step out of line. Saddam being the latest. A series of acts that had spawned and now fuels a global threat – terrorism. Two opposing camps feeding off each other. “Al Qaida vs Al Fayda”.

But the story is global, from the police in Kerala displaying the tribals’ bows and arrows as dangerous ammunition to encounter killings from Mumbai to Kashmir to Andhra Pradesh and indiscriminate and illegal uses of POTA to state sponsored terrorism in Gujarat and hunting down Maoists in Jharkand. The story is also of how democracy is just a process of ‘cyclical manipulation” We really have no choice.

It gets scary when she writes how “Modern democracies have been around for long enough\ for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy-the “independent” judiciary, the “free” press, the parliament-and moulding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.”

And somewhere in all this, is the thread of the slow attrition of the concept of justice, especially for the poor and the powerless. “… for most people in the world, peace is war – a daily battle against hunger, thirst, and the violation of their dignity.” The saddest one is about the man in Hasud, a town that was supposed to be ‘relocated’ entirely, courtesy a dam. The man was given a cheque of Rs.25000 as compensation for demolishing his hut. Thrice he went to the town in a bus to cash it. Then his money ran out, and he walked, miles and miles, on his wooden leg. “The bank sent him away and asked him to come after three days.”

Roy has her critics, and she might have many faults, but it is when she brings out such incidents that I feel she is doing justice to the written word and her skill with it. For this reason, do take time to read it.

The Non Fiction Collection: Twenty Years Of Penguin India

Celebrating Penguin’s twenty years in India, this book has a collection of 46 non-fiction works, (chapters from published works) and since there’s no specific theme that links every one of them, I’ll just list my favourites. Devdutt Pattanaik’s Myth = Mithya is probably the best way to begin the book with its premise of creation (as per Hindu mythology) and its take on the complementary forces at play in the universe. Gita Piramal’s “the old fox” gives us the ringside view of the Ambani – Goenka war that played out in the eighties. Humra Quraishi’s “from Kashmir” offers us a glimpse of today’s Kashmir, and the life of the people there, a far cry from the times when Kashmir was described as heaven on earth. Vikram Seth’s “From Heaven Lake”, in addition to its vivid description of travel in China, shows in its last page a snapshot of the human condition that remains unchanged across the globe. Amrita Shah’s “Launching Into Space” is one of those reads that take across time, and space, with its chronicling of the early days of India’s space research programme. Khushwant Singh’s “Village in the Desert” is a very personal recollection of the author’s own childhood in a village that now stands in Pakistan, and shows how people across the line really can go beyond the lines drawn on a map. Sanjay Suri’s “Near Mrs.” (that title is a good example of the humour involved) is a brilliantly funny respite from the serious content in the rest of the book, involving a bride-search in London.

Roopa Swaminathan’s “Extras” is a poignant piece of writing on the life of extras who come to Mumbai/Chennai with the hopes of becoming the next star, but who find that their life has passed them by even as they clung on to hope. Giles Tillotson’s Jaipur Nama has an account of the East India Company’s activities in the context of Rajasthan. Even as Mark Tully’s “No Full Stops in India” gives an excellent perspective on ‘development’ in India, Pavan K Varma’s “Being Indian” has a fantastic take on how India’s own way of getting things done still survives. Abraham Verghese’ “My Own Country”, while set in the US, touches upon, among other things, the idea of a home.

Pinki Virani’s “Home as hell” informs us about sickening cases of child abuse in India. John Wright’s “Indian Summers” gives us a behind-the-scenes look as well as a non-Indian’s perspective on the game that unites India, even as S. Hussain Zaidi’s “Black Friday” shows how communal forces and the merchants of terrorism try to break this unity.

There are also very interesting pieces like the Veerappan based “Face to Face” by Sunaad Raghuram, former PM Narasimha’s Rao’s version of what happened at Ayodhya in 1992.

The book also had quite a few excerpts from works that are already my favouries – Mishi Saran’s “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow”, Shashi Tharoor’s “India: from Midnight to the Millennium” and Arundhati Roy’s “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”.

The book is a few years old, and some of the works, even more so, but they are in some ways, timeless pieces too. I read them because they not only give me clues on interesting books to read, but also offer me a glimpse of worlds that I probably might not travel to in the course of my normal reading journey.

The Algebra of Infinite Justice

Arundhati Roy

For a few years now, I have heard everyone – from sections of media to people in my social stream call Arundhati Roy everything from a Naxalite lover to a development hater to a deranged person, the last instance during the happenings in Kashmir. In fact, these days whenever there’s an issue of national interest with a scope for polarised opinions, I find many people asking about her take, just so they can heap more ridicule. And though I have never really been a fan of her award winning work of fiction, I have admitted to myself, and to a few of my friends, that I have found it difficult to objectively fault her arguments. After reading this book, I have realised why it is easy to hate her – she holds up a mirror in front of us, the kind of mirror that tells us how our apathy and desire to follow the path of least resistance is responsible for the larger problems we see around us.

And she does that not just in some moral high ground, philosophising sort of way. She does so with historical perspectives and economical contexts and most importantly, hard data. And therefore, it is not easy to ignore her when she talks about the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the costs of what we call progress and the greater common good, the background games played behind the ‘developmental’ activities we see around us, America’s war against terror, the beginnings of fascism in India and how all of these are linked. The writer in her is in full flow, using sarcasm and wit to telling effect, to (ironically) show the seriousness of the issue. There is something very vulnerable about her when she talks about her dislike for the ‘writer-activist’ label.

So the next time, I hear something said against her, I am going to ask the person if he/she has read this book. They may not agree with her, but at least this will give them perspective and basis their interest, they can look for counter arguments. What I seek from them is exactly what I seek from myself – an acknowledgment of one’s own role in the issues of today and developing the strength to not look away.

Whose line is it anyway?

When I wrote about the ‘notional boundaries’ in the context of the Arundhati Roy speech, I was reluctant to push the issue further. But while reading ‘The Argumentative Indian’, I came across a section called ‘Critique of Patriotism’ under ‘Tagore and his India’, in which the author – Amartya Sen – mentions that Tagore had once written ‘Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.

Tagore also apparently used characters in his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) to hint at how nationalistic sentiments could easily turn sectarian. Amartya Sen ends the section with the words of Bertolt Brecht “…of the corruptibility of nationalism. Hatred of one group can lead to hatred of others….” you can read the section in entirety here)

And that started a thought on nation states. If we consider attributing more than a functional (say economic, political, administrative etc) importance to it (despite its ‘freedom’ being earned after much effort and sacrifice), how can we logically dispute a demand for separate states intended on the basis of say religion or language, especially since these might be older than the boundaries of the nation state and could prove a better cohesive force than the idea of a country?

This is not to say that I’m in favour of this kind of a line or line of thought, but I would like your help in finding a logical conclusion.

until next time, line of reasoning :)

Speech Disorders

Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ is a book I found underwhelming. It could’ve been my maturity as a reader, or the hype that surrounded the book then, but all said and done, Ms.Roy was not an author who influenced me. Unlike a certain Mr.Tharoor, an author I deeply admire, and whose books (mostly) have given a lot of perspective, even the works of fiction.

But when he had this to say about Roy – commenting that she’d gone too far to the left and her writing about Gandhians with guns, I wasn’t sure whether I could agree, and I asked on Twitter (not to him) whether his stance is necessitated by his political affiliations. A feeling that was mirrored when I read this post by Anil Thakraney. To give you a background on Anil, I think his insightful (inciteful isn’t a word, or it would’ve fitted well too) articles and interviews are amazing, and his posts often find resonance with me, because the issues he talks about and the way he talks about them gives  abundant perspective. I don’t think Anil is compelled by any external force, a possibility that can’t be ruled out in the case of Tharoor. And so I wondered, why I wasn’t in agreement.

Could I’ve been possibly influenced by her articles on tribals that were written a year back – Outlook (which caused the first wave of outrage) and Washington Post (about the outrage) or even this excellent post titled “The Economics, Politics and Ethics of non violence” or just the history. It was human, and I could identify with the view on  the human sacrifices that are made for the sake of progress. A purely bystander perspective.

Or did it only play a marginal role when I considered Roy’s latest remarks on Kashmir? How can you be objective when on one side, she writes a moving article on why young boys are pelting stones and on the other side, you have almost an entire nation outraged? It doesn’t help that its fashionable to hate Roy, and even more fashionable to support her.

So in the end, I’d go beyond the freedom of speech debates and the notional boundaries. I only say notional because, if we look at a larger timeframe, the transience of these boundaries will be more evident. Empires of the past, in their time, would have thought that their boundaries were unassailable, even by time. But they are history. One of the ideas that have remained unchallenged for long is that of the nation state, maybe its time that came up for an overhaul.

A mass of humanity that make up a nation state makes laws that are agreeable to the majority. That’s the way civil societies have been built. The fun part is that, in most cases, the majority are mere bystanders with a notional stake. So at some point, the minority is pushed to such an edge that they’re forced to retaliate. What is only an inconvenience to the majority is a matter of survival and basic rights for the minority.

And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.

(Alice’s restaurant by Arlo Guthrie)

Meanwhile, for some, these boundaries might be sacrosanct, some might believe that Roy is doing it just for the popularity. But, even from the armchair, the hurt sentiments of the first and the (alleged wrong) intention of the second pale when compared to the human condition.

until next time, longish posts are charged with sedation? 😉

PS: Found later that Shoma Choudhury has articulated this well


PR – Public Relationship

The control a brand has, or rather the lack of it, was evident in two examples I saw recently. Both became viral, one at a very small level, and the other, a huge global one. You must’ve guessed the second one easily enough. Meanwhile, the first was ‘Bros Icing Bros‘ and linked to the Smirnoff brand, unofficially. You can read the details here. The way the game worked – “a person presents a friend (err, “bro”) with a Smirnoff Ice which they must then and there – regardless of time, location or context – take on bended knee and chug the entire bottle. The exception is if that friend himself (or herself) is carrying a Smirnoff Ice – in that case, the original presenter must chug both “Ices””  A case of user generated brand buzz, which perhaps did good for the product and was relatively non-detrimental to the brand.

And there’s the first example, which is easily becoming THE example now, for bad PR. BP – if the spill wasn’t bad enough, there was the spillage – the fake PR account – advice on what/why BP should or should not do with it, the tweet billboards, an old (fake) ad, the ironic sign, the ghastly, ghastly images, the user created logos, a coffee parody, and the post from the man who created BPGlobalPR. BP’s losses as a brand (intangible?) is much more than the real $costs that have been speculated. Meanwhile, it has finally reached out to the @BPGlobalPR account. (While on the topic, do check out Rob Cottingham’s excellent take on the subject)

The only commonality I’m looking at is the user generated content (or discontent). I don’t think this is an area which can be gamed easily. Sure, you can try to manipulate events and people, and search engines, try some good old PR, but there are no guarantees that it won’t boomerang. And I think it holds true across the spectrum – the two cases are polar opposites in terms of magnitude of the event, what the crowd did to it, and what the brand tried to do.

Deviating a bit. I read “Arundhati Roy on ‘War of People‘”, where she took the scope of the Naxal issue into corporate boardrooms, and was immediately reminded of Umair Haque’s latest post titled “Ethical Capital is Capitalism’s new cornerstone“. He defines Ethical capital as “the stock of techniques, tools, and practices not just for creating value, but for defining and refining values, that an economy possesses”, and CSR, social investment, social entrepreneurship etc as the baby steps towards building it. But the corporate world still doesn’t understand the rewiring, as he himself notes. And here’s where we loop back, I don’t think this building of ethical capital can be gamed either.

I can spot an increasing number of efforts – Pepsi’s Refresh Project, their efforts for production sustainability, Nokia’s eco profile for new products, their bicycle charger kit, to name a few. While the cynic in me sometimes disses official CSR, I realise its perhaps a level that has to be crossed before we reach out for bigger things. I also see efforts from the consumer side  –  CarrotMob (via Surekha)

I see all of this as a trend where users are linking the brands they use, and their consumption, to the larger context of their lives and the even larger context of the world they inhabit, and the culture they consume and create. The ‘badges’ have changed, they’d like to associate themselves with brands that accommodate or at least work towards these badges.  In the foreseeable future, I think that brands which understand this will not only align more people on their side, but also have inherent features and processes which would allow them to be transparent, reduce these costly mistakes, and admit to their mistakes without the PR approaches that are drawing flak now.

until next time, PR pressure?