A song of hope and freedom

May 30, 2021

In her latest book, Arundhati Roy discusses the power of literature, the repercussions of Hindu nationalism and the perils of being outspoken

It is hard to situate Arundhati Roy’s discourse within a specific domain of existence. Its multi-perspective and multidimensional shades are too expansive to be seen through a single lens. Her Penguin Special collection of nine essays and talks niftily titled Azaadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction effectively zooms in to provide readers with a comprehensive insight into Roy’s multifarious topics.

In this collection, we find her raving about the “Dunceification of the syllabus and Re-Brahamanization of education” in India, we see her slashing social media and television for spreading lies and fake rumours, we observe her distress for the agricultural sector, the increase in the number of suicides and looming threat of eviction from home, we watch her denouncing the lynching of Muslims and relentless attacks on Dalits, and we witness a diehard supporter of the rights of Kashmiris who, as she realises, “know that to exist, they must resist”.

A passionate activist, a literary socialist, a brave and honest soul, Arundhati Roy is a heartthrob for all those who desire to see humanity survive and flourish. Today, perhaps, for her outstanding advocacy of human rights, she stands at the top of the list of renowned activists of the world. Not only that, despite her controversial discourse, direct verbal assaults on the oppressive forces, “draconian laws”, and acerbic criticism of institutional policies, her position among the general public is undeniably a revered one.

She is the voice of the downtrodden and the song of hope and freedom for those held captive by social and political powers. She dreams for a future that is safer, freer and fairer. She asserts that “The Vulnerable are being cordoned off and silenced. The vociferous are being incarcerated. God help us to get our country back”. For her, state oppression is no less dangerous than the current pandemic from which we are struggling to get our peace of mind and lives back.

In 2013, Roy called the nomination of the then leader of the house in Indian parliament a ‘tragedy’, turning a multicultural state into a fascist regime. She holds the forces of capitalism, media, army, and the courts responsible for the selection of the most militaristic and aggressive premier in India. She points out that when an individual becomes a system, all else fall in line. The state of affairs, she laments, “has wounded India’s soul so very deeply it will take years for us to heal. For that process to even begin, we must vote to remove these dangerous, spectacle-hungry charlatans from office”.

A writer-activist, as she is famously labelled, Roy personalises the definition of being an author. While adopting a comic-cum-sarcastic style, she boasts about leading people to what others may call “the wrong path”. It is in this path, imbued with “baleful suspicion” that she finds the way to salvation for the Indians who paradoxically “valorise their own struggle for independence from British rule… are for the most part strangely opaque to Kashmiris who are fighting for the same thing”. Announcing India as an “upper-caste Hindu state”, she laments that it has lost, or perhaps withdrawn, its claim to being a secular or socialist state. The practice of caste, ironically, makes more sense than ever during the pandemic since it promotes “social distancing”.

Roy reflects on various forms of neo-colonialism and in “intimations of an ending”, provides a list of labels to show how identity is now dependent upon outward manifestations of a “legacy document”, “link paper”, “certified” copies, reverification, references, “D-voter”, “declared foreigner”, “voter list”, “refugee certificate” etc. This linguistically oppressive jargon is seeded with an element of fear. The politics of language has changed, inverted and ultimately subverted the meanings attached to the words used to assign rights to people belonging to various casters, creeds and ethnicities.

Addressing the question about her fiction and political discourse converging to become one, she says that the days are long gone when literature was meant for the promotion of aesthetics only. She vehemently asserts that “I have never felt that my fiction and non-fiction were warring factions battling for suzerainty. Literature is not meant only to tear apart, rip open, and unravel the hidden, the unsaid, and the camouflaged but also a ‘shelter’ from which a discourse can be created as a ray of hope and a means to sanity.” It is, in fact, in this insane landscape that she finds her “pots and pans” ready to prepare a recipe for truth. Where “the truth cannot be told”, as in the context of Kashmir, “only fiction can be true”, she argues.

The compilation concludes with Roy’s reflections on the epic dimensions of the pandemic and its implications. In her famous essay, The Pandemic is a Portal, published in Financial Times in April 2020, she unfolds layers of tragedy that have forced us to reassess our boundaries. A strong opponent of nuclear proliferation and proxy wars, she jabs at smart bombs, fighter jets, bunker busters and submarines that have been made to look insignificant in comparison to swabs, masks and gloves. Allowing us to rethink about the “doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”, Roy calls the pandemic a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next”, from which we may one day rise like a phoenix.

Azadi: Freedom.

Fascism. Fiction

Author: Arundhati Roy

Publisher: Penguin Books

Pages: 243

The reviewer is chairperson of the Department of English and Literary Studies at UMT, Lahore

A song of hope and freedom