Confronting Empire, Passionately

by Fakrul Alam

An ordinary person’s guide to empire. Arundhati Roy. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005.

It must have been in 1997—around the time when Arundhati Roy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her first and only novel The God of Small Things — that I saw her on BBC’s “Hardtalk”. The man who was hosting the show then, he with the walrus smile, beamed a question at Roy that he no doubt felt had to be answered: “And so what is your next novel going to be about?” I remember Roy, at first glance waif-like but really self-assured and full of charm that she exudes without trying, smiling and shooting back his question at him: “But what makes you think I will write another novel? I may never write fiction again. If I write anything, it will be on something that I feel strongly about. And that may be anything other than fiction.”

How could the tough-talking host of Hardtalk ,or for that matter, any one of her fans admiring her on television sets and her readers worldwide expecting her to write another passion-filled masterpiece in the manner of The God of Small Things know then that she was not being disingenuous and that her quiet determination to stick to what moved her most would take her away from fiction altogether and make her one of the leading activists of our time? Could anyone watching her in 1997 realize that this woman of immense talent, delicate beauty and infinite charisma would soon become a fervent warrior against injustice in her country and abroad and emerge as a writer of ardent prose that rang with courage, conviction and rage against tyranny and empire?

In fact, within a year after winning the Booker Prize, Roy was earning notoriety among Indian right-wing politicians, nuclear/nationalist strategists and advocates of mega-development projects and multinational schemes by opposing such adventures as the testing of nuclear weapons or enterprises as the Narmada Valley Development projects and by writing scathingly in left-leaning and radical magazines about them. By 2001, her political writing had merited enough attention to enable her to collect them into the book published by Penguin India called the algebra of infinite justice. It was clear to anyone who read the essays that she had collected in it that the woman who had composed that lyrical first novel had found it in her to write polemical prose that somehow managed to be poetic as well as outspoken and passionate as well as provocative.

It wasn’t long after the algebra of infinite justice that the devastating strikes on American icons of power on September 11 2002 led the U. S. government to adopt a policy of preemptive and brutal assaults on suspected “soft” “terrorist” targets. The scapegoat that the Bush administration so needed at that time was found in Iraq. The destruction of Iraq has followed; this country obviously has to hemorrhage to death because of the American government’s need for a bully that it can kick in the butt to demonstrate its capacity to beat into pulp anyone who dares to threaten America again.

Among the chorus of voices heard all around the world against America’s new policy of strident action against suspects to its security shield none has been louder than Arundhoti’s Roy. This, at least, is clear to anyone who reads her latest book, an ordinary person’s guide to empire, for it is nothing less than an indictment of the arrogance and folly of current American imperial policy. In this work—also a collection of essays, speeches, and polemical pieces like her previous book—Roy has once again turned her seemingly infinite capacity to expose injustice and to speak up for the downtrodden to write a book that is powerful, persuasive, and—the word seems to be inevitable when discussing her productions—passionate.

The centerpiece of an ordinary person’s guide to empire is titled, simply and allusively, “come September”. In this lecture-essay delivered in Santa Fe, U. S. A. almost a year after ‘nine-eleven”, Roy identifies her primary theme: “the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in” (14). Power, she notes can inflate national egos, as in a country like the United States and can manifest itself in “state terrorism” as in Indian policies in Kashmir. People in power, she suggests, cynically manipulate the media to perpetuate themselves and pommel the powerless. Occasionally, however, she suggests, these people too get a taste of their medicine, as was the case on September 11, 2002. But while not withholding sympathy for the victims of the terrorist action of that day, she reminds us that its horrors should not blot out at least three other “black” September days: 11 September 1973, when a CIA-backed coup in Chile saw thousands of people dead or “disappeared”; 11 September 1922 , when imperial Britain mandated action in Palestine that would ultimately lead to the partition of Palestine; and 11 September, 1990, when George Bush senior declared to a joint session of Congress that his country was going to war in Iraq. Through displaying these depressing backward linkages of September 11, 2002, Roy rests her case: the deaths and destruction America witnessed that day is linked to fateful decisions taken by once-imperial Britain and neo-imperial U. S. A. Is it any wonder, she is bent on asking, that such imperial folly would come home to roost?

Other target s of Roy’s intense scrutiny as an opponent of neo-imperialism is the western media and the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. The ultimate villain, complicit in all recent aggressive or covert action adopted by western governments, however is “corporate globalization”. Roy notes how after September 11, 2002, the “free” US media began to kowtow the line of the military-industrial complex that now runs the USA and how “the myth of the Free Press in America” came crashing down”. The task of the cultural critic, according to Roy, is therefore “to expose the complex mess of cables that connect power to money to the supposedly ‘neutral’ press”. She shows the duplicity involved in “live reporting”—“live” reportage on TV that is doctored to induce “orchestrated mass hysteria” in unsuspecting viewers and to make profit out of concocted or real crisis, of “crisis as spectacle, as theatre”..

Roy is also scathing in writing about the Hindu nationalism in BJP India that has led to the Gujrati goondah Modi massacring Muslims brazenly. She is also scornful about laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act where “police torture tends to replace police investigation”. For enlightened readers in Bangladesh who amazingly applaud RAB, “How Deep Shall We Dig”, a lecture she delivered at Aligarh Muslim University, should be eye-opening, as when she declares “”In this age of hyper-nationalism, as long as the people who are killed are labeled gangsters, terrorists, insurgents or extremists, their killers can strut around as crusaders in the national interest and are answerable to no one…there is something terribly wrong with a society that drives so many people to take such desperate measures”.. Surely, conscientious people in Bangladesh must learn from her when she notes the implications of the success resulting from the hard work the RSS and Sangh Parivar put into “disseminating deadly propaganda” in educational and other institutions and in a situation where a party like “the Congress sowed the seed and the BJP swept in to reap the hideous harvest”?

Given the vice-like grip of neo-imperialism and multinational expansionism, what can the individual do? In several essays of an ordinary person’s guide to empire, Roy notes that there are still ideals all free-thinking people can champion: respect each other’s rights, end racial discrimination, ban chemical and nuclear weapons, care for the environment, and campaign for justice and the empowerment of those dispossessed by arbitrary governments and gargantuan, soulless corporations. Even empires as overwhelming as the current American one, or a project as insidious as that of “corporate globalization” she suggests, can be confronted. For a start, she suggests, they may be unmasked. Protest movements should be launched in every direction. Not one to despair, Roy believes that “the only way to make democracy real is to begin a process of constant questioning, permanent provocation, and continuous public conversations between citizens and state”. For her, a beacon of hope is the protest movement that led to “the derailing of trade agreements at Cancun” for what the success of that movement teaches the ordinary person is that “in order to inflict real damage and force radical change, it is vital for local resistance movements to make international alliances”. In other words, civil society has a large role to play, whether in the west or India—or may I one add, parenthetically, in Bangladesh—and local resistance movements, grass-root opposition, and, ultimately, “rainbow coalitions” must play their parts.

It is easy to see that Roy derives inspiration from the tradition of non-violent resistance to local as well as state tyranny launched by Thoreau, a tradition carried forward by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But a major source of inspiration for her is the American linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky whose deconstruction of “globalization” and relentless pursuit of his country’s “military interventions” she finds exemplary. Chomsky is her ideal intellectual for he dares to probe, document, and attack, heroically and indefatigably the “merciless, Machiavellian empire” that now rules the world and that she believes is “as cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical as the ones it has replaced”. But as she reminds us, the U. S. A. and Britain have a proud tradition of dissent and of nurturing intellectuals such as Chomsky and harboring the likes of an Edward Said. Here too she does not abandon hope, for to her “more powerful than the American government is American civil society”.

Arundhati Roy writes eloquently and forcefully. The dazzling and playful writer of The God of Small Things is evident everywhere in the prose of an ordinary person’s guide to empire. Thus, to her 12 years after the first blitz of Iraq, she finds that “George Bush Jr has ratcheted up the rhetoric again”. Note the linguistic originality and the wordplay in the following sentence: “And naturally, those who can afford it use free speech to manufacture the kind of product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose (News they can use)”. She is also deft in using the telling example: “Western countries that together spend more than $1 billion a day on subsidies to farmers demand that poor countries withdraw all agricultural subsidies, including subsidized electricity”.

To those of us who admired The God of Small Things, the fact that she has not come up with another intensely beautiful novel must still be cause of some regret, but the passion and lyricism that distinguished that work is very much in evidence in an ordinary person’s guide to empire; only it is now tied to her anger against empire and injustice desire to build a better tomorrow for all. For such indignation, ardor, and zeal surely we have a lot to be thankful for. But I still look forward to reading her second novel sometime soon!

April 23, 2006
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.