Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
by Arundhati Roy
Hamish Hamilton, Hardback, pp. 256, ISBN 0241144620
Readers familiar with Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, which won the 1997 Booker Prize, may recall that the book is brought to life by the sheer vitality of Roy’s language and by the way she unflinchingly lays bare those human frailties of which we have cause to be most ashamed. In her latest book, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, a collection of articles and talks first published individually between 2002 and 2008, these qualities continue to hold her readers in thrall. Just as The God of Small Things centres on injustice and on the dispossessed, Roy’s new book, a blistering critique of the way in which democracy is practised in India, focuses upon the miscarriage of justice, discrimination, and upon the disjunction between rich and poor. These essays are not, she tells us, ‘a panoramic overview’ of events in the world’s largest democracy; rather, they are a ‘detailed underview’, a means of exposing what is going on underneath the surface.
Returning time and again to the same topics, Roy builds her case carefully. She argues that an upsurge in Hindu nationalism, encouraged by politicians, is matched by a concomitant increase in anti-Muslim sentiment. In turn, this reaction has been enabled by India’s closer alignment with the United States since 1989 and, more recently, by anti-Muslim rhetoric deployed by the US in its so-called ‘War on Terror’. Added to the mix is India’s whole-hearted embrace of the free market. Election success for politicians is seemingly linked to satisfying the hunger of global giants for land and natural resources, and the real losers are the impoverished people whose land is being usurped in the process. As Roy wryly remarks, ‘those who cannot consume do not matter’.
Inveighing against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Roy deplores the way it is used against the poor and minority groups, rather than against actual terrorists. The ‘genius’ of this Act is, she says, that it ‘can be anything the government wants it to be’. In Gujarat in 2002, an estimated two thousand Muslims died in riots, an event described by Roy as ‘genocide’ or a ‘pogrom’ apparently orchestrated by Narendra Modi, then and even now Chief Minister of that state. With chilling precision, Roy details how a further one hundred and fifty thousand Muslims were driven from their homes. Furthermore, she points out that of the hundred and eighty-seven people accused under the POTA, one hundred and eighty-six are Muslims and one is a Sikh.
Throughout the book, Roy argues that democracy, the rule of law, and truth itself are also whatever the authorities decide them to be. Since 1990, elections held in Kashmir have, according to Roy, ‘become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation’, and involve the use of phantom candidates. Even the workings of the Indian judiciary fall under suspicion. Not only is the Supreme Court responsible for upholding law, but it is also the final arbiter on public policy and so ‘micromanages’ life in India. However, it is apparently blocking attempts to put in place checks and balances which would make it accountable. Indeed, Roy is acutely aware that she runs the risk of being imprisoned because criticism of the Court is illegal. Also disturbing is the case of Mohammad Afzal, who, having been tried and held responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, remains under sentence of death. This is despite the efforts of Roy and others who have unravelled the case against him and shown it to be full of inconsistencies.
Roy’s incisive ‘underview’ of India crackles and coruscates with rage. The US and the United Kingdom are also on the receiving end of some well-aimed broadsides. As in The God of Small Things, finely honed irony adds force to her preoccupations. One chapter derives from a particularly scathing lampoon of George W. Bush, which was performed originally at an open-air student meeting on the eve of his visit to India in 2006.
Described by Roy as a ‘feral howl’, Listening to Grasshoppers is a counterblast to complacency which has much to say about the erosion of democratic rights and other aspects of life in the twenty-first century, such as the homogenising effect of globalisation and the despoliation of natural landscapes. It closes with ‘The Briefing’, an allegory predicting global catastrophe as a result of the ‘War on Terror’, corporate greed and rampant consumerism. In a telling echo of an apocalyptic scene in The God of Small Things, depicting ‘rats racing across the ruined landscape with dollar signs in their eyes’, ‘The Briefing’ warns that change must come or we shall all have to learn ‘to live like rats in the ruins of other peoples’ greed’.