Book Review: My Seditious Heart, Arundhati Roy

In this collection of essays, Booker-Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy elucidates her thoughts on a wide range of burning issues, writes Latha Venkatraman

My Seditious Heart

In 1997, Arundhati Roy took the world of books by storm with her novel The God of Small Things. It won the Booker Prize, making it a remarkable debut for an author. Till then, she was best remembered for her role in the 1989 TV film — In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, for which she also wrote the screenplay. She won the National Award for best screenplay.

Following The God of Small Things, readers waited for her next work of fiction. That would take a long time coming; The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was published in 2017. In the intervening two decades, she continued with her political essays; writing on various important issues — Sardar Sarovar Dam project, Kashmir, lives of tribal people, religious fundamentalism, the relevance of B R Ambedkar’s views on caste annihilation, questioning the execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru and nuclear bombs, among others.

My Seditious Heart, the latest offering from Arundhati Roy, is a collection of her essays written over the past two decades. The book opens with the chapter, The End of Imagination, which was first published in Outlook and Frontline in July 1998. Here, the focus is on the nuclear tests done by the Indian government in Pokhran,
Rajasthan.

From now on, it is not dying we must fear, but living, says Arundhati in her essay on the nuclear tests. It is supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they are used. “The fact that they exist at all, their very presence in our lives will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom,” she says. Her anger about nuclear bombs is probably lost to the millions in the country who believe that speaking against the bomb is akin to being anti-Indian.

She speaks fervently about the fight against Sardar Sarovar Dam. This fight is not just for one river but about the doubts surrounding an “entire political system.”

Big dams, according to Arundhati, are obsolete. They are a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. “Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people leaving them homeless and destitute,’’ she says in the chapter, The Greater Common Good.

According to her, big dams have not lived up to their role as monuments of modern civilisation. In the first world, they are being decommissioned. The essay, originally published in Outlook and Frontline in June 1999, says that India has spent Rs 87,000 crore on the irrigation sector alone. Yet there are more drought-prone areas and more flood-prone areas today than there were in 1947, it says. Twenty years later, this statement is as relevant as it was then. Arundhati’s anger against big dams is so immense that she likens them to nuclear bombs. Both are perceived as “weapons of mass destruction” that governments use to control their people.

Her chapter on the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate titled The Doctor and the Saint runs in excess of 100 pages. It was first published as an introduction to B R Ambedkar’s book, Annihilation of Caste (The Annotated Critical Edition). The book, when launched in 2014, faced a lot of criticism for Arundhati’s interpretation of Ambedkar’s views.

According to Arundhati, democracy has not eradicated caste. It has entrenched and modernised it. “That is why it is time to read Ambedkar,” she says. “Of his many volumes, Annihilation of Caste is his most radical text. It is not an argument directed at Hindu fundamentalists or extremists but at those who considered themselves moderate, those whom Ambedkar called the best of Hindus and some academics called left-wing Hindus,’’ she writes.

She is critical of Ambedkar’s view of tribal people and says that Ambedkar resorts to using the language of eugenics, a subject that was popular with European fascists.

Mahatma Gandhi, she says, was an admirer of the caste system but he believed there should be no hierarchy between castes. “Ambedkar’s response to this was that the outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes,” she writes.

According to her, Gandhi’s radical critique of western modernity came from the nostalgic evocation of a uniquely Indian pastoral bliss while Ambedkar’s critique came from his pragmatic western liberalism.

Her essays are seemingly easy to read and yet not always so because of their voluminous nature and too many details gained through research. Her arguments, sometimes, do come across as being simplistic. Over the years, she has accumulated several enemies with her hard-hitting essays.

Yet, each of the chapters in My Seditious Heart is timeless and can be relevant at any time in the future. This non-fiction work that runs in excess of 900 pages is definitely worth a read.

 

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