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book review


Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as vice-dean, undergraduate, in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

  • Title: Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction
  • Author: Arundhati Roy
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
  • Pages: 243

Partway through Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction., her of-the-moment new non-fiction collection, the Indian author Arundhati Roy reflects on the strange dilemma of her writing life, as someone best known for an award-winning novel, The God of Small Things, who has absolutely no interest in only writing fiction. “I remember sitting in a lecture hall in a college in Hyderabad in front of an audience of 500-600 students. On my left, chairing the event, was the vice-chancellor of the university. On my right, a professor of poetry. The vice-chancellor whispered in my ear, ‘You shouldn’t spend any more time on fiction. Your political writing is the thing to concentrate on.’ The professor of poetry whispered, 'When will you get back to writing fiction? That is your true calling. This other stuff you do is just ephemeral.’”

Arundhati Roy has a lot to say about India, whether or not it will be warmly received

These backhanded encouragements are of a piece with the pattern of men of position and privilege telling Roy what she should (and shouldn’t be) writing, as she dryly notes elsewhere in this same essay, just as they signal a preference for neat and clear divisions of a writer’s focus and capacities. Such divisions make no sense to Roy, who counter-quotes these self-appointed counsellors with a more encouraging observation from John Berger about her and her work: “Your fiction and non-fiction – they walk you around the world like your two legs.” In Azadi – a word that connotes freedom in Persian and in several subcontinental languages, and has related, particular resonance in relation to activist politics and social justice movements – Roy strides, stalks, and marches back and forth across the contemporary Indian scene. She is frequently caustic, hard-minded and confidently leftist in her observations and critiques of her “poor-rich country” and its many inequalities and long-standing divisions and conflicts, especially with respect to Kashmir and the situation of India’s non-Hindu minorities. She brings to bear on these subjects both personal experiences and citations of her own prior work, both the fiction and non-fiction. That approach never feels as self-involved or self-regarding as it might be in the hands of a more self-involved and self-regarding writer (he said), and that’s because at base, Roy is as sincere in wanting to change the world for the better as she is outraged by its present state and zealous about prosecuting those responsible.

Author Arundhati Roy.Mayank Austen Soofi

Roy’s recurring and primary antagonist is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; several of these essays try to make sense of his ongoing rule and its defining components: muscular, sectarian Hindu nationalism, performative paternalism and neo-liberal wheeling and dealing with willing international allies. These include Donald Trump, who – almost exactly a year ago – hosted Modi for a campaign-style event before some 60,000 Indian-Americans in a Houston stadium. In “Intimations of an Ending,” Roy seizes on the event’s nickname, ‘Howdy Modi!’ not as evidence of a brash, playful, and celebratory mashing together of cultures, as many may regard it (that day, “'Howdy' became a Hindi word”), but instead as a source of evasion and obfuscation. Those enthusiastically covering the proceedings, particularly in India, “ignored the thousands of people protesting outside the stadium.”

Roy goes much further than a mere complaint about partisan news coverage, in ways typical of her approach throughout this collection of essays and lectures from the last couple of years. First, channelling Cassandra, she notes that those dismayed by both the “Howdy Modi!” event, and how it was being represented to Indian television audiences, took breaks from watching by switching to “Marshall Curry’s short documentary about the 1939 Nazi Rally that filled Madison Square Garden.” Next, she notes that “Not all the roaring of the 60,000 in the Houston stadium could mask the deafening silence from Kashmir. That day, 22 September, marked the forty-eighth day of curfew and communication blockade in the valley [initiated by the Modi government’s August 2019 Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act]. Once again, Modi has managed to unleash his unique brand of cruelty on a scale unheard of in modern times. And, once again, it has endeared him further to his loyal public.”

Throughout the collection, Roy is intensely interested in what she describes, in the collection’s opening piece, as “a country’s public language, its public imagination of itself.” Roy is convinced that Modi’s government is committed to “the terrifying, sweeping simplifications of fascism” in how it represents the nation to itself and the rest of the world, against which she calls on readers to find sources of hope and catalysts for action “in texts that can accommodate and keep alive our intricacy, our complexity, and our density.” Fiction is a primary source, followed closely by multiple languages spoken in proximity to each other, thereby requiring active and continual negotiation on the part of the speakers and likewise meaningful recognitions of difference and mutual dependence. The linguistic, political, and literary come together magnificently in “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities,” an extended reflection on the many languages that feature in Roy’s personal life and also in her fiction – as she gives voice and reality to the irreducible pluralism of India – and likewise in the public reception of her work in its multiple translations. This is Roy at her most persuasive: the depth and openness of the memoirist, the scene- and world-making work of the novelist, and the exposures and diagnoses of the cultural critic unite with great feeling and force.

Less persuasive, over the course of the collection, is her habit of ending sharp, doom-toned analyses with billowy calls to collective action (“Dear World, find a way”; “We have work to do. And a world to win.”). Likewise, the collection suffers from repetitive citations and phrasing, which is perhaps not surprising given her fixations on Modi and the situation of Kashmir and the frequency with which she’s written and lectured on these topics of late. Perhaps the collection’s most resonant provocation relates to how Roy makes use of the timing of its publication. Chronologically, the pieces lead into the early months of the global pandemic, and she ends by encouraging us to make use of this present moment “to rethink the doomsday machine [of extreme inequality] we have built for ourselves” through neo-liberalism and globalization. “Historically,” she writes, “pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.” We’ve all read variations on that theme, if not Roy’s version, which tacitly calls out the uncritical longings of her admiring Western readers. Roy’s sense of human affairs these days, particularly in India, both before and now during COVID-19, and in both her fiction and non-fiction, convince her, and challenge us to acknowledge, that for millions of people around the world, “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

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