Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The serial opponent

It was the day the World Social Forum 2004 opened. Of the many speakers who spoke that night, two stand out in my memory. The first was the incredible Shirin Ebadi, whose speech, like so many other speeches that day, served only to reaffirm the need for continued effort in the area of human rights and the importance of building stronger ties through forums like the WSF. It wasn't a particularly striking speech - what made it memorable was the way it was delivered, the quiet dignity of the speaker, the sense you got that every word had been carefully weighed and considered, drawing upon long years of experience fighting, and winning against, injustice.

The other speech I remember from that evening was Arundhati Roy's. Ms. Roy's speech was anything but quiet or dignified - it consisted, if memory serves, of exhorting the assembled public to direct, even violent protest against all MNCs; Ms. Roy's argument being that these companies (which included, as I remember it, Coke and Pepsi) were profiteering off the war in Iraq and as such were fair game for attack (the irony of proposing violent protest against - presumably - innocent managers in local MNC offices in order to protest the US invasion of Iraq had apparently not occured to Ms. Roy). Two things struck me about this speech. The first was the stirring effectiveness with which it was delivered - the quality of speech writing, the feel for the dramatic. The second was the sheer irrationality and empty-headedness of the argument being made once you got past the verbal fireworks. It wasn't just that what Ms. Roy was suggesting was impractical (I'm all for idealism) it was that what she was saying was ridiculous both morally and intellectually.

The contrast between these two speeches, throws into sharp relief for me the reason I have a low opinion of Ms. Roy. It seems to me that Ms. Roy has no real opinion (to the extent that an opinion can be defined as a reasoned and consistent set of ideas) all she has is a certain amount of literary talent and an overblown attitude. Protest, in Ms. Roy's world, is to be valued for its own sake and need not, therefore, be linked to either a coherent reason for protesting or a potential outcome to be achieved from the protest. There's something very adolescent in this - Ms. Roy has the petulant and combative self-righteousness of a teenager desperate to be allowed to sit with grown-ups.

Take her new piece in the Hindu protesting George Bush's visit to India, for instance. The entire piece is one long collection of indignant non sequiturs from start to finish. George Bush, we are told, is coming on a "triumphalist tour" to "wave imperiously at people he considers potential subjects". Huh? When did that happen? Last time I checked the purpose of his visit was to discuss a hugely sensitive nuclear deal, not to crow over the conquered locals like some decadent Roman emperor.

This gem of hyperbole is followed by a long rant about the venue of Bush's public address in Delhi - the Old Fort - a diatribe that, not content with being gratuitiously insulting to Bush (and showing off Ms. Roy's deep and analytical understanding of the local fauna) includes a set of incoherent pot-shots at the "rich folk who live in our poor country like caged animals" who are, apparently, "protecting themselves from the threat of vulgar and unruly multitudes whom they have systematically dispossessed over the centuries." What? Never mind the irrelevance of the venue of Bush's speech, or the speech itself. Never mind the questionable factual basis for assuming that the only people at this speech will be rich capitalists (one would have thought bureaucrats and politicians would make up large chunks of the audience. Oh, and journalists.). Never mind the long and tortuous debate about the merits of capitalism / free market and the benefits of these systems for the nation's economic development. Never mind the engrossing question of how, in a land that has been independent for a little under 60 years, and liberalised for a little over a decade, corporate CEOs could have been dispossessing the people for centuries. Never mind that many of those CEOs may be as opposed to Bush's foreign policy as Ms. Roy herself. Why in god's name is this woman ranting about India's internal socio-economic inequalities in an Op-Ed column on Bush's visit? What's the connection? Can this woman stick to a point? Does she have one?

Oh, but it gets better. Just in case you felt the issue of venues Bush will visit had not been developed enough, Ms. Roy spends the last paragraph of her 'opinion' piece arguing against Bush's visit to another venue - Gandhi's memorial at Rajghat. Millions of Indians, we are told, will wince at this. Make that a million less one. How does it matter what bogus PR stunts Bush pulls, or whether he does or does not place flowers on a stupid slab of stone? What could that possibly have to do with the real and potentially frightening outcomes of Bush's visit? If millions of Indians want to wince over his visit let them wince if / when he signs a deal that helps India take her nuclear program forward.

That deal, and its ramifications, incidentally, aren't even mentioned in Ms. Roy's article. Apparently, what the primates in Delhi Zoo think of Bush are, to her, of more immediate and pressing interest. "It is not in our power to stop Bush's visit. It is in our power to protest it, and we will.", Ms. Roy finally declares. But in her entire piece she gives us no reason to protest his visit. If Bush's visit is to be protested, it should, hopefully, be for a reason better than proving that such protest is possible. What an issue that warrants such a protest might be, unfortunately, Ms. Roy sheds no light on, blithely assuming that anyone reading her piece must already agree with her point of view on this (though, of course, in that case, there really isn't much point to the article, is there?). What then, is she protesting? Bush's existence on Earth? The possibility of transatlantic flight? And this is the sort of idiocy that what is arguably the country's most intelligent newspaper prints under the heading Opinion / News ANALYSIS!!! [1]

Don't misunderstand me. I'm as opposed to Bush's foreign policies as anyone, and am entirely with Ms. Roy in describing him as a war-monger and terrorist. But that's precisely why I find Ms. Roy's piece so irritating. With so many good reasons to criticise Bush available, why pick on a bunch of things that make no difference to anyone, and reinforce the stereotype that Bush protesters are just airhead liberals who rant about anything and everything. To begin with, if we are protesting anything at all, it should be specific decisions or actions that Bush might take in India, not the fact that he's visiting India at all. If that visit per se is cause for protest then are we to assume that it is Ms. Roy's position that we should never meet with our enemies, never engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue with them whatsoever? That the very presence of someone whose policies elsewhere and/ or in the past we disagree with is cause for protest. How is that going to bring us any closer to a reasonable solution of the world's problems? It is my personal belief that if we are to make any progress at all, we must put our faith in a discussion of the issues, not in this sort of blind antipathy to anything and everything associated with those we oppose, not in this sort of boorish sniping.

Ms. Roy would like to believe, no doubt, that she is an activist. That, in my opinion, is false. Activists are people who bring courage and determination to finding meaningful solutions to real problems in a carefully considered way. People who will say any old thing to get their audience worked up against the other side are just rabble rousers. Ms. Roy may have a great facility with words (though, personally, I found even the writing here fairly jarring - what was with the long drawn out animal motif; and that incredibly obvious quail hunting joke?) but that's no substitute for honest content. And the sooner we stop taking her seriously, the sooner we're going to be able to engage in real debate on real issues again.

[1] By way of contrast, read this editorial in the NY Times about Bush's visit to India.

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waiting to meet Whitman said...

Couldn't agree more! Such a shame that Roy- one of the few, talented writers to use her visibility to talk about 'social causes'- is all smoke and no argument. ( maybe she's secretly parodying Bush's weapons of mass destruction 'argument'- another stellar example of logical reasoning and incisive analysis!)
Also irritated by similar 'anti-Bush' rhetoric showcased in the Indian media, which doesn't even consider India's position as a participant in a discussion, as opposed to a passive, unquestioning and disempowered recipient of the Bush admin's plans.

N said...

Read the article. My god! What utter crap! She should stick to writing fiction. Though with her stretched little animal allegory, she may not be able manage even that any more. Sad and disappointing.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me ...

You know they've reintroduced the death penalty for
insurance company directors?"
"Really?" said Arthur. "No I didn't. For what offence?"
Trillian frowned.
"What do you mean, offence?"
"I see."

What you fail to understand is that People who protest rarely need a reason. All they need is someone to whip them up into a frenzy and off they go.
At times, I think, they do NOT want to think about it. It is easier that way, lest it weaken your resolve.

Now..I wonder what my point was..

dazedandconfused said...

Agree with you and nice ed in the NYT as well (there's an opinion). Yup, she should have stuck to writing fiction. But at the other end of the spectrum there's NRN Murthy who advises the Indian govt. in an 'India Today' column on how to make the US CEOs feel welcome. Extremely saccharine. I couldn't help ranting about it in my blog.

Veena said...

Falstaff: I don't think anyone takes Roy seriously. Other then N Ram, it would seem!

And you were at the WSF? After a hard's day of work at the Firm?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

We share an opinion on A. Roy.

You also listen to Tom Lehrer.

Mayhap you have also read "Battle Cry" (cf:the Marine Corps angle)

Were you ever at the Kumbh Mela?


Falstaff said...

Okay, I could have sworn I posted a long reply to the comments here. Except it doesn't seem to show up anymore. Aargghhh!!!

So here's the abridged version of what I said:

Waiting: Yes, exactly. And couldn't agree more with your second point: instead of protesting against Bush, why don't they try protesting against their own elected representatives if they don't like the treaty?

Anindita: Agree. Though I think it's useful to keep in mind that it's not Ms. Roy has a long, distinguished career as a writer of fiction either. One good but overhyped book ten years ago does not a novelist make.

Anon: I do understand that - it's precisely what I call rabble rousing. The irony is that 'let's not think about it, it might weaken our resolve' is the one argument that Bush & co. are better at than anyone else.

dazed: the substance of my long reply to your comment was that I thought you were being unfair to NRN, who makes some good points, I think, but goes wrong in arguing that the government should do something about them. Guides and helicopters for US CEOs are a great idea, but it's not clear why private operators couldn't provide them if they're really needed. As for the approval process, it's not clear to me why we have an approval process at all, and why we wouldn't simply allow free access to foreign investors. You may not be able to avoid case by case evaluation entirely, but you could certainly rationalise it to the point where some 90% of proposals go straight through. Studying how China does it, for instance, might actually be a good idea.

That said, I think the conclusion I'm coming to is that we need professional op-ed writers - relying on novelists and CEOs to play that role may not work.

Veena: Ah, but I had already quit the Firm by then, and had moved on to my NGO avatar.

As you (and another person who sent me a comment) say - it's not clear that anyone does take Roy seriously. Which is why I was surprised to find her writing op-ed pieces in the Hindu. I mean, that's as bad (if not worse) than ToI with their vision of Shobhaa De as an 'opinion-maker'

J.A.P: I have read Battle Cry, actually. In fact, I've read pretty much all of Leon Uris. But that, (as I keep trying to tell Megha) only proves that the Kumbh Mela hypothesis won't work - everyone know that if you get seperated in Kumbh Mela (or elsewhere) you go completely seperate ways. If the Kumbh Mela thing had happened I would have been a Dan Brown reading, hip-hop loving smuggler by now.

Alok said...

I don't disagree but I think you misjudge her place in the debate. You can't participate in a debate just by a restrained and, dare I say, academic arguments. you need your share of rabble rousers and rhetorical and passionate pamphleteers too. More so when your opponent has no qualms in using the same.

The role she plays is not of an original thinker but of someone who shifts the terms of debate. No body stops you from reading chomsky or tariq ali or The Nation magazine. Arundhati roy is important because she draws attention of people who would rather sit on the fence, to this side of the debate.

btw, i think the hindu article was a short, rather hurried rant. And I also agree that she is sometimes rather careless with metaphors and analogies. that's understandable because her basic sensibility is that of a fiction writer. I mean what you would think inventive in fiction often turns out to be inappropriate when you apply it in real life situation.

Anil said...

I agree with you for the most part...I do like Roy as a great writer, and her attitude of never giving in to what the majority might think. And I never understood why she needed to be criticized almost blindly by some right leaning lit snobs!

But I did get put off by that article you have talked about(it was published in The Guardian as well). As you said she just did not offer any reason to protest Bush's visit. I agree he is one of the biggest criminals on this planet today but for all his faults I doubt if he thinks of himself as some new age version of Alexander out to conquer the world!

However, having said that I think people like Roy are needed.She was one of the very few prominent Indians to protest India's nuclear test's. It does take a certain amount of courage to stand against the tide of majority opninion. And all said and done even her highly opinionated writings make very good reads.

Sony Pony said...

yeah, I have to agree with the last two, much more forgiving takes on Roy. "God of Small Things" is too much a part of my heart, for me to be completely objective about Roy. But I've always winced a little when I read her nonfiction, political essays. And read them at an arms length.

I would disagree with the idea that she is not an original thinker, though. She makes original points all the time, I can name a few, but they are completely unrelated to this post...alas

And lastly, that bit about splashing a pint of blood on the memorial, and making desis wince? that's just cool. Talk about "literary fireworks"

Darth Midnightmare said...

Yes, A Roy does sound like little more than a rabble-rouser when she tries to be 'intellectual'. One of the root causes of this though - purely my opinion of course - is that like most of the pseudo intelligentsia in India, she too is quite unfortunately, Leftist in orientation and the Indian Left, as I am sure you will agree, has seldom if ever made any sense, choosing to believe rather in rhtoric, ranting, strikes and the occasional dash of violence. Sad but true...all the legacy of the inscrutable M/s. Nehru and G of course...

Falstaff said...

okay, there is something very wrong with blogger now. It just refuses to post replies to your comments I put. Sigh.

Alok: I know what you're saying is reasonable, and I shouldn't take her so seriously, but there are two things I disagree with:

a) I think there's considerable room between serious / academic analysis and this sort of idiocy. I'm not expecting her to be brilliantly insightful or anything, but I think we're entitled to basic coherence at least. Her non-fiction writing more generally has that - the arguments in Algebra of Infinite justice, for instance, are flawed, but they're at least arguments. If I truly had no point of view on Bush and were to read this piece it would certainly make me take sides - for Bush - if only to avoid associating myself with this sort of unfocussed indignation.

And I agree that this article is probably just a hurried rant, but that's exactly my point. Surely someone who's going to be published in a leading national paper as well as in the Guardian should put a little more care and effort into their writing. Even if you had only two hours to dash off a quick piece opposing Bush, surely you could do better than this.

b) thinking about it, at least part of what disturbs me about the article is not Roy herself but the importance that other people seem to be giving her. You can argue that no one takes her seriously, but she's in the Guardian, for crying out loud. Surely we can find someone who will put together a better op-ed article than this. It's stuff like this that makes me think (reluctantly) that Naipaul might be right about India after all.

anil: I agree, though I should say that I'm much less enamoured with Roy as either a writer or an activist as you seem to be. I wouldn't for instance, call her a great writer - I remain underwhelmed by God of Small Things. That has a lot to do with my being a lit-snob, but nothing at all to do with being right-wing, which I'm clearly not.

T.S Eliot once said that the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. My problem with Roy is that I often agree with her politics but not with the logic she uses to arrive at it. Take this piece for instance. I agree entirely with her (and you) that Bush has many things to answer for, but his visiting Rajghat is not , in my opinion one of them. I'd be much more willing to respect the courage of Roy's minority opinion if I could:

a) Agree with her reasons for holding those opinions

b) Be convinced that she didn't hold those opinions precisely because they were minority opinions and she just likes being contrary

c) See some evidence that she has a credible solution / resolution in mind when she opposes an action.

Sony: I think the fact that you think the spilling blood on Rajghat line was cool explains exactly why you and I disagree on whether Roy is a good writer. You clearly see that as a true literary firework. I see that as a cheap jingoistic trick that has nothing to do with good writing. In the end, as with everything, it comes down to a question of personal taste.

Midnightmare: Thanks for that comment, if only because it helps to underscore the point I was trying to make to Anil. It's precisely Roy's status as the archetypical leftist 'intellectual' that I most resent. I'm all for the leftist intelligentsia - I'm questioning Roy's right to be included in that category at all, let alone be poster girl for it. It's like trying to have a conversation about Dhrupad and discovering that most people think of 'Indian' music as being Bhangra. Aarggh!

Cheshire Cat said...

The article was in the Opinion/Editorial Analysis section, no? The first, if not the second, is appropriately descriptive. It was you who capitalized "Analysis" and added three question marks after it!!!!

I might half-heartedly defend "The Hindu", but Roy herself is a different case. Why waste space on her, she's just contemptible.

Falstaff, I do find it interesting that you say "right-wing, which I'm clearly not" and then quote T.S.Eliot in the very next line :)

confused said...


The problem for Ms Roy's of the world is that they are activists(whatever that means) for the sake of it. I can bet my last penny that if America was to do a U turn, then still Ms Roy and her ilk will find something to oppose.

You hit the nail on the head when you said opposing Bush's visit to Rajghat is ridiculous. When millions of Indians have not cringed when corrupt debauched politicans of all hues and shapes pay their ''respects'', Bush is perhaps a lesser evil.

I do take offense to Bush being called a terrorist, but that is a seperate debate. Just that, you not agreeing with his policies by itself does not make him a terrorist. War monger..sure but terrorist hell no...

A very good read. I would be back for more.

dhoomketu said...

Falstaff, thought I must let you know this.

Mumbai mirror decided to print an excerpt of your post today. Now, I will wait for Ms. Roy to post about it!!

Heh Heh said...

Hear Hear!
To be very frank, I do not think too highly of her writing..

Falstaff said...

Cat: :-). Aw, come on. You know I think of Eliot as being above such petty politics.

Confused: thanks. Perhaps terrorist is not the strictly accurate word. It's really a function of what you consider makes someone a terrorist. And as you say, that's another debate.

dhoomk2: thanks for the heads-up. Can Mumbai Mirror just do that? Now I'm tempted to talk about how they're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Rishi said...

Excellent: eloquent and cogently written. There's an interesting article in the Outlook comparing Mahashweta Devi and Roy as writer-activists. Given the source, it's nothing very deep, but worth a read:

HY Sharada Prasad also wrote about the essential hollowness of Roy's rejection of the Sahitya Akademi award. This was in the Asian Age, I think: The Goddess of very small things.

Anil said...

It was not my intention to label you as right are anything but that from what I've read on your blog so far :) I was refering to the many blogs I came across online who seemed to criticize her just because she does not hesitate from being outspoken about her beliefs and ideas. Hey, she is not subtle I know but well thats the way she is.

I too was not unduly impressed by The God of Small Things as a novel but I did fall in love with her exquisite and sublime metaphors.

What also irks me about people who criticize leftist ideas are that they confuse the many different ideas of the left and lump everything into one homogenous whole. I'm not a communist and I do not like communism (yes, the left parties of India have never ever appealed to me) but I do believe that a government should have social responsibility and work for the welfare of her poorest citizens. Spending billions on nuclear bombs and weapons in the name of security or throwing open the markets to big business is fine but let us not lose track of the fact that capitalism is not gonna help India's poor to a great extent. The majority of the corporate world is not bothered by the have-nots of society and this is where the government should concentrate the most imo. Otherwise, we will have more and more unrest, distrust and a grossly unequal distribution of wealth.

My apologies if I went off on a tangent there :)

Falstaff said...

Rishi: Thanks. And thanks for the links. And yes, I had read the piece about the Sahitya Akademi award rejection.

Anil: No apologies necessarily at all. I know you weren't trying to include me in your criticism of the right wing folks.

On God of Small Things: I agree entirely - I'm not saying it wasn't a good book, just that it's overhyped. There are at least a half dozen books on the Booker Longlist this year alone that I would pick over it.

As for going off on a tangent - that's essentially what this blog is anyway, so be my guest. On the whole I couldn't agree more, though I'm probably more supportive of socialism than you are. But that's another (really, really long) post

D.Rajesh said...

I just could not stand this nonsense of so many of them quoting the likes of Arundhati Roy.

Just read below and you will know what exactly happened in India during GB's visit.

It absolutely is not what A.Roy and her always lying supporters claim.

I am happy that atleast one blog has not fallen to this intellectual blabber of A.Roy and clearly exposed what she really is.

Read below:--

I am publishing this stuff in my blog after I had hastily typed this out yesterday as a comment to couple of blogs that did not seem to like Bush much. Both were blogs by Americans and hence I thought they should know a bit of truth about what went on India in response to Bush’s visit.

I just saw President Bush's speech to a select Indian crowd in Delhi that was televised throughout India. I should say that the attitude, content and above all the delivery was really good. I come across such ridicule in the net about the American president, which the poor man actually does not deserve. A speech such as this doesn’t come out of morons even if there are very good speechwriters to back it up. Its just not about the speech but its about what Bush is planning vis-à-vis India on a long term basis.

The point about the Indian protest was that it has got nothing to do with common Indian people.

The core protester group:

1. Communist - No comments about followers of Stalin and Lenin. Guess who their best friends are ?? Kim-Il-Sung, Castro, Iranian Mullahs, etc...
An old Tamil (my mother tongue) saying is that one is known by his friends...

2. Radical and moderate Muslims groups - Although most of the Indian Muslim population are docile a small section still live in 7th century and look towards Arabian Muslim culture for everything. The problem is that a small section of 150 million is still a big number. Do not feel ashamed or sorry if these guys burn American Flags of effigies of G.B. You cannot expect anything better from them than this.

3. Politicians - There is one huge crooked gang of politicians in India whose single agenda apart from looting the country is to try to get the Muslim votes by any method. If needed they will go to Mecca, renounce their religion (most of them are Hindus), pander to Islamic terrorists in the name of negotiations, just to get those minority votes. Mr. Bush has offered these morons a great opportunity to show to the Muslims as to how they care about them. We in India call this as Pseudo secularism.

4. General crowd – Just announce a meeting anywhere in India with a few known faces, you certainly will get a big crowd. The general crowd comes to see what’s all this about. Have some entertainment watching this entire ruckus and back home without knowing what this is all about.

5. Intellectuals – We have this unique breed in India, 99.5% of whom are communist sympathizers and who love to hate USA on just about any matter. Over the years they somehow have squeezed themselves into the media, and all other opinion making forums and sound their drum against anything that is done to help the poor by the way of liberalizing trades, cutting the red tape etc. They get angry when things start improving in a way that has not been advocated by Marx or Lenin etc. For these intellectual giants this is just not possible. They prefer to look away and blatantly spread misinformation about things that do not fall in the line of their intellectual dogma.

As one can see none of the above groups represent India. These are simply backward looking people who just give importance only to their own ego and faith. One end of the spectrum of such groups are the communists and in the other end the Islamists. Both are dogmatic and unwilling to accept anything even if the facts are spread before them.

So as an Indian my views are: -

1. George Bush is certainly not some one as is being demonized by most of the world media.
2. He has his own goals and priorities, as would any head of a country. I could very clearly see the paradigm shift that he is trying to make with regards to Indo-American relations. A country with a billion plus population with a growing economy and a solid law abiding and tolerant majority population is not some thing a country like USA could ignore. A mature head of a country knows about this and realizes that these guys have lot in common with us and its time we get together. George Bush has done just that which means he certainly is an intelligent man and not a moron as he is made out to be.
3. George Bush has not done the same with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya or Syria because those criterion stated above wouldn’t apply even a bit.
4. Iraq’s ruling clique needed a solid spanking. G.B did just that. Else it was a question of time before Mr. Hussein and co. would have started collaborating with Al-Qaida, Iranian Mullahs and other malcontents for creating a much more dangerous middle east.
5. Iran is another fit case for a similar action. A mullah administration is an oxymoron. Sooner it goes, better it is for the world. GB talking about this does not hint in any way that he is a warmonger.
6. George Bush might not have made this world a better place. But he certainly put the fear of god into the minds of terrorists.
7. George Bush is certainly not a Mahatma Gandhi. But the Saddam Husseins, fanatical Mullahs and Kim-il-Sungs are not even fit to be called as Humans. So any one protesting for these gentlemen are either aliens in this planet or intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt.

Since the majority of the infected Indian media have started projecting that there have been great protests in India against Bush, this detailed note is necessary to give out the true story about the so called protests which is nothing more than a mindless and an uncivilized demonstration by an assorted grouping of the religious lumpen, the amnesia stricken sovietphiles and pseudo leftist intellectuals.

If u get some time read my blog