Friday, July 22, 2011

United States of Others: About Showing Black Flag at Arundhati Roy

We always need a scapegoat to vent our frustrations. We always seek an external reason for our shortcomings and failures. We accuse others of being intolerant while remaining one from tip to toe. That’s why we could show black flag at Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati Roy went to Trissur in Kerala to attend a book release function and the BJP activists came to the scene with black flags and anti-Arundhati slogans. It was her first visit to Kerala after making the controversial statement that Kashmir was not a part of India.

The importance of being Arundhati Roy is that she dares to speak against the mighty state. She is ready to go behind bars for being a spokesperson for the downtrodden people in India, who have been fighting an endless war against the military might of the Indian state. Arundhati Roy speaks on behalf of these people and the Indian middle class does not like it because when Arundhati speaks, her words breach the boundaries of the safe zones created by the middle class.

We, the Indian middle class like to believe that everything is fine out there so long as the arms of the state and those of the parallel power systems keep themselves out of our doorsteps and leave us to live a life inside colourful bubbles. We celebrate cricket victories, star marriages, star pregnancies and spend a lot of time in arguing our moral rights and moral wrongs. We want to disprove the other because we feel we are right.

I remember a poem used by Murali Cheeroth in his video titled ‘An Old Story’. The script goes like this: One day they came looking for the communists. I did not speak up because I was not a communist. One day they came looking for the Jews. I did not speak up because I was not a Jew....One day they came looking for me. There was none to speak up for me because none was left there.’ ( I am writing it from my memory).

Our condition is like that. We don’t speak up for the others because we know that we are not the other or the other does not belong to us. The other is always an ‘other’ and we swear by Edward Said that ‘other-ing’ is a simply a theoretical issue and a handy poking tool against the white west.

We create our own others. For the upper class, the middle class is just a consuming class. For the middle class the lower middle class is just an aspiring therefore threatening class. For the lower middle class the underclass is something to be done away with immediately but at the same time this class is indispensable as they provide the menial work force in our country.

And we just forget that right under our noses a war is being waged, for the rights of the people. And we don’t belong to that ‘people’ because they are the ‘other’ people.

Arundhati Roy despite her romantic rejection of the nation state and its nuanced powers is a conscience of the last surviving human being who speaks for the ‘other’. There are several of them scattered all over India and they speak their conscience for the other and work for the welfare of the other.

The AK-47 wielding Adivasi/tribal who is dubbed as a criminal and a terrorist speaks to Arundhati Roy about his/her hunger, diseases and their plight in the jungles. They speak to her about the dreams they have. They tell her how their love has been crushed. How their lands have been snatched away from them.

Arundhati is ready to speak to them and speak to the public on behalf of them. How many of us do that? Gail Omvedt, an American born social activist and writer criticizes Arundhati for her involvement with the NBA Movement (Narmada Bacchao Andolan). Gail’s views on Arundhati are logically right.

But Gail does not reject Arundhati. Gail just asks whether Arundhati could speak her personal opinion on things and project them as the opinion of the warring people and whether she would take the responsibility of the consequences that affect the adivasis/tribal fighting against the state.

Valid questions. But the doubts raised by Gail should be seen as a part of a positive discourse in which both Gail and Arundhati showing willingness to listen to each other’s voice. There is no cacophony in there.

If there is a cacophony, then where do we place Arundhati and Gail? How would they look different from Ramdev or BJP cadres?

Arundhati Roy, Mahasweta Devi, Sara Joseph and several women intellectuals like them should be taken very seriously and their ideas should be part of our life.

When Arundhati says the stone pelting Kashmiri is not a criminal because he does not belong to Indian state we should read that it is the same felt by the citizens of the North Eastern states; a severe sense of non-belongingness. For us, the North Easter youngsters adoring Korean film stars could be a human interest story. We don’t ask why they are not interested in our Khans.

Because Khans do not look like them. Khans in fact do not look like anybody. They look like creatures from elsewhere. That’s why when Nana Patekar speaks people get inspired; like Nasaruddeen Shah and Om Puri because they look like the ‘other’ people in the street.

Box office success of Khans cartel movies shows that the Indian population is still on drugs.

When Arundhati Roy says that the stone pelting Kashmiri boy cannot be coerced into the Indian thinking, she is not saying that Kashmir and Kashmiris should be severed from the Indian state. Her demand, as far as I understand is that the Indian State should go deep into the contemporary psyche of the people of Kashmir, should touch the ground realities, find out ways to acknowledge and appreciate the distinctiveness. And also handle the global political interventions with a stern will.

Hence, treating Arundhati Roy as a traitor would be a collective fallacy of the Indian citizens even if the black flag protest against her is done by a few BJP activists.

Learn to respect the other and always understand that people are unique in their own ways. Accepting their difference is the best policy to create world peace and harmony.

I am a kind of person who never feels over awed by any personality. I have never asked for an autograph in my life from anybody (Oh yes.. when you leave school you take autographs from your classmates. But then they were not famous people. They were just friends). In 1997 Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things was published. She was one of the super stars of the world at that point.

In couple of years time, I saw her at the ITO junction in New Delhi, where she was marching along with people from all over India as a part of the NBA Movement. Arundhati Roy was wearing a white churidar with chicken works. Her eyes were fixed at the sky line. She knew her fame and importance but she was keeping all those glories to herself. She stood like a serene island in the middle of the ocean of people. She was distinct and at the same time she was one of them.

For the first time I looked someone with some kind of awe.

(In 2000, when I was a senior correspondent with the Tehelka (then, Amitabh Bacchan came to the office with Tarun Tejpal, the editor. The journalists went crazy. They hunted for autographs and the tallest guy in the office measured his height with that of Bacchan Senior. They all took photographs with him, an old man with his mouth partly opened with a hanging lower lip that would be passed for a smile. I stood watching him. For once our eyes met. That was it.)

I have been critical of Arundhati Roy in various times based on her stance on issues. I even at times thought that by giving glamour to NBA with her presence she killed a movement that was ably led by Medha Patkar.

But I was not and still I am not an expert in the NBA Movement or its history.

I am a romantic like Arundhati Roy.

That’s why I like when she writes in her ‘Broken Republic’: “When there is a Cancer Hospital coming up, be sure there is a Bauxite Hill near around.”


Artville said...

I appreciate the time taken to write this. When we (Indians) react to an issue, 85% of us does not even know "Actually" why we are reacting to.
As you said we are on drugs and we are only hearing a negative part of a positive statement.

swatitude said...

Beautiful and moving!