Arundhati Roy in Johannesburg—An essay on essays

In a world of fake news, shallow analysis and torrid pontificating, combining empirical evidence with emotive expression, is what give Roy's essays legs.

Arundhati Roy. Image credit Jean Baptiste via Flickr.

In a February 2018 interview with the American journalist Toure, the writer Zadie Smith compares the fandoms of Michael Jackson and Prince in the 1980s. She describes how listening to and loving Michael Jackson was like drinking Coca-Cola, something everyone did, but worshipping Prince was something you did alone in your room, something so otherwise and otherworldly, that every time Smith saw him live she would look around at the crowd like, “Who the fuck are these guys, what are they doing here?”

That’s how I felt about everyone geeking about Arundhati Roy’s recent visit to South Africa. The worst part was that she went to Cape Town before Johannesburg, so the creatives (like most coastal towns, Cape Town is loaded with cool kids) got to talk about her first, posting on Twitter and posing in Instagram Stories, flexing their connections to the national literati. An affront, truly. Knowing that there was nothing to do with that jealousy, resentment and FOMO-cocktail but quaff it quickly, I watched some interviews to temper my impatience and acclimatize myself to seeing the intellectual inamorata in the flesh.

I started with this vintage one, which includes an amazing shot of her teaching aerobics; and ended with this recent one where she affords violence and vindictiveness the same patient eloquence as she does her patriotic problematizing of blind love for nation-states. But I prefer reading to watching and soon found myself submerged in transcripts. My favorite moment was when she spoke about art critic John Berger, how he wrote to her after she started publishing essays and said: “To me, they are like you’re walking on two legs.”

Literary scholar Nagesh Rao argues that Roy’s essays disrupt the boundaries of the essay canon, first by challenging the hegemony of the “personal” essay, and secondly because they are not easily incorporated into conventional curricula. Like her prose, the radicalism of Roy’s essays is equally as much a function of its rhetorical construction (its art), as of its socio-historical occasion (being grounded in the very real solidarities of mass movements.)

Media scholar Priya Kapoor, takes this further and uses the theoretical framework of cosmopolitanism to explore Roy’s actions and outrage. While most of her essays are almost exclusively focused on Indian politics, these are carefully couched in an awareness of transnational politics. Kapoor describes the author’s cosmopolitanism—understood as an acquired rootedness to a constituency larger than one’s nation—as “a consciousness that includes humanity in its ambit while dismissing any kind of provincialism when it comes to world community issues such as war and peace, child and women’s rights, or human rights.”

She also makes connections between Roy’s career as a writer and the small, but powerful, minority of peace activists who have publicly come out against the Indian government, noting that while there have been other Indian writers to win the Man Booker Prize (see for instance, Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger, and Kiran Desai for Inheritance of Loss); there are few instances of the press, both in India and internationally, keeping an author as active in the imagination of the news-reading and news-listening middle class as has been the case with Roy. Kapoor suggests that Roy has been able to maintain this exposure because she takes her career as an “activist” seriously, but I suspect it is more a result of her balancing the acts of collation and communication, marrying methodically researched empirical evidence with emotive expression. In a world of fake news, shallow analysis and torrid pontificating, this combination is what gives her essays those legs.

This is an interesting opportunity to reflect on the word activist. African studies professor Elisio Macamo warns against “words that think for us… terms so rich in meaning, so versatile in usage, so widely deployed that their presence in any utterance is enough to give sense to it.” Roy describes her nonfiction as “urgent interventions” and granted, some of them have their origins in speeches for large gatherings of civil society members inspired by her grassroots work, but as a literary mode, the essay is not a passive one and itself should be viewed as activist too, vigorously advocating a cause. And while this mode might be confining, simply a composition on a theme, the word essay also means: “an effort to perform or accomplish something.”

The difficulty however with investigating how Roy’s essays contribute to public discourse is that, as Rao puts it, “Roy the novelist was easily welcomed into the liberal multicultural classroom but Roy the essayist has been asked to wait outside.” This means that outside of Indian scholarship and the upper echelons of the literary firmament, there aren’t many spaces to situate her work. Like, who else is into it? Why? For how long? Were they listening to Diamonds and Pearls while reading about how “the bombs have fallen, incinerating and humiliating?

I thought about asking my friends, but they were either still wading through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, or worse, still goo-goo-eyed for The God of Small Things. I won’t say that they are ill-equipped to discuss what it means that her questions circa 1999 about the Big Dam industry in India (“What kind of country is this? Who owns it? Who runs it?”) apply across borders, issues, decades. More like, ill-prepared to wrest their eyes from her prose to her bare-knuckled politics. So, I went swimming solo, wading deeper and deeper into her sea of studied strikes against the status quo, and this must be what it feels like to know nothing about musical composition but somehow find yourself reading sheet music for the synthesizers on Purple Rain.

I mean, I now know that nuclear weapons “bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains”. I have a list of countries that America has been at war with since World War II (read: bombed) in the name of democracy, and I can’t shake the realization that it’s almost as long as my own country’s democracy is old. That the real name of corporate globalization is and always will be imperialism. That it’s time to worry when the government begins to talk of tribal welfare. That the electoral fray is not a very strategic path to alternative politics, because a political party that represents the poor will remain a poor party, and alas, as much as Powers That Be try to convince us of Madiba Magic, personality politics cannot effect radical change.

Amid all this gut-wrenching content consumption, there were moments of such radiance that I could only put it down to grace. Like the painful beauty of Rohith Vemula’s words in Roy’s most recent essay: “It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.” A PhD scholar suspended for political activity, he hung himself because he had no other way to support himself. Roy remembered him, writing: “He left behind a suicide note of such extraordinary power and poignancy that—like a piece of great literature should—his words ignited a tinderbox of accumulated fury.” Reading that, I recalled Teju Cole: “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” I also remembered reading reviews of The God of Small Things, and the surprise of learning that literary critic John Updike didn’t just dub Roy’s debut novel “Tiger Woodsian” for its outsized talent, his review also compared her to William Faulkner, and how his “method of torturing a story mangling it” resonates with those from societies, “that feel a shame and defeat in their history.” That was like a hole-in-one straight to my heart.

But there were also moments of lonely despair when I felt like a super Stan for burrowing so deeply, well-aware that there are very few people willing to engage with her views, reviews and interviews. I do not recommend drilling down into years of depressing subject matter over the course of two days. If you’re interested in exploring these essays, I do however recommend thinking about how you read them. This thread about how the magic of prose is a partnership between author and reader certainly applies to nonfiction too: whether the experience is good or not often has as much to do with the reader as with the book. So yes, I agree that the universe would be fair if texts could rate their readers. “He sat on the porch with a glass of wine and devoted his attention to my pages for two hours. 5 stars.” “She skimmed my best parts while on the toilet. 1 star.”

Also, don’t feel bad if the density of an essay is overwhelming or makes you want to cower under covers watching a TV series instead. In a way, I think that that urge to turn away from long form journalism or political pamphleteering is something that Roy tries to respond to in her efforts to de-professionalize public debate. This analysis suggests that the essay’s elusive generic identity is best captured by the ideological function it performs, in other words, what it does rather than what it looks like. The discursive effect of Roy’s essays has most commonly been controversial, mainly because she writes in new ways about old things. What this means, aside from irking the established know-it-alls, is that her writing is “not a simple matter of engagement with political issues or a style dictated by political consciousness, rather it is a complex and subversive engagement with the politics of knowledge formation itself.”

Nothing could have prepared me for how Arundhati Roy engaged IRL.

For one, she began by paying homage to the day itself: 16 August 2018 marked both the death of Aretha Franklin and the sixth anniversary of the Marikana Massacre. As she put it, “these things live with us.” My tears welled up then, but I knew that we were in for a show when she pointed out that we are lucky that the South African media even reports on those mine-sanctioned murders because in India, massacres happen annually, sometimes twice a year, but the press is silent because they are owned by the mines.

After giving a reading from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she answered questions with all the fervor and elegance I had expected, as well as some personal anecdotes I had not, but at almost every turn, her responses were targeted. She turned casual questions on literary style into opportunities to talk about Indian corporations and dodged vague questions about the global economy to talk about Indian politics. It was a master class in Political Communication. It occurred to me that while she was sharing herself and her beautiful literature with us, generously and sincerely, it was a performance in service of a more deep-seated drive. In the same way that she foregrounds the massacres of Muslims to discuss Nahendra Modi as a base leader, and in turn, to discuss capitalism as inherently iniquitous; so too does she present her fiction (the bait) to proffer her nonfiction (the hook).

Whenever she giggled girlishly, the literary salon of Johannesburg buzzed with exclamations about how cute she was, and when she made weighty proclamations on caste or class, there was enthused applause. The bar at Fox Junction (a concert venue, packed to the rafters) teemed with giddy groupies, many of whom were Indian (South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India). Aside from that, it appeared to be a relatively representative audience. It was a free event, but I won’t push the demographically-correct-description to suppose that it was an economically balanced audience, because this is of course South Africa. Reading is an elite sport.

What I will push though is writer Aldous Huxley’s assertion that the most richly satisfying essays are those that move hither tither from the personal to the universal because that’s what Roy did in person, performing her politics on stage. She brought her essays to the fore by talking about her novels artfully, on par with When Doves Cry and in keeping with her declaration that “fiction is the truest thing there ever was” and the writer the midwife of understanding it.

Further Reading