Book Review of ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ by Arundhati Roy
Reading Arundhati Roy’s collection of lectures and articles about India could make you want to weep, or to emit the ’feral howl’ she herself is tempted to resort to. Her main aim is to reveal the sordid truth about the death, destruction and devastating injustice that underlies the so-called ’democracy’ and ’progress’ of which India’s ’leaders’ and friends abroad (especially Washington) tend to boast.
The book takes its title from the swarming of grass-hoppers – an ominous sign – that preceded the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish state in 1915. She urges the Indian people to see that bigger horrors are ahead even than the Gujarati ’riots’ of 2002, unless big changes can be carried through.
She exposes the devotion of India’s two main parties – Congress and the BJP – to neo-liberalism in the period following the attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the slavish adoption of a ’war on terror’ in India (and Kashmir). She exposes the hypocrisy and downright villainy of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in control for decades of West Bengal, when it uses state forces and its own armed gangs to drive poor farmers from their land in the interests of multinational corporations. She shows how Hindu nationalist pogroms and mindless terrorism wreak havoc with people’s lives and how official responses bear little resemblance to justice. Poverty-stricken Kashmiri field labourers, for example, are simply taken by police, killed, photographed and shown as evidence that the war on terror is succeeding!
Graphically, Roy describes the framing of ’bombers’ held responsible for the 2001 attack on parliament in Delhi. She also touches on the case of the three people – two men and a woman – deemed to be responsible for the 2003 bombings in Mumbai (who were finally sentenced to death last month (August 2009). Anyone daring to challenge the powers that be, especially challenge the bias of the judiciary in speeches or in writing (not excluding the author herself) is condemned by the ruling political elite and its subservient media.
Arundhati’s picture of her beloved India is of a place where human life hangs on a very thin thread; even its rivers, mountains and forests are under attack. Not one major river now reaches the sea because of bungled, ostentatious and expensive irrigation projects. Whole mountain tops are being sliced off in the pursuit of profit through bauxite and other mineral exploitation – by some of the world’s most notorious corporate monsters all with the willing assistance of the state. The invasion of areas inhabited for millennia by people who know how to sustain life and nature is akin to the rape of South America by the European colonialists of the 18th century. They have brought death, disease and the threat of extinction to the Adavasi and other indigenous peoples.
“With the possible exception of China, India today has the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Dams alone have displaced more than 30 million people. The displacement is being enforced with court decrees or at gunpoint by policemen, by government-controlled militias, or corporate thugs. (In Nandigram, even the Communist Party of India [Marxist] has its own armed militia.) The displaced are being herded into tenements, camps and resettlement colonies where, cut off from a means of earning a living, they spiral into poverty (p.154).”
India’s own oligarchs do not escape Arundhati Roy’s excoriating prose. Tata and Essar have been negotiating to mine iron ore in Chhattisgarh, for example, where it just so happens that hundreds of villages have been conveniently evacuated into police camps in the name of fighting Maoist rebels! When it comes to elections, it is again money which speaks. Big money. In the case of this year’s general election, $2billion is the official estimate, but in reality reaches the phenomenal $10billion. And this in a country where “in the last few years, more than 180,000 farmers have committed suicide because of desperate poverty…” The grandiose plans of the country’s rulers include that of Manmohan Singh to bring 85% of the country’s rural poor into the towns and cities. This “cannot be done except by force and violent means”.
Against such a background, Arundhati Roy has pointed to the abject failure of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to overcome the dire plight of the most down-trodden and oppressed. In fact, in her recent lecture opening London’s book fair, she charges them with actually undermining people’s capacity to fight back against the system. She exposes the inadequacies of Ghandism, as well as accusing Non-Governmental Organisations of undermining people’s will to organise and fight back. She sees how armed struggle becomes the only course of action left to people without the power to defend themselves and to run their own communities. One quarter of India’s vast land is actually beyond the control of central and local governments.
Brought up in the ’Communist’-run state of Kerala, Arundhati Roy shares the sentiments that still lie under the surface of Indian society – for struggle against oppression and for a real equality of opportunity in life for all. There is a simmering resentment, if not outright hatred, born of centuries of exploitation, which can explode. Land-owners, imperialist powers, capitalists (indigenous as well as foreign), will stop at nothing – child labour, murder, corruption, media manipulation and perversion of the law. Religious and political thugs will resort to all manner of atrocities – communalism, genocide, even what Arundhati rather loosely calls fascism. The country’s new middle class as well as the rich come in for a verbal hammering…and a warning of the explosive conflicts they are creating through their drive to maximise profit. Already one quarter of India is beyond government control.
“Ironically, the era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India – the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere up in the stratosphere, where they merge with the rest of the world’s elite…hermetically sealed from the rest of India (p.152)”
And Roy goes on to describe how they view the Adivasis and poor people whose homes are on land they want to exploit. “They think: That’s our bauxite, our iron ore, our uranium. What are these people doing on our land? What’s our water doing in their rivers? What’s our timber doing in their trees?”
What to do?
“Think about it!” is the simple plea from the author, in relation to one particular situation. This book certainly makes you do that. Roy has carried out her own courageous campaigning work, especially on the issue of environmental destruction, but also on issues such as the slaughter of Tamils in Sri Lanka. She has been not only viciously attacked in the country’s media (which she also describes in ugly detail) but has spent time in prison for her brave campaigning. She points to the “systematic dismantling” since the early 1990s, “of laws that protect workers’ rights and the fundamental rights of ordinary people” all under the relentless pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank.
Arundhati Roy reveals in this book some of the darkest truths about India today, often with the satirist’s weapon of wit and humour. Roy is also eloquent in describing the excitement of a revolutionary upheaval, such as the one she witnessed in Kashmir in 2008 where “the world’s largest democracy” administers “the world’s largest military occupation”.
“On the morning of 18 August people began pouring into Srinagar from villages and towns across the valley. In trucks, tempos, jeeps, buses and on foot. Once again, barriers were broken and people reclaimed their city. The police were faced with a choice of either stepping aside or executing a massacre. They stepped aside. Not a single bullet was fired.” (p170)
A powerful author and speaker, Roy plays an important role in exposing the crimes of capitalism – the flagrant everyday injustices being wrought in India on a sickeningly massive scale. But she stops short of saying what can be done to right these wrongs and fill the huge political vacuum in Indian society.
In her introduction, Roy actually says, “the absence of a genuinely left-wing party in mainstream politics is not something to celebrate. But the parliamentary left has only itself to blame for its humiliation. It’s not a tragedy that it has been cut down to size. Perhaps this will create the space for some truly progressive politics.”
The situation she describes is crying out for a new mass organised force of workers and poor people with representatives and leaders fully accountable to them and living as they do. The way to replace the gangsters, murderers and hypocrites at the top of Indian society is to conduct a struggle against the system of capitalism itself, root and branch. The most genuine form of democracy in India would be a socialist society. Arundhati Roy is an ally in the struggle for such a society.
Listening to Grasshoppers, by Arundhati Roy (Published by Hamish Hamilton)