This year brought us Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I have not yet read. She soared to the top of any publisher’s chart in the wake of her first novel, God of the Small Things, and then “disappeared” (for some) into her role as an activist, non-fiction commentator on politics. When people craved the artist, she narrated the facts. We should be grateful! I just finished reading her collected essays, The End of Imagination published in 2016 by Haymarket Books. What I’m about to write is rough–culled from memory–because I don’t have the time to go searching through my kindle for quotes or anecdotes found in the book. Then again, I never promised polished, perfect analysis on this site.
What a soreness it is to see how deeply entrenched we are in the same themes she wrote about starting nearly twenty years ago–nuclear arms races, displacement via multinational investments in hydroelectric power and dams that devastated the Indian landscape, crisis market economics, the Afghanistan War, and the longstanding impact of the Patriot Act and the War on Terrorism following 9/11. She honors Noam Chomsky in these pages and questions her role as an author with a deeply committed spirit of activism that does not look away. She distinguishes the importance of her role as a fiction and a writer of non-fiction, which she bemoans for falling into the category of activist-writing. Labels haunt her because her work, as any work of a brilliant author would, constantly defies them.
I found this collection profound and impassioned–urgent. How have we sustained this treacherous urgency for so long without apparent headway or resolution? Reading these essays lifted any veil that clouded my vision about the curse of neoliberalism. Where can I possibly start?
I felt relieved of some ignorance after reading this book. I have read North American tales of neoliberalism brought to us by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I have read European theoretical critiques brought to us by Guy Debord, Tikkun, Franco Berardi, Zizek, Serres, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, but these didn’t draw me in like Roy’s pages. The approach is different. Testimonies and pure blasphemy, not theories, are narrated to us as a comprehensive story in Roy’s text. Her wit ascends proportionately to the horror. She paints a picture of liberal ignorance, freedoms being stripped away, the gloss of democracy that maintains perpetual warfare, and so on and so forth.
When she questions her role as an artist, she is questioning a thousand-year-old caste system. These are lived injustices, that she gives testament to–not by accident, but by an investment in opening herself up to the social wounds at her disposal. She does not suppress them for her own benefit. She is not one to hide her head in the nearest hole or gloss over the havoc wreaked upon individual lives for the sake of her educated audience. Her writing stings and sings. She acknowledges her implication in injustice while with such a candid outcry and binds herself to the cause of poor people and the environment by unraveling tight knots of hypocrisy.
She reminds us that nowhere on paper can we find the economic benefits that hydroelectric building projects bestowed upon India. She is waving the non-existent reports in the thin-air and counting up the lives of the displaced–all from the lower strata of society–now virtually disappeared as an interest group. Resettlement promises were not kept and the losses merely place those people who depended on their small farming for survival–on lands now immersed by a reservoir–in perpetual limbo without relief.
Now, if you’re following the news, these hydroelectric dams are guaranteed to investors in Brazil, causing very similar indigenous strife for the sake of very dubious benefits to society, considering their guaranteed deforestation and pollution of the rain forest and its watersheds. The social benefits of the developmental-craze sweeping across “developing countries” has proven false–again and again. The same goes for Turkey, where I currently live, with its debt-driven megaprojects.
Roy reveals the hypocrisy of Nelson Mandela to remind us that market economy politics is not a sacred sphere. Even our saints could not withstand its pressures. It is a rigged, delusional battle of unjust promises to wealthy investors backed by militaristic regimes. The apartheid continues under the false guise of a democratic market economy (an oxymoron).
The insistence of her words gave my own vision of dissent new life. I found it acceptable after reading this book to call myself an anti-American. To articulate the precise moments when the government and its henchmen conflate its policies with romantic ideals to relieve itself of accusation. To recall that secretary of state Madeleine Albright could write off Iraqi children as collateral damage, a simple calculation error, and brush it aside as a necessary part of the process. So often, I don’t know how to speak about these things, let alone how to demand justice. She offers up her own voice on behalf of others. She is generous in that regard. She wants us to take her passion and let it ignite our own.
What are the crimes she cries out against? Crimes of globalization, i.e., that the global market economy is simply a more efficient, updated form of imperialism. Guarantees for investments can wreak havoc by displacing millions of poor citizens with the click of a mouse. Instability and crisis are not merely symptoms, but strategic tools in this system of distraction. The military is the backbone to the economy. Things we’ve heard before–but she reminds us that we need to pay attention, for the power to resist lies in public outcry.
She reminds us that the Taliban was in part a U.S. invention because Afghanistan had been primed and stoked to become more zealous in its religious opposition of communist Russia, as a ploy by the U.S. This was back in the 1970s. She articulates with ease how weapons are sold to both sides of an argument by the U.S. These are not details to overlook and write off as coincidental marginalia. Her book gives a vision of what it means to connect the dots, and to dedicate oneself to caring, to speaking out about what interpretation tells us.
She details how terrorism is used as a blanket term to crush non-aligned ideologies, beliefs, critiques, protests, etc. This manipulative rhetoric was devised by the U.S. and exported to developing countries. She describes how this occurred in India with its armed backlash against Muslims and it fittingly describes the situation in Turkey, where the military coup attempt was followed by an exploitative system of mass-jailings, firings, and etc. to initiate an educational, financial and political restructuring of the country to benefit the wealthy few. All in the name of democracy.
So I read it with my mouth agape in astonishment and I suggest you do the same.