Listening to Arundhati Roy’s grasshoppers

One may have a lot to quibble about Arundhati Roy’s political views, but there’s no escaping her power as a writer. What is democracy without dissent? What’s writing without some flair?

I recently re-read Roy’s “Listening to Grasshoppers”. It is opinion-based writing of a powerful sort.

Readers of Arundhati Roy’s “Listening to Grasshoppers, Field Notes on Democracy” should not be tricked by the book’s rather idyllic title – and subtitle, both smartly dressed in an Eliotesque smokescreen. Just as T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not a love song but a critical appraisal of spiritually exhausted people in a compassionless, impersonal modern mega-city, Roy’s Grasshoppers’ is not a sylvan song of pastoral pleasures but a mournful dirge on the ruthlessness of our system.

The “grasshoppers” are not happily singing hymns. Neither are the “fields” particularly lush.

Well, it goes like this. The largest democracy is now at best pretending to be one. Emptied of its meaning, its core is a crater now. Sucked dry by corruption, it is a dead horse that is still being flogged for that last lap of the race. It is now a seedy dungeon, a demon-crazy, where interests of rich and poor must clash, where aspirations must be crushed and where fragile estuarine ecologies must be made available on a platter for Free Market to devour.

Irreverent, as always, Roy achieves the near impossibility of giving us a view of ‘life after democracy’ and an India that is not what it is made out to be.

Aided by her sharp prose and nose, the book rings alarm bells from start to finish. It will deepen an appreciation of Roy’s rebellion for those who are convinced. Those who aren’t may end up being at odds with her even more but will be at least prompted to introspect. Hopefully.

If Roy is so alarmed by the state of affairs, then something must be wrong – either about the system or about her. Regardless of whether we agree or not, the conviction with which she writes should tempt us into a deeper probe of what ails India’s democracy.

She flags off some usual concerns over how a Rightist Hindu nationalism, neo-liberalism and Centrist-by-day and Rightist-by-night Indian National Congress are hurtling India towards an apocalypse.

The basic grain of Roy’s ideology, the fountainhead of many of her concerns, is simple and fairly well-known. Privatisation and globalisation seek to engage politics with the market. This blunts the very last weapon that democratic citizens have – their vote. It is this absence of the poor from negotiations that decide their fate that is at heart of Roy’s rebellion.

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