The day after I finished reading Ms. Roy’s wonderful and well-written collection of essays Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, the US news media feted the state dinner hosted by the Obamas for the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his entourage. The disparity between the new neoliberal India and the old India of the first few decades after independence that Ms. Roy writes about was there for all to see. Although Roy writes about the nation of India, she could also be writing (with slight variations primarily regarding the respective nations political systems) about Singapore, China or any of the nations that plays role similar to the corporate subsidiary. These subsidiary nations feed the capitalist core located in North American and Europe. The India Roy describes is a nation where disparities between the rich and everyone else are stark; where the wealthy live in gated communities and have created a nation that is separate from the bulk of the population. It is a country where the workers and peasants are at best entities to be manipulated via religious and racial prejudices and at worst obstacles to be neutralized or eliminated. It is a nation that the core countries fear may describe them in a few short years. Yet, the political and corporate leaders march headlong towards this future, unwilling or unable to imagine something different.
Roy, who made her name with the beautifully written novel about class and family in India titled The God of Beautiful Things, has spent the last several years writing about the effects of neoliberalism and joining efforts opposing this latest mutation of capitalism. Roy’s writing is exquisite–a fact that makes reading her non-fiction material as pleasurable as reading a novel. Being Indian, most of her material deals with the effects of neoliberalism on the people of her homeland. However, one does not need a encyclopedic knowledge of that nation to appreciate and digest what she has to say. After all, if there is one thing detectable in every nation that neoliberalism has invaded it is its attempted conformity of all nations culture and politics. Much like fascism, neoliberalism (or global capitalism, if you prefer) has (mis)used the forms democracy provides for the people to create a corporate-governmental dictatorship where the rich and the super-rich determine the economic and social fate of the rest of us.
Despite neoliberalism’s tendency to create monoculture and a similarity in politics, each nation near the top of its pyramid has their own wars to fight. Washington has its wars in the Middle east and South Asia; India has Kashmir and the internal battles against Maoist insurgencies in its eastern and central provinces. Sure, there have been attempts to tie these conflicts together through the so-called Global War on Terror since 2001, but the essential reality is that Iraq and Afghanistan are primarily Washington’s wars while Kashmir and the Maoist insurgency are New Delhi’s. They do share similarities–with three of them involving a desire to force predominantly Islamic nations to do the will of the occupier–but there are also differences. Although Roy refers to Kashmir on and off throughout her text, there is one essay that deals exclusively with the situation in that beleaguered land. Written during the massive and primarily non-violent movement against the Indian occupation in 2007, Roy’s essay, titled "Azadi" (meaning freedom), denies the majority myths about the Kashmir people and their resistance while simultaneously providing the reader with the viewpoint of an Indian who opposes the occupation.
Arundhati Roy is a poet who writes prose. Her insight and perspective is refreshing, especially when one stops to consider how few bestselling writers seem to be willing to express any insight or perspective on current events. The fact that Roy is also a voice for those outside the mainstream makes her writing even more valuable. Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers is not only for an Indian audience. It is for any individual interested in the fate of the political form we call democracy. After all, India is not the only nation where democracy is dying.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org