The other India

Mike Marqusee reviews Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy by Arundhati Roy

October 21, 2009 · 2 min read

Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy

Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton 2009)

How the Indian elite hate Arundhati Roy! They see her as a renegade, a child of privilege who incomprehensibly and unforgivably spurned their embrace. For so getting under their skin, she deserves our gratitude.

This collection of essays from the past seven years paints a picture of India entirely at odds with the new economic superpower, land of shopping malls and double-digit GDP growth celebrated in the media. ‘The era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India,’ Roy writes, ‘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.’

But Roy won’t let them or us forget the other India, where 47 per cent of children under three suffer malnutrition; where an average rural family eats about one hundred kilograms less food in a year than it did in the early 1990s; where tens of millions have been displaced by dams and government-sanctioned corporate land-grabs; where some 25 per cent of the country is under the sway of Maoist-led peasant insurgencies; and where civil rights are the privilege of the rich and democracy has been hollowed out and debased.

The essays cover events from the genocidal attack on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 to the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November. She charts what she rightly calls the Indian ‘ecocide’ and its companion, the civil war against the poor, recently taken up by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the ruling party in West Bengal, which on behalf of multinational corporations has seized land from peasant communities and brutally repressed their resistance. In one of the strongest pieces, Roy writes of the Kashmir freedom struggle with insight and sympathy – something extremely rare among the Indian intelligentsia.

Roy’s indictment of the rulers of ‘shining India’ and their sycophants is laced with sarcasm, mockery and a well-earned disrespect. She says she suspects that only poetry can fully respond to the multiple, inter-related horrors of our current system, but her passionate prose comes close.


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