Review – Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.

Roy's latest book helps us imagine the pandemic as a portal to another world, writes Sophie Hemery

November 18, 2020 · 5 min read
Arundhati Roy. Photo Credit: Penguin Books

This time last year, if citizens of wealthy countries were told that ‘lockdown’ would soon be part of their daily vocabulary, they might have panicked. But for people in many parts of the world, a ‘lockdown’ is not a new experience. Just as the whole world went into lockdown due to Covid-19, Kashmir was emerging from one.

In August 2019, the Indian government stripped the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy. Prime minister Narendra Modi imposed a lockdown that strengthened the military occupation, closed educational institutions and arrested regional politicians. People with homes were forced to stay inside and the whole region was placed under a communications blackout that has still not been fully lifted – the longest in recorded history. While the internet has been a pandemic lifeline for people elsewhere – for connection, distraction, learning or work – in Kashmir, this has not been an option.

The question of communication is crucial in Arundhati Roy’s Azadi, a series of essays written between 2019 and 2020 on freedom in a world of rising fascism. Addressing subjects from language and translation, to state violence and repression, to geopolitics and the climate crisis – all in the context of the history and present of Hindu nationalism, ‘a polite term for fascism’ – throughout, Roy is concerned with the significance of what is voiced and what is silenced.

Liberation chant

‘Azadi!’ – Urdu for ‘freedom’ – is the chant of the Kashmiri struggle for liberation from Indian occupation. As Roy points out, it was also the slogan of the Iranian revolution and of feminist movements in the subcontinent – and recently, it has been adopted by a movement against right-wing Hindu nationalism, led by students and Muslim women.

In her essay ‘The graveyard talks back: fiction in the time of fake news’, the text of a 2020 lecture delivered on the 193rd day of the internet shutdown in Kashmir, Roy reflects: ‘And now, while Kashmir’s streets have been silenced, the irony is that its people’s refrain, with similar lyrics, rhythm and cadence, echoes on the streets of the country that most Kashmiris view as their coloniser. What lies between the silence of one street and the sound of the other? Is it a chasm, or could it become a bridge?’

Roy’s book explores these questions through meandering and powerful works that interrogate the essence of writing, and what it means to ‘have a voice’ in the global struggle against systems that are destroying lives and life itself. These essays are drawn from published articles and lectures, which limits the coherence of the book in certain ways but not to its detriment. As a book about language, Azadi has a shape- shifting form and genre; it is Roy’s distinctive, lyrical style that holds it together.

In ‘The language of literature’, Roy reflects upon genre and the place of literature in our times. Her own work resists categorisation: her fiction is political and her non-fiction is literary. ‘Fact and fiction are not converse,’ she writes. ‘One is not necessarily truer than the other, more factual than the other, or more real than the other.’ The power of Roy’s writing lies in this rejection of binary thinking; its imaginative fluidity mirrors the kind of reflection the world so urgently needs, to challenge the reductive ideology of the right.

The pandemic as a portal

The final chapter is entitled ‘The pandemic is a portal’ and details how Covid-19 has intersected with the political landscape in India. As it has all over the world, she observes – in a characteristically beautiful turn of phrase – that ‘the lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things’. For all the suffering, finally, we have all been compelled to interrogate ‘normal’.

Roy’s writing against Hindu nationalism is also writing against capitalism, for she recognises that fascism and the profit motive are strongly linked. ‘Neoliberal economic evangelists and Hindu nationalists had ridden into town on the same horse,’ she writes, ‘a flaming saffron steed whose dapples were really dollar signs.’ With hope, she argues the pandemic could disrupt this bleak and dying world, and serve as ‘a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’.

In one of the most powerful passages of the book, she reflects: ‘But unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest – thus far – in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.’

Roy’s meditations on the importance of language in revolutionary struggle, and on the pandemic as a portal, made me think about how quickly we have incorporated a new, ‘pandemic vocabulary’: coronavirus, Covid-19, social distancing (or should we say physical distancing?), sheltering in place, flattening the curve. How quickly we have adapted to a new language and its way of life.

Sticky and painful as it may be, can we find some solace and vitality in this proof of our capacity for collective transformation? Will it help us imagine and fight for another world, through the portal? Roy’s Azadi, in its ordinarily- silenced history lessons and lyrical invocations (‘Dear world, find a way’), gives me hope that we can.

This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

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