Listening to Grasshoppers - Book review

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Book Review: Listening to the Grasshoppers
By Munazzah Shaik
Stories can provoke many different reactions in the reader: pleasure, pain, delight,
horror. The whole range of emotion is available to the fiction writer to utilise. Reactions
to non-fiction works can be equally wide-ranging and can sometimes take the reader by
surprise.
Like numerous other people I came to know Arundhati Roy, Booker-Prize winning
novelist and prominent social activist via, The God of Small Things, her only novel to
date. In the intervening years she concentrated her undoubted literary abilities in the
political arena, engaging with the less attractive side of India, the up-and-coming
superpower that much of the world loves to love. But not, of course, everyone.
Not environmentalists pushing for stronger climate change treaties. Not India’s smaller
neighbours. Not Burmese democracy activists, appalled by New Delhi’s embrace of
their country’s military rulers. But by and large India is seen as a “good” emerging power
by virtue of its noisy democracy, which through largely credible elections has repeatedly
allocated and transferred national and state power.
India’s global image also trades on its deep reserves of soft power, especially its export
of charismatic gurus and yoga masters preaching peace, love, tolerance and harmony –
values that the political establishment often manages to portray as intrinsic to society at
large and the state itself. Yet India has a dark underbelly in which state and society
often fall dreadfully short of the liberal, democratic ideals they profess; where law
shields the powerful and persecutes the weak. It is this that Roy, seeks to draw
attention to in her provocative new book, Listening to Grasshoppers.
Subtitled Field Notes on Democracy, Listening to Grasshoppers is a collection of
essays, opinion pieces, speeches and other writings first published in a number of
periodicals and newspapers between 2002 – when an estimated 2,000 Muslims were
massacred in the western state of Gujarat – and the aftermath of 2008 November’s
terror attacks in Mumbai.
Roy calls the collection “a detailed under-view” of the darker side of the world’s largest
democracy – or what she describes as “the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate,
bureaucratic nature of governance and subjugation in India.”
In reading her work, one can't help thinking that the Sydney Peace Prize (awarded in
2004 for her social campaigns and advocacy of non-violence) probably means much
more to her than the Booker, except, of course, for the possibility that that Booker might
just get her a wider audience
Turning her formidable intelligence on many events, armed with an iron grip of the facts,
Roy exposes the rotting underbelly of progress. Recalling the defeat of communism in
Afghanistan and Europe, she demonstrates how the new geopolitical alignment with
America adopted by India after 1989 enabled the rise of the BJP and Hindu nationalism
by casting Islam as the new enemy. In 1984, the BJP had just two seats in Parliament.
By 1998 it was in power, and one of the first things it did was to conduct nuclear tests.
Roy does not mince her words in saying that the Indian state is hypnotised by the twin
pillars of Union and Progress – for which we should read Hindu nationalism and
economic growth, to be achieved whatever the social cost.
As proof she provides a shocking analysis of the 2002 Gujarat massacres, orchestrated
by right-wing Hindu extremists supported by the BJP and its then Gujarat Chief Minister,
Narendra Modi, a figure much honoured in India. Roy asserts, the riots themselves and
everything that followed was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Mobs in their
thousands took to the streets, not in an impulsive reaction, but in a co-ordinated one
with targets and weapons with not just police protection but covering fire. Where, she
asks, is this advocated in the Hindu scriptures?
From Gujarat to Kashmir. Obviously. No analysis of democracy in India could avoid the
Kashmiri question. It seems every democracy has one. That intractable province that
simply won't behave. Roy says that there is hope for Kashmir, hope that she will
eventually find her own way, and will not need to cling to Pakistan
Then, obviously, from Kashmir to Pakistan, to the relations between the two countries.
Two diametrically opposed ideologies, both with fingers hovering over a nuclear device.
This is the context in which India's democracy stumbles, she says. The Hindu nation –
and that is the way the country is going at present, forget the assertions of secularity,
forget the vibrant intermingling you thought you saw on the streets, or in the films - is
worried about the Muslim one. And both are prepared to fight it out in a hot war if need
be.
Roy exposes the nonsense of this position and says that this breeds paranoia, in
government and in the civil service that supports the government – in the army, the
police, the justice system. Finally, the default cliché becomes 'blame the Muslims’,
'blame Pakistan'.
It is unlawful to criticize the Supreme Court in India, and anyone who does so can be
thrown in jail. But Roy is undeterred, fearlessly exposing the financial corruption of one
of its key members, and demonstrating how it presides over a country which has the
highest rate of custodial deaths in the world, while refusing to ratify the UN's convention
against torture.
Since India opened its markets to international finance in the early 1990s, the Court has
also ratified what Roy calls "ecocide" – the displacement of millions of people in order to
exploit the natural resources they are inconveniently living on. Thirty million people have
been displaced in order to build dams alone.
She rightly points to India’s persistently high rates of malnutrition, and rising tension
over land, raising the question of whether India has either the capacity or will to improve
the lives of its poorest citizens.
Her sweeping denunciations of India’s privatisation efforts make it seem as though New
Delhi was callously dismantling the Indian welfare state.
She dismisses the economic boom as having merely created “a vast middle class punch
drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it – and a much, much
vaster desperate under class”.
A number of the essays in her book focus around a single event - The attack on the
Indian parliament. On 13th December 2001, at 11.30 am, five armed men (or was it
six?) drove a white Ambassador car through the gates of Parliament House in New
Delhi carrying an IED, an improvised explosive device and, not to mention, allegedly,
enough ammunition to take on a battalion.
This was clearly a planned attack. So well planned in fact, that – according to the
authorities – the bombers were not only inept enough to get themselves killed without
setting off the device, they also left such a trail of evidence that identities and affiliations
were determined almost immediately and accomplices arrested within forty eight hours.
Roy leads us through both the investigation and the ensuing court cases and questions
incompetence versus complicity. She questions the police activity, the public reaction,
the media responses, and above all she questions the ‘bankruptcy’ of the court which
led to the death penalty passed on Mohammed Afzal, despite there being no proof of
his involvement. In reaching judgment, the Supreme Court asserted that "the collective
conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the
offender". How this relates to justice is anyone's guess.
Sure, the book is somewhat uneven and Roy just barely mentions the Maoist
insurrections that are popping up in the countryside.
Hope is a word that rises often in her writings. For every condemnation of ignorance,
incompetence, or criminality, Roy always manages to find some reason to believe that
democracy can be salvaged from the wreckage.
Rarely has political writing been so raw. Roy presents them as straightforward
examples of an immediate fury. Marvel at the Indian economic miracle if you will, she
tells us, but reminds at the same time that, in this country of over a billion people, half of
all children under three suffer from malnutrition while millions of tons of grain lies rotting
in warehouses. If this is democracy, we can keep it.
Listening to Grasshoppers has a suitably detailed index and a useful map of India. The
glossary however is hardly worth the effort. A full glossary of non-English words,
political parties, key players etc would have made the reading much easier.
Whether one agrees with the uncompromising urgency of Roy's views or not, you close
this book understanding why, following her Booker Prize, she turned away from fiction.
It's the kind of passionate that makes a writer serious enemies. But it does what writings
can - bring a truth to power.
But the danger is that her extreme views – and her fierce hostility to a liberalisation
programme that many Indians credit with dramatic improvements in their own lives – will
alienate those whose support will be essential in India’s struggle for social justice in the
years ahead.
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