Catharsis as elite obsession: ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy's 'field notes' pose an unpretentious yet thorny question: What happens once democracy has been 'used up'? With apologies to the Booker Prize winner, this spiky inquiry could do well to be reworded with something a bit more commonplace, perhaps: At this point, does it make sense to visualise and strive for an alternative worldview that, simply put, respects life? This new work is a collection of previously published essays on the moral, economic and political causes for a variety of anti-democratic happenings in India of recent years, from the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 to the assault on Bombay of 2008. Traversing these events, which have inerasably punctured the first decade of India's 21st century, Roy's poser is neither why nor how such incidents are taking place. Rather, she is wondering how long these will continue, and how long the rest of us are to remain mere lookers-on.

"In a time of universal deceit," George Orwell famously wrote, "telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." In Roy's case, such a sentiment provokes her to place into the current politico-economic context, the various acts of violence to which India has been a witness. Similarly, her attempts to bring to light lesser-known (and often shrouded) details of events such as the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, or the 2005 judgment in the trial of Mohammed Afzal, prime accused in the Parliament attack case, need not be viewed only as courageous writing.

Certainly, the spirit behind her undertaking is beyond reproach, but such catharsis has been habitually practiced by the self-assured sections of the elite who dangle between a make-believe world of activism and insular dormancy.

Yet, Roy's disdainful tone and moralistic stance is inherent in her writings. For instance, she writes: "Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast not prophet." At another level, a particular reading of Roy's book would suggest the humanities scholar Sundar Sarukkai's concept of theorising as a sort of 'distribution of guilt', as in this excerpt from Grasshoppers: "It is not in our power to stop Bush's visit. It is in our power to protest it, and we will. The government, the police and the corporate press will do everything they can to minimize the extent of our outrage."

However, this should not mean that the writings of activist writers are in any way of lesser consequence. Rather, the very act of bringing out unknown information is in itself a meaningful goal. Instead, the bone of contention is in trying to decode the motive behind such acts of writing.

Janus-faced journalism
There are three tiers of materials used in Listening to Grasshoppers: first-person narratives of victims and perpetrators, secondary materials (such as newspaper reports), and the personal adjudication of the author herself – her opinions, sentiments and hypotheses. As noted previously, however, all of these pieces were originally written to stand alone. As such, repetition cannot be avoided, and neither has much emphasis been put into doing so. Yet more importantly, while writing for a newspaper or magazine has a sureness of audience, this may not be the case with anthologies. Even as the thrust of each of these articles remains unchanged, the context has evolved dramatically; unfortunately, this makes the reader increasingly hesitant to accept what is by now something of a dated thesis. So when, for instance, Roy discuses the Supreme Court's death sentence for Mohammad Afzal, the reader inevitably struggles to relate later events such as his plea for clemency, and hence becomes wary of whatever conclusion is arrived at in that essay.

Calling to mind the gross injustice of the law system and police that has been tolerated in a democratic country such as India, Roy's prose inevitably evokes a sense of bitterness. But the writing does not arouse the reader to participate in clearing the debris surrounding the documented acts of violence, and nor aid in bringing the perpetrators to light? For one thing, the authenticity of the self-described 'field notes' is tricky; second, why should Roy's random jottings be accepted as verifiable 'field notes' rather than, say, 'impressions'?

Equally important is the artless use of seemingly profound terminology such as neo-liberalism, development, free market or economic determinism. It is not decorous for an author to draw conclusions on received wisdom – such as "India's version of Union and Progress, whose modern day euphemisms are Nationalism and Development" or "as neo-liberalism sinks its teeth deeper into our lives … the state has to resort to elaborate methods to contain growing unrest" – without adequate substantiation.

Nevertheless, reading Roy's new book engenders in one the fond hope of looking for the next-best alternative for democracy, though this is something that has long been beyond one's grasp. After all, as a species we thrive on evolutionary ideas and not on well-defined alternatives, which are sure to fall apart – communism being a concrete case. Exploring whether the root of the problem lies in democracy or in its implementation could be a rather reductionist approach to comprehending the post-2000 events in India. But let there be no qualms in recognising the idea that we elect our representatives, but do not even half expect them to remain dynamic always. This sounds strikingly similar to what the American journalist Sidney Harris once proclaimed – that democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers-that-be whether they are the powers that ought to be.

~ G Narasimha Raghavan is a lecturer in economics in Coimbatore. 

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