The BS Column: The sofa-cum-bed conundrum

(This was first published in the Business Standard, 2nd November, 2010)

In the 13 years since Arundhati Roy wrote and won the Booker Prize for God of Small Things, her position in the pantheon of small goddesses has shifted and changed radically.

She and Salman Rushdie were, for a while, part of the India Shining story. Middle-class India chose not to engage with the content of their work—Rushdie’s obsession with restoring a certain view of history, his insistence on the freedom to question faith, Arundhati’s early and constant need to rock the boat, to ask inconvenient questions of the Indian state.

These obsessions, which lay at the core of their work, were edited out for many in India; they were just Booker winners, the equivalent of the Indian beauty queens who walked away with Ms Universe titles and “made us proud” on a global stage.

Rushdie has always been a writer; Midnight’s Children was followed by 14 books, including novels, essays and short stories. Roy, who had once remarked that being called a writer-activist was like being called a sofa-cum-bed, yielded to her more polemical side.

In the decade that followed God of Small Things, she was rumoured to be at work on a second novel, but what she produced was a series of broadsides. They were passionate but often solipsistic pieces, and the argument for her increasing irrelevance as an opinion-maker or analyst has grown in force over the years.

Over the last week, what we’ve seen is a curiously Indian tamasha, where the sense of being caught in a poorly-scripted television drama is inescapable. Arundhati Roy makes a statement about Kashmir that echoes views she has earlier put forward, and views (the state has “never been an integral part of India”) that have been articulated elsewhere, by others.

The BJP, for its own politically motivated reasons, and a TV channel, for the sake of driving up TRP points, jumps on the writer; there is much reference to sedition laws; her home in Chanakya Puri witnesses staged protests by the BJP’s Mahila Morcha wing, where the TV cameras are invited in advance to capture this spontaneous outpouring of public wrath. This isn’t farce—it’s parody.

But there is one point to be made, and it’s the question that often comes up in TV debates—about Rohinton Mistry, about Salman Rushdie, about Taslima Nasreen and about Arundhati Roy. Someone always asks, “Shouldn’t writers be more responsible?” or there’s a suggestion, as was often made during this recent affair, that writers should stick to their writing—no sofa-bed confusion for us.

This is actually a very new idea in modern-day India. The British came up with this argument often, and used it—unsuccessfully–against Bankimchandra, Michael Madhushudan Dutt and other young firebrands, who ignored the suggestion that writers should stick to literature and leave politics out of it. Politics and the political situation of India fuelled their writing, and banned or not, they continued to write about indigo plantations, the cruelty of British rule and the inequities of language. You might add Lokmanya Tilak and Veer Savarkar to the list of those who faced sedition laws, just as an indication of how bad laws make strange bedfellows.

In more recent times, few writers maintained a division between their politically engaged selves and their literary selves. If they had, we would never have seen a Faiz, or a Saadat Hasan Manto, or a Nayantara Sahgal, whose novels chronicled the shifting political landscape of an emerging nation. Perhaps the most towering example of this today is Mahasweta Debi, whose journalism has marched side by side with her stories—it is impossible to extricate the activist from the writer, because they are both the same person, and one couldn’t survive without the other.

Arundhati Roy is not in the same league as Mahasweta Debi. But consider the roots of her engagement, and consider God of Small Things; that early novel was also about caste wars, about women’s financial and legal rights, and about the fragmenting and forgetting of history. Everything she has done since then, from her reportage of the Narmada Dam to her travels with the Maoists and her exploration of Kashmir, is consistent; she may be a very naïve interlocutor of India, and you may disagree with her analyses, as many do, or be tired of her simplifications, as many are, but you cannot doubt the intensity of her engagement.

Writers are, in the end, also citizens. The best writers in every age have also been deeply engaged citizens, and to ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting. What we’re really asking, when we pose the question of a writer’s responsibility, is for writing to be like bonsai-growing, or ikebana: a strictly ornamental occupation that challenges nothing, shakes up nothing. That is not how our writers have worked in the past, and it’s not how they can continue to work in the future.





8 responses to “The BS Column: The sofa-cum-bed conundrum”

  1. small talk Avatar

    oh absolutely… a great piece.

  2. Bikapishi Avatar

    Liked your piece – as expected, well written and cogently argued.

  3. amitabha pande Avatar

    Why is the intensity or even the sincerity of her engagement so important ?Because she is attractive, cool and a Booker winner ?The fact that her analytical conclusions are not just silly, they are often dangerous, simply for making violent, murderous rebellion as beautiful and lyrical as the last scene of Bonnie and Clyde. Her passion is no excuse for the utter intellectual bankruptcy of her posture !

  4. Nila Avatar

    Thanks, and Amitabha, that is an excellent point. What I was addressing in the column was a somewhat different charge–the often-stated suggestion that writers should stick to writing novels and not interfere in politics. In that specific context, the intensity of Arundhati's engagement is important, and should be mentioned.What she's done with that engagement is another matter, and I think I'd argue that there's been a kind of progressive deterioration/ hysteria. The arguments against the Narmada dam were heartfelt, and much more solidly researched; her essay on the Maoists began with an interesting analysis of the corporate nexus and why India's tribals have been so neglected by the state, but I was, like you, horrified at the way in which she glossed over the violence, and romanticized the child soldiers. (As a comparison, read this essay by Jason Motlagh, who visited similar areas two years before Roy wrote her essay, and wrote an equally accurate analysis of the problems–while taking into account the bloodiness of the conflict: I approach these matters from the free speech perspective, and my point is just that her voice, however naive or as you would put it, intellectually bankrupt, should not be silenced. My argument would be strongly for more writers, or intellectuals, to attempt that engagement, and to come back with better, clearer answers than Arundhati does–and I think we do have those writers, from Sonia Jabbar on Kashmir to Nandini Sundar's passionate but measured articles on the Maoist conflicts. I'm glad that Arundhati has chosen to do more than just settle into the comfortable life of a former Booker winner, but I do wish her view of the world she goes out to witness and report on wasn't so distorted.

  5. vedsen Avatar

    Neruda, Llosa and a host of other writers would demonstrate aptly that you cannot separate a writer from his or her causes. As much as Arundhati Roy has the right to free speech and the obligation to use it well, so do readers and the general public have a right and an obligation to reject her perspectives or her narratives without resorting to hysteria.

  6. pavi Avatar

    But I approach these matters from the free speech perspective, and my point is just that her voice, however naive or as you would put it, intellectually bankrupt, should not be silencedNilanjana you spoke my heart . You are as amazing as your voice .. hmm free speech is important for a writer,blogger,student etc remember me ? The kid who posed questions on food import of the brits

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    "but I do wish her view of the world she goes out to witness and report on wasn't so distorted."this is purely your opinion. i think arundhathi experienced the tribal areas and their problems well than any other india writer who are sitting in a four wall space and talking/writing without any experience. she used her freedom of speech and expression rights to talk about the other side of the media projected stories…

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