“What have we done to democracy? … What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism?” —Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy raises provocative and sometimes uncomfortable questions in her latest collection of essays, “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to the Grasshoppers” (Haymarket Books, Oct. 2009). In many ways, the book is a searing account of how India’s new global image is masking some unsavory and dangerous paths down which the country’s democratic institutions are headed. But it also serves as a reminder that democracy alone isn’t a be all and end all to solving the world’s problems.
Readers are likely to remember Roy for her 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel “The God of Small Things”, a magical debut set against the backdrop of Communism in 1960s Kerala, India. While “Field Notes on Democracy” might seem like an odd departure, during Roy’s 10-year hiatus from fiction, she produced a number of impassioned essay collections examining the concepts of empire, democracy, and the politics of power worldwide. She’s been anything but quiet.
For those who don’t have much of a background in South Asia, “Field Notes on Democracy” might seem shocking and even overwhelming at times. It doesn’t sing the praises of India’s shiny new call centers and malls, its emerging middle class, or the benefits of the globalized marketplace. Rather, it’s a report card on India’s performance as “the world’s largest democracy” – and according to Roy, there’s room for some serious improvement.
She cites leaders, political parties, media outlets, and gruesome events in India’s recent history – some obscure, others infamous – that are likely to leave readers wondering, “Why had I never heard about this before?” And that’s precisely the point. Roy questions why some events (like the terrorist bombings in Mumbai last December) grab the world’s attention, while others (like the 2002 state-led violence that incited the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat) get swept under the rug. In fact, Roy makes the case that these two events aren’t unrelated, and actually tie into other violent events in India’s past.
But it’s important to note that Roy’s beef isn’t with India on the whole. If anything, her ardent criticisms seem to come from a deep love for her country, its people, and humanity in general. She posits that India’s promise of democracy has been one disappointment after another, marred by corruption, communal violence, socio-economic inequalities, and even its strategic relationships with countries like the United States.
That’s not to say she thinks democracy is inherently bad. On the contrary, she challenges readers to think about where such a lofty concept goes awry. She does think that “democracy should be the utopia that all ‘developing’ societies aspire to,” but suggests that adopting democracy is very different than already living with it. She’s not talking about knocking down the house and rebuilding it from scratch. Rather, she proposes some remodeling: “The system of representative democracy – too much representation, too little democracy – needs some structural adjustment.”
That being said, this is first and foremost a book about India as a democracy, and will likely resonate most with those who have an existing knowledge of or vested interest in South Asia. At times, it seems Roy ends up preaching to the choir, surfacing issues for readers who are likely to feel as outraged as she does about the injustices that happen in the face of development. But Roy’s voice is still essential, if only because she stands as an important counterpoint to the widely held belief that the free market is curing all that ails India.
So, should you pick up “Field Notes on Democracy” and give it a read? Yes, but with the caveat that you might not fully understand the roots of the religious conflicts and political turmoil that she writes about – and that’s okay. The big picture she paints is an important one to understand, especially as India emerges as a major global power. For readers who have some more time and an interest in understanding these issues, “India and South Asia: A Short History” by David Ludden serves as great background reading.
Last, but not least, Roy ends the book with a tantalizing nugget – her first piece of fiction since “The God of Small Things.” The short piece, entitled “The Briefing,” is a powerful allegory that serves as a poetic ending to a direct, no-holds-barred book.
Arundhati Roy, noted novelist and political essayist will read from “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers” on Monday, March 29 at Town Hall Seattle located at 1119 Eighth Ave.. Presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures with Elliott Bay Book Company. For tickets & information, call (206) 621-2230 or visit lectures.org.