Arundhati Roy, Operation Green Hunt
And The Indian Middle Class
By Abhijit Dutta
07 June, 2010
After giving Those Ones to the Indian state, Arundhati Roy is sticking it to the (not so) Great Indian Middle Class.
Speaking at a sweaty gathering of adoring followers in Mumbai, specifically a meeting called by the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) on the ‘War Against People’, Arundhati spoke eloquently (but alas, not too elegantly, as she wiped her brow, her face, her nose and her mouth repeatedly, even joking, “please don’t think I am uncomfortable with my politics, it’s just damn hot!”) about the alienation of the middle class that is disconnected from the real world of insurrections and revolutions or, to quote her, “seceded to outer space”
She spoke for about an hour and after Gautam Navlakha. Gautam had, in his customary style, thumped the lectern and called us all hypocrites who refused to look the truth in the face (truth being the War that the Indian government is waging against its Own People). He had quoted all the Facts, thrilling the audience with the Shock and Awe tactics of Statistics that proved,beyond reasonable doubt, that we were sitting amidst debris of a democracy that never was and that across the length and breadth of the country, the Indian state had unleashed a systematic program of structural violence and iniquity. We nodded in sympathetic agreement, marveling at his passion, his emotion.
Arundhati followed, in a beautifully crumpled white saree with golden border, in the tradition of Keralite couture, and a coiled roll of jasmine flowers in her abundant bun. She had entered the auditorium (her arrival pre-announced by a well meaning flunk who said “Arundhati Roy paanch minute mein padhaar rahi hai”) preceded by exactly the same flotilla of photographers that signal the arrival of a major bollywood star (I say this from experience; having organized multiple press conferences involving major A List actors and actresses of today, I can confirm that their FQ – Flashbulb Quotient – is not a patch on Arundhati’s). She walked to the dais and sat down, patiently waiting out a polite minute where photographers hungrily clicked at – in – her face, before appreciatively nodding at the man who waved them back to their seats. The photographers, who knew better, and probably had to also run to another event where Katrina or Kareena or Kajol or someothersuch would also sashay down a carpet, promptly left. A few, stayed.
These few surprised me. At first. They stood, to the right of the stage, pointing their cameras, like guns at the ready, at Gautam. It took me a while to realize that while Gautam’s voice choked with anger, while his fingers curled into tight fisticuffs ready to strike a fatal blow to all of us in the audience who have no sense of outrage against the protracted war – 63 years. 63! – that the government has been waging against its people, those dedicated photographers were mesmerized by Arundhati thoughtfully chewing on the nib of her pen (which, I think, Gautam had lent her at the beginning of the conference).
They could have as well waited for Arundhati to finally take the stage, or the lectern to be precise, with a substantial load of papers and one notably voluminous book; she gave them many such moments.
As someone who had travelled roughly 30 kilometres (one way) to see her (and I mean, see her) she was quite a pleasure. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she looks exactly the way she looks on youtube i.e. very beautiful. Those who came to hear her also got their money’s worth. She spoke with a light touch, offering turns of phrases and neologisms that tickled us and made us giggle. I was disappointed to note that some of the turns were not so new or neo(“they call it the maoist corridor, we call it the MOUist corridor”), like her many books that are ‘compilations’ of what she has said previously, but then she came up with a couple that were refreshingly original (as in, I haven’t heard them before): “they ask me if I condemn the violence…as if we are all in a Condemnation Industry where we must buy stocks to prove our membership”, or the equally clever: “biodiversity of insurrection”
In broader, thematic terms, Both Gautam Navlakha and Arundhati Roy said pretty much what they have said before; in fact, the whole room had gone to this god forsaken non airconditioned cubby hole of a marathi pressroom only so they could hear them say things they have been saying forever. In that sense, it reminded me of the enthusiasm of my friends who enjoy going to Iron Maiden concerts. They have heard all the songs already, they have practically memorized them and even bought the collector edition special dvds but still they drool at the thought of going to see them in flesh. And Arundhati in flesh is far more enchanting than any Maiden.
At the end of the speeches, the audience was asked if we had any questions. We did. One elderly gentleman complained “but it’s human nature to be greedy. What can I do”; Arundhati counseled him to hope and go on and make a change or some such. The gentleman repeated, “but what can I do?” Arundhati thought, then stuttered before coming back with “oh, I don’t know, I am sure you have some skill”. The room erupted with laughter and no one heard the old man bleat for the third time “but what can I do?”
Another young man said something rapidly, paraphrasing Arundhati and Gautam into one line accusations. Arundhati, charming Arundhati, had this to say (with a smile, with a smile): “you sound just like a dongria tribal”
I had been itching for a while and decided to take my heart into my mouth and ask a question. By some miracle of fate the microphone landed up in my hand and I stood up. Others, whom the miracle had sidestepped, now, in true rebel form, took matters in their own hands and screamed their questions out. And I waited, mike in hand, for my turn.
Eventually, it came. And I began, “Arundhati…”
I had wanted to say that name. Me to her. Arundhati & I. With a frown on her face, she looked around the room to attach voice to face. I waited till she located me before I continued. And then I asked my question.
“Arundhati, you talked about the media being bought out, or being a little slow (she had. I imagine she meant Sagarika Ghose, Arnab Silly Gooseswami, Barkha and Co.). Most of us in this room agree. In this room, we patiently hear you say all the things that you are unable to complete when you are in the studios of the English news channels who ask you if you condemn violence, who present you as an alien voice. It is only in fora like these, where everybody agrees with everybody, that we have a space for what you have to say…do you fear that we are painting ourselves into a corner where the mainstream continues with life without having to be discomfited by voices like yours because they find it entirely alien?”
I cited an article I had read in the morning by Vir Sanghvi.
“Vir sanghvi wrote an article, where I think he meant to be kind to you but he basically talked about how dissent is important and gave examples of American civil society criticizing the American government during the heights of Vietnam war to basically fit you into a chair for dissent. This is frustrating to me because this basically means that we can now wave you aside to this chair, a chair we know where to put in the room, instead of being provoked and prodded into asking questions”
I realized that I had spoken for too long and meekly, thudding heart et al, sat down. I didn’t take notes so I am a bit reticent to put her response within quotation marks but this is what she said in effect: The fear of painting yourself into a corner only arises if your world is colaba causeway and airport lounges, which is what I imagine Vir Sanghvi’s life is. The world of television studios and middle class is a minority. Those fighting the order are the majority. We are a “major majority”. It doesn’t matter what the middle class thinks. It is in fact the middle class that has allowed this soggy mess to come about with their “commonplace dreams”. I think it is the middle class that has waged the most successful secessionist movement and “seceded to outer space”. I don’t care how popular I am, I am not in a popularity contest, I am not standing in an election. I have chosen my side. If you are on this side, great, if not, fine.
She said more and she said it all very convincingly, or so I suppose, for there was immediate applause. I had a few questions to what she had said but some Dr. Shetty was already screaming the room down with his vision for the new social world order.
When I had asked my question, it was a facetious one. I mean, I was more interested in Arundhati answer my question than having an answer. Also, I was aware that I was posing a question which was, as they say, leading, for if you flip my question one could say that there is no alternative but to keep trying, to keep sharing, to keep growing the tribe of believers.
I would have been happy if she had said that. She didn’t. Instead she said, she is the majority and that the middle class doesn’t matter and that the middleclass was to her what the Maoists were to Chidambaram.
I also know that the appropriate reaction to this is to agree. After all it is well known that the middle class is apathetic, it doesn’t vote, it’s fond of comfort and would like to access luxury. And yet, and yet.
Strangely enough, hearing Arundhati rail against the poor sods who qualify to be middle class, I felt resentful. Why must the Middle Class always be the bugger boy of all sides? The government screws the Middle Class by making them pay more taxes (because others don’t pay any at all), assign them the back breaking work of actually running the economy that they are so proud of. Arundhati dismisses them from her vision of the new world order by scoffing at their commonplace dreams and slow minds that are awash with capitalist, consumerist beliefs.
In presence of such great intellectual cannons it is difficult to argue that all of middle class was not middle class to begin with. Many were poor. Very very poor. And they chose a specific response. The farmers in Andhra Pradesh chose suicide as a response to their poverty. The tribals their guns. The middle class chose to break their back working and pay for some sort of an education for their children.
But never mind that. Let’s labour on what Arundhati said about popularity. I don’t care about popularity; I am not in a popularity contest.
I won’t question whether that is true because that gets into murky land of motive. However, to pretend that the mainstream media, with its paid for news and slow minds, is not a relevant universe is to contradict herself.
To the hapless man who had asked what he can do, Arundhati had said “we all do what we can. I am a writer, so I write….”
She is a writer. So she writes. Who does she write for? Who is the audience? Where does she publish? Do her exclusive 32 page essays appear in the monthly magazines published out of Dantewada (scribbled, one would imagine, in blood, on tendu leaves) or does it appear in magazines to the said middle class, who forks out the Rs. 20 that the essay costs? Would seminars like these, where she enters with a phalanx of photographers, where adoring fans (yes, fans. One woman, dressed in a blue cotton saree with tribal print, said breathlessly: I just want to touch her feet) wait with bated breath, attract anyone at all if she wasn’t popular? As a writer, to make any change at all, she needs to be read! Guess who, in this country of a billion, can read? The first name begins with an ‘M’ and the second with ‘C’.
Curse be on me to suggest that the tribals of Dantewada or Bijapur or Kaliganagar or anywhere else are not currently subject of the state’s great (and greatly unjust) fury. My rant is, don’t dismiss the Middle Class, co-opt it. Let the middle class express outrage; it is an assumption that everyone in the middle class will shut out the world outside and count their savings. It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand. When Arundhati and Gautam can so eloquently argue that not every Kashmiri is a terrorist, that not every tribal is a maoist, why is it so difficult to understand that not all Middle Classists are hopelessly slothful and devoid of intellect? How is it possible to talk about the “biodiversity” of the insurrection and then promptly exclude 300 million people, many of whom feel deeply about these issues, many who can make significant contributions to changing public opinions, to changing policy?
I can already hear Arundhati’s silken voice admonish me. This middle class that I talk about is a hegemonic mass of upper caste hindu Brahmins (inexplicably, in this rarefied world of rebellion, all Hindus are Brahmins) who are all invested in the current order and can only hinder change. Off with their heads, she might as well say.
The middle class, like the Maoists, like the tribals, like the Kashmiris, like the Nagas, like the Manipuris, are invested merely in their survival. Their “commonplace dreams” comprises of dignity, some security for the future and, dare they hope, for some respect, of also sitting on the dais, not always looking up.
For this they have adopted a path of least resistance. Have they willy nilly acquiesced in a greater act of violence, of a War Against Its People? Maybe. Is the answer to that to say they don’t need to be engaged with, spoken to, persuaded, made to see an alter reality? Maybe. But equally, maybe not.
The middle class is teeming with just as much, or more, biodiversity as the insurrection that Arundhati speaks of. The Middle Class contributes the largest number of academicians, intellectuals, readers and media consumers. She accurately mentioned that even within the broad bandwidth of resistance groups, there is much conflict, and even hatred. Why then is it so difficult to imagine that within this poorly defined and much maligned mass of the Middle Class there is scope for imagination, for romance. Arundhati spoke of the romance she finds in the poorest of the poor standing up to the might of the state. Is it possible that she might also see the romance of a numbed, dead of flesh mass come alive in solidarity for their countrymen; is it possible to dream (for she is big on dreaming) that the secessionist Middle Class may accede to the greater Romantic state that she is the Sovereign ruler of?
Is the Middle Class more intransigent, more intractable than the Maoists or the Militants that one tries to understand and empathize with? If truly the current order needs to be overthrown and a new way of life be sown in, is it not imperative that the 300 million people who have been currently marked as enemy of the insurrection be part of an “inclusive agenda”? Is it not important or relevant to identify narratives and stories that speak to this brow beaten, generation weathered class that has only traded in sweat and labour and meekly accepted its due as decided by the rulers and to inspire them with a vision that they can participate in? Or is it sufficient to mock them, berate them, declare them as the enemy of the state, of the major majority, and consign them to the farthest corners of the imagination? And if Arundhati and Gautam want to say Yes to that, then is that not a War Against It’s Own People?
P.S: The profusion of words that begin with capitalized letters is to indicate my underlying affection for Arundhati, in spite of what this article may otherwise suggest.