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Our world Laid Bare

By Priscilla Jebaraj

03 July, 2008
The Hindu

THE SHAPE OF THE BEAST — Conversations with Arundhati Roy: Arundhati Roy; Penguin/Viking, 11, Community Centre, Panchasheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Shape of the Beast is an exercise in connecting the many dots that she first started plotting over a decade ago in The God of Small Things.

In the years since she won the Booker Prize for her debut fictional work, Roy has plunged herself into the career of a political activist-writer, with most of her published work passionately taking on the powers that be on the battlefields against neo -imperialism, economic liberalisation and communalism. Each controversial political essay over the last 10 years has added more dots to her chart, and now, in her latest book, the outline of those joined dots is taking shape — and the picture isn’t pretty.


The Shape of the Beast is a collection of the transcripts of 14 interviews that Roy gave to seven different journalists between January 2001 and March 2008. Since all the interviews have been previously published, there is nothing inherently new in the book. However, by compiling those interviews together, the book documents the process of taking stock — of both past and future — and in typical Roy fashion, it looks at national and international developments through the lens of personal passion, providing adequate fodder for both the fan and the political scientist.

As she answers questions on hot-button issues, ranging from 9/11 and the War on Terror to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, from the judgments and protests that have shaped the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to the Gujarat riots, she tracks the evolution of her thought through the challenges and dangers facing India. On the other hand, she also answers deeply personal questions — on her childhood, her family, her spats with fellow intellectuals, and her reaction to fame, the writing process and her plans for the future— many of which have helped shape her thought process over the years.

The beast in question is not just a powerful animal; it is a creature begotten by power itself. Roy clearly subscribes to the adage: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In her analysis, unfettered power infects political, corporate and religious entities, even the NGO world, separating them from any ability to identify with the powerless and leading them to attitudes and acts of horrific, yet often camouflaged bestiality. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether she’s discussing religious riots in Gujarat, war hawks in Washington or New Delhi, or economic repression in the Narmada Valley — in her opinion, they are merely the many heads of a single beast.

Common beast

In a 2003 interview, she offers Iraq and Argentina as examples for her theory. At first glance, the war in one has nothing to do with the economic collapse in the other. Look closer, and a common beast emerges. “Once you understand the process of corporate globalisation, you have to see that what happened in Argentina; the devastation of Argentina by the IMF, is part of the same machine that is destroying Iraq. Both are efforts to break open and to control markets. And so Argentina is destroyed by the chequebook and Iraq is destroyed by the cruise missile. If the chequebook won’t work, the cruise missile will. Hell hath no fury like a market scorned,” she says.

Similarly, she draws the lines that connect Pokhran, Ayodhya and Enron, warning activists that it makes no sense to fight the one while condoning the other. “Indian intellectuals today feel radical when they condemn communalism, but not many people are talking about the link between privatization, globalisation and communalism. Globalisation suits the Indian elite. Communalism doesn’t. It doesn’t create a good ‘investment climate’. I think they have to be addressed together, not separately,” she says.

While passionately exposing and denouncing the causes behind the emergence of the beast as well as the dire results of its many-headed actions, Roy also explores the range of responses available to those who fight the beast. And while lauding the tradition of non-violent protest that has lain at the heart of Indian democracy since Mahatma Gandhi undertook his salt march, Roy also raises a query about whether this is the right response for our difficult times.

“Non-violent movements have knocked at the door of every democratic institution in this country for decades and have been spurned and humiliated,” she says, pointing fingers at elected representatives, the judiciary, the media and the NGO community for having let down the cause. “I’ve always felt that it’s ironic that hunger strikes are used as a political weapon in a land where most people go hungry anyway. We are in a different time and place now. Up against a different, more complex adversary,” she adds, pointing to the insidious ways in which the powerful have co-opted the tools of the powerless.

Progression of thought

This is one of the areas where the book’s interview series format works well. One can track Roy’s take on violent protest from the NBA protests of 2001, through the anti-war protests in Iraq and the U.S. from 2003 onward, right up to the rise of the Maoist and Naxalite militias in 2007 and 2008. It is an interesting progression of thought.

The book’s format does sometimes leads to repetition, as interviewers ply Roy with the same questions, but as she explains in the preface, the conversations give her “a flexible way of thinking aloud, of exploring ideas, personal as well as political, without having to nail them down with an artificially structured cohesion and fit them into an unassailable grand thesis.”

If she has no grand thesis, she has no great expectations of its ability to provoke action either. “Only the very young or the very naïve believe that injustice will disappear just as soon as it has been pointed out,” she says. And yet, “sometimes it helps to outline the shape of the beast in order to bring it down.” In her deeply passionate, subjective way, Roy has drawn that outline for us all.


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