Friday, May 19, 2017

Arundhati Roy's "The End of Imagination": Book Review

What happens when a novel from two decades ago remains an author's best-known work? Then, this writer demurs from producing another bestseller. She rallies on behalf of the poor and persecuted. Agitating for those marginalized in her native India, Arundhati Roy champions her controversial choice to pursue real-life rather than fictional conflicts. The End of Imagination collects journalism and talks between 1998-2004. Twenty-one selections drawn from five books allow a wider audience access to a woman bent on confronting the powerful, and challenging control by the "free" market.

The introduction summarizes present-day Indian politics. The Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2014 returns Narendra Modi to prominence as Prime Minister. 2015 finds him greeting Barack Obama while wearing a million-rupee suit with Modi's name woven into its pinstripes. The gap between that purported leader and hundreds of millions of his subjects symbolizes itself in this sartorial display.

Treating the outcast Dalits and "Other Backward Castes" belatedly elevated to grudging consideration for higher education, Roy contrasts state discrimination with the students' Communist cadres. These discontents join those supported in Roy's opposition campaigns. Adivasi villagers resist "Big Dams." Lands of indigenous peoples of the hilly northeast are "acquired'' for development funded by NGO's and international banks colluding with the wealthy in India and within scheming multinationals. Roy reports: "the forest is being cleared of all witnesses." Fears of a coup by the military, enforced flag worship, false-flag terrorist strikes and "limited war" with rival Pakistan cloud Roy's outlook in 2016.

The essays following progress along roughly thematic lines. The title entry addresses the nuclear showdown in 1998 between India and its neighboring nuclear foe. Another compares a Hindu India with pre-WWII Germany. A third considers the legacy of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, given blacks who sought freedom encounter dire circumstances in the U.S and South Africa. Roy targets the Pentagon, decrying a disproportionate amount of recruits drawn from African Americans.

Critiques of war continue throughout this compilation. India and Pakistan's protracted skirmishes over Kashmir reveal the "dangerous crosscurrents of neoliberal capitalism and communal neo-fascism." Part two opens with Roy's confession of the "sheer greed" rather than compassion that spurred her to cover the fight by native tribes pushed out during Narmada Canal's construction. Maheshwar Dam privatizes the basic human necessity of water, epitomizing the imbalance of resources between classes and among the peoples of India and beyond. Too few others care, it seems.

In a lecture at Amherst, Roy's frustration grows."To be a writer--a supposedly 'famous' writer--in a country where 300 million people are illiterate is a dubious honor." Phrases like this show her at her best, pungent and passionate. But for long stretches, her determined research will bog down readers in details which may fail to fascinate the non-Indian adept, or those not seeking a granular depiction of Indian politics and economics during the era of George Bush, Jr. and the War on Terror. Therefore, this anthology will appeal to a few, similar to the diligent analyses of under-reported East Timor by her counterpart, Noam Chomsky. Both occupy themselves with well-documented, tendentious studies of policy. Roy agrees to follow the gadfly she nicknames "Chompsky" for his biting force, as he bores down into a machine creating conflicts enriching war-profiteers and enabling politicians.

Roy promotes herself as a journalist-activist. The God of Small Things earned her the Booker Prize in 1997. Back then, a cushy career beckoned for a chronicler of memory, political and psychological tension and coming of age in her newly independent nation, the middle of the last century. Yet, after a novel four years in the making, she postponed a follow-up. She vowed to fight the profit motive. "I'd say the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export," she tells that Amherst crowd.

The remaining essays tend to repeat issues. Roy ambles towards stridency in her prose and her snark can grate in print. Perhaps her delivery sharpens in person. In various presentations on post-9-11 reactions soon after the attacks, she provokes the West and those who ally with the superpower, Roy exposes Osama bin Laden as "America's family secret," invented for that superpower's greedy needs,"created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI." As Soviet Communism failed, so will market capitalism, she predicts. "Both are edifices created by human intelligence, undone by human nature."

Arundhati Roy, after all, knows both creations firsthand. Born two years after the first freely-elected Communist government in the world attained 1957 victory in her home state of Kerala, she warns audiences of the allure of any system appealing to our better instincts, yet demanding a people's submission. While The End of Imagination, like earlier releases of her work from Haymarket Press, needed a proper introduction for American readers as to its scope, and a delineation of the five texts from which these pieces were taken, this lack of editorial oversight may be balanced against a useful index. Furthermore, a short companion volume, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, provides a furtive, oblique, if timely primer. Essays and conversations from Roy and John Cusack document their late-2014 meetings alongside Daniel Ellsberg, with Edward Snowden. That whistleblower displays bravery in uncovering disturbing truths at the risk of reputation and livelihood, from his asylum in Moscow. For these authors, as capital crushes liberty, protest spreads across borders.
(Spectrum Culture

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