Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy

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Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A shocking exposé of the India behind the shining Bollywood mask. Roy’s collection of essays spanning the first eight years of the 21st century will make you question what you thought you knew about the subcontinent.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144626

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Stories can provoke many different reactions in the reader: pleasure, pain, delight, horror. The whole range of emotion is available to the fiction writer to ply and probe. Reactions to non-fiction works can be equally wide-ranging and can sometimes take the reader by surprise.

Like most people I came to Roy via the Booker-prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, which it transpires, is her only novel to date. In the intervening twelve years Roy has concentrated her undoubted literary abilities in the political arena, engaging with the less attractive side of her native India.

In reading her work, one can't help thinking that the Sydney Peace Prize (awarded in 2004 for her social campaigns and advocacy of non-violence) probably means much more to her than the Booker. Except, of course, for the possibility that that Booker might just get her a wider audience, might just open up a few journalistic doors that would otherwise be closed to her. I, for one, do not begrudge her exploiting it to the hilt.

She writes on all manner of social and political issues, campaigning against injustice, environmental degradation and corruption. She is astute, worldly, secular and surprisingly non-judgemental in her approach. She has a tendency to leave the questions hanging tantalisingly against a backdrop of facts that defy you to come to any conclusion other than hers.

Subtitled Field Notes on Democracy, Listening to Grasshoppers is a collection of essays first published in a number of periodicals and newspapers between 2001 and 2008.

It is prefaced by a long introduction, which I'm tempted to urge you to skip on first reading. For those not familiar with Indian current affairs it is heavy going, full of unfamiliar names and sects and parties and events. We shouldn't forget that much of this work was originally written for home consumption, so this isn't a criticism as such. It is simply that, as with many a classic literary text, the introduction only makes sense when you're familiar with the ideas. Leave it till last.

The essays themselves stand as written at the time, with no attempt at updating. Roy states in the introduction that she has written more extensive end-notes, but these do equally nothing to update the general reader, unless you want to follow the trails laid out in the references.

Once you get into the essays themselves though it is a different story. They are journalistic in style. Direct. Easy to read. Impossible to ignore.

Each of the pieces ends beautifully or powerfully or both, and I'd agree that to addend anything immediately below would undermine the original. I would, however, as a foreign and generalist reader, have welcomed a catch-up chapter at the end simply summarising the state of play as the book went to press with regard to some of the issues raised. Some details are buried in the Introduction, but Roy is capable of putting things much more clearly than she does in that somewhat rambling exposition of philosophy.

To the essays themselves:

We begin in Gujarat 2002. On 27th February the Sabamarti Express Train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the temple town of Ayodhya burst into flames. Fifty nine people were incinerated. This was immediately reported as a Muslim-inspired terrorist attack, and the whole area erupted into vengeful riots.

Or did it?

Subsequent evidence has shown no reason to believe that the event was a terrorist attack Muslim or otherwise. It may have been arson of a much more mundane variety. (Equally, there is no reason to counter the terrorist argument. The forensic evidence is simply inconclusive.)

More importantly, Roy asserts, the riots themselves and everything that followed was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Certainly, the backlash went beyond families acting out of grief and anger. It was, she states, nothing less than a state-sponsored pogrom: Muslim businesses were closed down; schoolchildren driven from their schools, mobs in their thousands took to the streets, not in a spontaneous reaction, but in a co-ordinated one with targets and weapons. They had, she tells us not just police protection but covering fire.

Where, she asks, is this advocated in the Hindu scriptures?

This isn't merely an attack on the attackers however. Roy's gripe isn't just with a government and a police-force that allows, nay encourages, such behaviour. It is with the media that whips up the storm that feeds the behaviour, and with all the rest of us for allowing that to happen while we stand quietly by.

From Gujarat to Kashmir. Obviously. No analysis of democracy in India could avoid the Kashmiri question. It seems every democracy has one. That intractable province that simply won't behave. For the British it was Northern Ireland, for the Indians it is Kashmir. The good news for the Indians is that eventually the Irish themselves decided they had to work out their own solution and it wasn't going to be at the sharp end of a dose of semtex. There is hope for Kashmir. Hope that she will eventually find her own way, and will not need to cling to Pakistan and the only hope of escaping India.

Hope is a word that rises often in these tales. For every condemnation of ignorance, incompetence, or criminality there is a but maybe, if only… Roy always manages to find some reason to believe that democracy can be salvaged from the wreckage.

Then, obviously, from Kashmir to Pakistan, to the relations between the two countries. Two diametrically opposed ideologies, both with fingers hovering over a nuclear device. This is the context in which India's democracy stumbles. The Hindu nation – and that is the way the country is going at present, forget the assertions of secularity, forget the vibrant intermingling you thought you saw on the streets, or in the films - is worried about the Moslem one. And both are prepared to fight it out in a hot war if need be.

This breeds paranoia, in government and in the civil service that supports the government – in the army, the police, the justice system. The default setting becomes 'blame the Moslems', 'blame Pakistan'.

Roy exposes the nonsense of this position.

A number of the essays focus around a single event. The attack on the Indian parliament. In December 2001, at 11.30 on the morning of the 13th to be precise, five armed men (or was it six?) drove a white Ambassador car through the gates of Parliament House in New Delhi. The car was carrying an IED. An improvised explosive device. A bomb.

Not to mention, allegedly, enough ammo to take on a battalion.

This was clearly a planned attack.

So well planned in fact, that – according to the authorities – the bombers were not only inept enough to get themselves killed without setting off the device, they also left such a trail of evidence that identities and affiliations were determined almost immediately and accomplices arrested within forty eight hours.

Make of that what you will. Roy leads us through both the investigation and the ensuing court cases. She questions incompetence versus complicity. She questions the police activity, the court judgements, the media responses. Above all she questions the public reaction. Of course this last is entirely determined by what goes before. We all form our judgements on the basis of what we know: what we are fed by our civil servants and our news media.

There are times when our campaigning author oversteps the mark, for my taste. Her condemnation of Europeans is absolute. In her treatises on genocide (via the Turkish response to authors talking about the Armenian massacre) her anti-colonial chip weighs heavy. I won't attempt to justify what my forebears did in Africa or India or the Americas. I will however point out that they'd have been hard-pressed to succeed in any of those endeavours without the willing (and well-paid) assistance of local warlords and chiefs and traders. It was never racism. It was simply business. Foul, immoral, business it's true – but business all the same. It was the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Colour and race were coincidental.

Comparing the Armenian incident and other more recent genocides with those historic circumstances is unhelpful. She is far stronger when she quotes the UN definition and fits her studies to that. The Armenians in Turkey. The Muslims in Gujarat. The Kashmiri Pandits. She dismantles the notion of the Rule of Law as being a tool of control, rather than of justice. She looks at the Prevention of Terrorism Act (since rescinded) and the contempt of court rules, which make any criticism liable to imprisonment. She may have only a writer's sword, but it's wielded with a lawyer's insight.

Even when she steps back into the imagination she holds true to her intent. The fictional finale (The Briefing) did not quite work for me, but the homage to Orwell in Animal Farm II – in which George Bush says what he really means is simply brilliant.

It is all strong stuff.

Roy does not hold her tongue. She speaks of fascism taking hold in her country, and the further into these essays I got, the more I came to believe her. At the very least, I was left reeling, in a state of near-shock. India is not the country I believed her to be. I am shocked at what she is, but doubly-so at my own ignorance of it.

I have to question why we don't know any of this. Even if we assume that Roy is partisan and may perhaps, therefore, not be a totally reliable witness, (which for the record is something I don't believe) why are the questions at least not being asked? There are abuses of process, abuses of human rights, abuses of power, abuses of people in this book more than enough to warrant the telling in our own international media coverage. We condemn such activities in Burma, in China, in Turkey… how come we don't even get to hear about them happening in India?

This is a book that needs to be talked about. Read it!

Listening to Grasshoppers has a suitably detailed index and a useful map of India. The glossary however is hardly worth the effort. A full glossary of non-English words, political parties, key players etc would have made the first reading much easier. I urge the publishers to consider this in time for the inevitable reprint.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.

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