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Arundhati Roy's Power Politics

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Power Politics

Roy, Arundhati. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2001. 132 pages, paperback, $12.00. ISBN: 0896086569.

"I love the unanswered question, the unresolved story, the unclimbed mountain, the tender shard of an incomplete dream. Most of the time."

Arundhati Roy's glorious writing, first made apparent to the international scene with the publication of her Booker prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, is now exhibited in a collection of essays entitled PowerPolitics. Some of her fans may be surprised to see that Roy spins political non-fiction as winningly as she does fiction, but the native of India has long been recognized as a social activist and humanitarian. In Power Politics, she puts her verbal gifts in the employ of those who are voiceless.

The first essay, "The Ladies Have Feelings, So...Shall We Leave It to the Experts?", is based on the 3rd Annual Eqbal Ahmad Lecture, which she was invited to give in February of 2001. In it, she ponders the ill effects of globalization, as well as the role of art and the artist in combating those effects. She defines globalization as "a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history." Utilizing impeccable research and an endless warehouse of examples and case studies, Roy powerfully argues that major corporations move silently into the Indian market, employing Indians to do the actual financial exploitation, and therefore "can have their colonies and an easy conscience." They can further pretend to be aiding the Indian people, thus donning a convincing mask for "third world repression" and financial neocolonization.

Who can articulate the arguments against and contestations of the new financial menace? Certainly not the Indian working classes, who are trapped in the roles of victims of globalization. The task of defense falls to the artists or, in Roy's case, the writers, whose role in general she calls under examination, insisting that a writer cannot be separated from her environment, from the cultural, social, and political backdrop of her life: "To be a writer -- a supposedly "famous" writer -- in a country where three hundred million people are illiterate is a dubious honor." As a writer in a troubled India, Roy proclaims that the nation's current obstacles -- especially the erection of the Maheshwar Dam and the ensuing land dispossession and homelessness of millions of people living in the perimeter of the project -- haunt her: "The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out." Thus does she defend the notion of the "writer-activist," the label used to describe the category into which she has been thrust by the Indian government and media.

The tragedy of the Maheshwar Dam, like other symptoms of globalization, is an "invisible challenge," that necessitates the rise of a "new kind of art. An art which can make the intangible tangible, and the invisible visible." In addition, the artist will be a person who can "translate cash-flow charts" into "real stories about real people...about what it's like to lose your home, your land, your job, your dignity, your past, and your future to an invisible force."

The Maheshwar Dam project, also discussed in the book's other two essays, "Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin" and "On Citizens' Rights to Express Dissent," has indeed generated millions of tragic stories. India's first major privately contracted and owned power project illustrates "the difference between valuing water and putting a market value on water." By privatizing a natural resource like water, the Indian government allows the nation's over 700 million people who live in rural areas, whose lives already "depend directly on access to natural resources," to run the risk of, one day, not being able to afford opening their taps to get water. Because privatization "seeks to disengage politics from the market," the one weapon these 700 million have -- the vote -- would be useless in expressing their dissent. Thus, "Power Politics" refers both to the politics of generating electric power for a nation of over one billion people, as in the case of the dam project, and to the political system which, because of its close relationship to foreign corporations, is willing to disempower its nation's citizens.

Roy's analysis, which delves into pretty corporate phrases like "free market" and "developmental nationalism" and surfaces with their true, dangerous meanings, posits her as a champion of the voiceless millions in India, for whom writers can serve as advocates and defenders of their political and human rights against the unseen threat of globalization.

Susan Muaddi Darraj