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Review: 'My Seditious Heart' is two decades of Arundhati Roy’s rage

Roy has, after all, been called “seditious” on many occasions by many people. And she is, in so many ways, offering up her heart through this book

Arundhati Roy. Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi
Arundhati Roy. Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi

Arundhati Roy has always been an evocative, yet incendiary writer. She’s irked several governments across the world with her excoriating analyses of foreign policies and the clever ways in which those governments have tried to sell the interests of their most vulnerable citizens to satiate capitalist greed.

During her 20 years as a political, environmental and human rights activist, Roy has supported the secession of Kashmir – an inflammatory political position to take in India and described former US president George W Bush as a war criminal, as well as accusing the Israeli and Sri Lankan governments of state-sponsored terrorism.

As such, it’s almost poetic that the book containing two decades of Roy’s rage is called My Seditious Heart. She has, after all, been called “seditious” on many occasions by many people. And she is, in so many ways, offering up her heart through this book.

Roy has had an astonishing rise to international fame

Many people know Roy’s name because of her astonishing rise to international fame. In 1997, at the age of 36, she won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, The God Of Small Things. It would be 20 years before Roy published her second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But the real Roy – and the things that move, perplex, anger and sadden her – exists within her extensive non-fiction writing.

My Seditious Heart by Arundhati Roy. Courtesy Penguin UK
My Seditious Heart by Arundhati Roy. Courtesy Penguin UK

As someone who has followed Roy’s acerbic prose for a long time, I knew that My Seditious Heart was going to be a deeply disconcerting read. Roy’s rage is sharp when she gives her views on the way India’s indigenous, tribal people are being treated by the country’s newly monied middle class, which she says is giddy with delight over a shiny development story that exists only in the imaginations of those whose financial interests the performance of democracy serves.

'India doesn’t live in her villages. India dies in her villages'

In one of her early essays, The Greater Common Good, she writes that “India doesn’t live in her villages. India dies in her villages. India gets kicked around in her villages. India lives in her cities. Her villagers are her citizens’ vassals and for that reason must be controlled and kept alive, but only just”.

In another essay, Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin, Roy discusses what she says is the tragedy of privatisation of water in India. In it, she forces us to wonder how you can put a value on water, or decide what is a fair market price for something so essential to human life?

My Seditious Heart concerns itself with all of Roy’s most intimate vexations in the past two decades. She ruminates over the idea of nationhood and the “right way” to love the land that nurtures you. One of her most poignant and powerful essays is about the nuclear bomb, and how it is the most “anti-democratic, anti-human, outright evil thing ever made”, no matter how much a government may try to sell its people the idea of national pride in nuclear prowess.

Much of the book is dedicated to answering the thorny question of Kashmir

Through the course of the book, Roy zigzags across nations, states and cities, from Washington DC and New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to Delhi in 1984, Mumbai in 1993 and Gujarat in 2002, drawing parallels between war-hungry governments the world over. In Democracy: Who’s She When She’s At Home? Roy says there is no difference between different forms of religious extremism in India and holds both Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party has conservative, Hindu nationalist leanings, and former Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated while in office, equally responsible for injecting venom into the country’s political veins.

Come September is a reminder that practically every part of the world has its own tragic, bloody September to contend with, while The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky deconstructs the idea of freedom. In Peace Is War: The Collateral Damage Of Breaking News, Roy attempts to disentangle what she calls the “complex mess of cables that connect power to money to the supposedly neutral free press”.

Much of the book is dedicated to answering the thorny question of Kashmir and a growing demand for secession, much to the chagrin of people who stand to lose nothing, but claim to be wholeheartedly invested in the matter in the name of national pride. In How Deep Shall We Dig? Roy draws our attention towards what she describes as the unchecked, undemocratic powers that the Indian government has lavished on those entrusted to maintain order – political speak for quashing dissent – on its behalf.

Her sorrow is laced with biting sarcasm

Despite its many meandering, thematic turns, Roy keeps returning to the plight of people being callously, unthinkingly uprooted from the only lands and lives they’ve ever known.

Her sorrow is laced with biting sarcasm as she describes the expediency with which, over and over, mammoth loans were approved and used for India’s rapid pace of development, despite a lack of data about the human and ecological costs of the country’s widely celebrated projects.

My Seditious Heart might be many things, such as a study in Roy’s cynical view of life, or maybe a guide to making sense of a world that is frightening, chaotic and confusing. But at its heart, it is her attempt to have us consider our roles in what she says is the unbearable tragedy befalling the world’s poorest, most ignored, practically forgotten citizens. Someone had to.

Updated: August 17, 2019 03:30 PM

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