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The fictional world of Arundhati Roy

American academics swoon over the novelist's bizarre alternative universe

By Jon Sanders

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February 01, 2004

Note: This article was first published in FrontPage Magazine, January 8, 2004.


Indian novelist Arundhati Roy is full of rage against the United States, snidely dismissive of free-market capitalism, and an unrepentant Marxist — and in the halls of academe, she's believed to be one of the most important voices in the world.

The 42-year-old Roy became a world celebrity with the publication of her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. A unanimous selection to receive the prestigious Booker Prize, the book found a receptive audience among literary critics, enjoying an unprecedented "scale of ... success and breadth of critical reception."1 College professors in particular were enthralled with Roy's personal story, the facts of which are now inseparable from legend: she was a poor child in Kerala, India, whose parents (mother a Syrian Christian, father a Bengali Hindu) divorced, who left home at 16 to live in a squatter's camp in Delhi, and who wrote her award-winning novel in secret for four years till magically she was discovered.2 It became commonplace "to conflate Roy the author with the protagonists of her novel" and "obsessively add to the mythmaking process."3

Of particular interest to the Leftist faculties on college campuses in the United States and Great Britain — owing to their current fixation on such things as "post-colonialism" and the "subaltern" — was Roy’s gender and ethnicity. They eagerly added Roy's work to their syllabi, and Roy returned their interest by accepting the mantle of "Authentic4 Third World Voice."5

Part of that acceptance involves continuing to speak out against the West, as Roy has "used both the success of The God of Small Things and the critical work which has followed it to capture wider media attention for the political issues that interest her."6 It should not surprise anyone familiar with the self-loathing socialists comprising the bulk of the Western professoriate that Roy's "dissent" for dissent's sake (in her terms, the "politics of opposition"7) has endeared her all the more to them, proving, as the Sunday Herald put it, "that you can be a political radical and look like a million dollars at parties."8

Roy may also be a more brilliant writer of fiction than even her fans in faculties worldwide know. They love her deliberately overblown rhetoric about America, the war on terror, and industry, but Roy "has often suggested that she sees no distinction between her fiction writing and her journalism."9 If that is the approach of the artist, then we would be wrong to apply such distinctions gratuitously. When we remove them, we reveal Roy's full transformation as a writer. For she emerges from this cocoon as a highly imaginative author of fantasy.


An alternative universe

Roy's metamorphosis has already dated R.S. Pathak's The Fictional World of Arundhati Roy, which was published in January 2001, mere months before Roy delved into the richer world of fantasy. A pity for Pathak, as his title is better suited for the new Roy, who has now created an entire fictional world in which to spin her fantastic tales.

Our knowledge of Roy's new world comes from her works starting around September 2001, which include op-eds, speeches, and her first full-length dispatch from this imaginary universe, Power Politics.. As with the other great writers in this genre (J.R.R. Tolkein being the one getting the most attention at the moment, thanks to Peter Jackson's films), to her this creation is nigh on reality. "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way," she has said. "On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."10

Roy has not yet named this parallel universe in which she currently resides. However presumptive it may be of me, in lieu of a name I am calling it Non Sequituria. It's a dark, mysterious place where things are never as they seem and where what we would regard as the "normal" laws do not apply, and many things appear totally "backward." Chronology flows in reverse, for example. Causation follows events. Logic is as disconcerting in Roy's world as illogic is in ours.

Roy's Non Sequituria can be thought of as a darker version of Lewis Carroll's "Wonderland" or Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett's "Wackyland." Unlike them, however, Roy's world has many place-names similar to those in our own. This feature has the singular effect of heightening the differences between Non Sequituria and Planet Earth.

On Roy's planet, people in business and politics conspire openly to oppress their fellow men, but they are strangely oblivious to this blatant, predatory behavior. What is happening in her world, she writes, "lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of common human understanding"11 and "is almost too colossal for human comprehension to contain. But it is a terrible, terrible thing. To contemplate its girth and circumference, to attempt to define it, to try and fight it all at once, is impossible."12

Unlike Non Sequituria's hapless inhabitants, Roy and her readers have the ability to witness the conspiracies evolve, but they are strangely powerless to stop the oppressors. They can do no more than write and speak and hold hands. It is as if the same bizarre physical laws that allow their heightened perception also frustrate their mobility.

As present, Non Sequituria, not unlike our own world, is battling terrorism. But in Non Sequituria, terrorism has a different form than what we face, a different cause, and a different solution.

Unlike in our world, in Roy's world there are two kinds of terrorism, "military and economic terrorism"13 (emphasis added), which are basically indistinguishable. "Terrorism [presumably the military kind] is the symptom, not the disease," Roy says. "Terrorism has no country. It's transnational, as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike. At the first sign of trouble, terrorists can pull up stakes and move their 'factories' from country to country in search of a better deal. Just like the multinationals"14 (one of Roy’s pet names for economic terrorists). Terrorism also marches "arm in arm with the project of corporate globalism"15 (i.e., economic terrorism).

What causes terrorism in Non Sequituria? Many things, especially responding to terrorist attacks. According to Roy, when U.S. civilians are attacked by terrorists, America's response is sure to "spawn more anger and more terror across the world."16 Violence in retribution for terrorism causes terrorism in Roy's world. That is because "For every 'terrorist' or his 'supporter' [the meaning behind the scare quotes will be explained shortly] who is killed, hundreds of innocent people are being killed, too. And for every hundred innocent people killed, there is a good chance that several future terrorists will be created."17

A kill ratio of one terrorist/supporter to "hundreds" of innocent people would be shocking in our world, of course. But in Non Sequituria the logic is illogic, so the math is necessarily subject to whimsy. Roy explains later that "there is no accurate estimate of how many people have been killed, or how much destruction has taken place. In the absence of reliable information, wild rumors spread."18

Regardless, in Roy's fanciful world it is "absurd" even to "toy with the notion that [a government] can stamp out terrorism with more violence and oppression."19

Why "and oppression"? See, violence against terrorists in Non Sequituria is "oppression" because "One country's terrorist is too often another's freedom fighter."20 So naturally, a country engaged in fighting for its freedoms against terrorists is, in this alternative universe, a "terrorist" fighting "freedom fighters." Or, to borrow a helpful explanation from Roy, "Pigs are horses. Girls are boys."21

Even responding to terrorist attacks with food creates terrorism in Non Sequituria. For example, there is starvation in a place called Afghanistan, caused by a government known as the Taliban, who also "beat, stone, rape, and brutalize women" and "dance to the percussive rhythm of bombs raining down around them."22 It turns out that the Taliban are harboring known terrorists (i.e., "freedom fighters") under attack from a place called America. But this America wants it known that their attack is against the terrorists and the Taliban, not their starving victims, so it airdrops several thousand packets of food into this Afghanistan. What effect does that airdrop create in Roy's world? Rage, leading to terrorism: "Far from stamping it out," she says. "Igniting this kind of rage is what creates terrorism."23

In Non Sequituria, where bombs and food can each create "freedom fighters," the issue of how America must deal with terrorists who attack their civilians is really "About space. About how to accommodate diversity, how to contain the impulse toward hegemony ... the hegemonic world is like having a government without a healthy opposition."24 And that is because hegemony leads to empire; the "hegemonic world is like having a government without a healthy opposition."25 In Roy's world, the possibility of empire is more to be feared than the reality of terrorists striking civilians, because the latter — when not providing the unhealthy, nihilistic detonation of living men, women and children, of course — also, and more importantly, provide the "healthy opposition" to hegemony.

In Non Sequituria, "empire" also creates terrorism. To Roy, empire is a thing called "corporate globalization," which is about "only money, goods, patents and services" and not "the free movement of people" or "a respect for human rights" or "international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical or nuclear weapons or greenhouse gas emissions or climate change, or — god forbid — justice."26

Terrorism in Non Sequituria also feeds off a war against terrorism. "We know that under the spreading canopy of the War on Terrorism, the men in suits [economic terrorists now] are hard at work," she explains. "While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles skid across the skies, we know that contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and George Bush is planning to go to war against Iraq."27

This character George Bush, by the way, is the president of the United States of America, but more importantly, he is the chief enemy in Roy's imaginary world. Naturally, this "greatest threat to the world" is the cardinal opposite to the intelligent but impotent Roy. Bush is not even "averagely intelligent," but he controls the "locomotive force that drives the political and economic [that is, both forms of terrorism] engine of the US government."28 Bush and his allies are "cowardly baby killers, water poisoners, and pusillanimous long-distance bombers."29

But without Bush, Non Sequituria would seem less real, because Roy has combined in this Bush character of hers both villainy and comedy relief. It's a masterful stroke by an imaginative artist at the top of her craft. (She once gave us a peek behind her creative curtain when she explained, "Bush-bashing is fun, because he makes such an easy, sumptuous target. It's true that he is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is far more dangerous than the man himself."30)

Roy's Bush is the world's greatest terrorist. That being said, it is important to understand that fact doesn't mean Bush is another country's freedom fighter. He just isn't. The rules of Non Sequituria cannot be consistent — logical consistency being a value in our world, not hers.

Illogical consistency is also why even though violence causes terrorism — and Roy can provide a list of countries that America has bombed over the last half-century31 — she cannot provide a list of the terrorists created by all that violence. She can infer, however, that terrorist attacks against America were a "monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong" that "could well have been signed by the ghosts of the victims of America's old wars"32 (emphasis added). After all, it's "impossible to produce evidence (of the sort that would stand scrutiny in a court of law)" to implicate the figure blamed in attacks — the Taliban's "freedom fighter" Osama bin Laden — but Roy suggests (bearing in mind the inseparability of military and economic terrorism) that he may at least "the CEO of the holding company" behind the attacks.33

But here's how strange Non Sequituria is: Bush and Osama bin Laden are actually twins. Roy calls Bin Laden "the American president's dark doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized." Apart from that useful explanation, however, the genesis of bin Laden is hard to picture in our-world terms. He is, we're told, "sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy" (fantasy writing at its most poetic!) with its military and economic terrorism: "barbarous military interventions," "support for despotic and dictatorial regimes," a "merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts," and "marauding multinationals, which are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think."34 Furthermore, the Bush and bin Laden "twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable."35

Non Sequituria's illogical consistency means, of course, that while interchangeable, bin Laden is not equally as evil as Bush. No one else is as evil as Bush — not even "dictators like Saddam Hussein, and all the other despots in the Middle East, in the central Asian republics, in Africa and Latin America, even if they are "menace[s] to their own people."36 For sheer evil, despite "all its appalling sins, the Taliban just isn't in the same league"37 as Bush and his allies.

This Hussein character, by the way, is the despotic head of a nation called Iraq, which is also being attacked by America in its war on terror. "Nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, a murderer," but of course Bush "is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein."38

Iraq may be another front in the American war on terror, but as Roy explains, that war is "not really about terror." This time, it's not really about space or accommodating diversity, either, but rather about oil, although it is "not only about oil. It's about a superpower's self-destructive impulse towards supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony."39 Which creates terrorism. It's also about something completely different: it's a "racist war" that "engenders racism in everybody."40 Which also creates terrorism.


An alternative solution

What, then, is the solution to terror in Roy’s strange world? Well, "the first step is for America to at least acknowledge that it shares the planet with other nations, with other human beings, who, even if they are not on TV, have loves and griefs and stories and songs and sorrows and, for heaven's sake, rights."41 In our world, such an approach would not solve the problem of terrorism — unless it caused the terrorists to laugh themselves to death. (Even if that could work, its collateral damage would surely be staggering). But in Non Sequituria, where illogic is ideal, it is the essential first step. Why? Because ... banana nuthatch goulash.

The next step? "Put your ear to the ground in this part of the world." Why? Because "you can hear the thrumming, the deadly drumbeat of burgeoning anger. Please. Please, [in Non Sequituria thrumming, burgeoning anger is very polite] stop the war now. Enough people have died. The smart missiles are just not smart enough. They're blowing up whole warehouses of suppressed fury."42 (One might reason, in our world, that whatever a warehouse of suppressed fury is, it might be a good idea to blow it up.)

Roy also suggests ways that she and her readers, despite their limitations, may be able to exploit their superior intelligence to stop the "certain destruction" they foresee: by remembering, telling stories, and holding hands. They must "hone [their] memory" and "learn from history" to "build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar."43 For even though the inhabitants of Non Sequituria are too dull to comprehend the danger on their own, "the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers ... can find ways of bringing it into the realm of common understanding." Fortunately, Roy and her readers have "our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell stories."44 It will take a "new kind of art," however, which "can make the impalpable palpable, make the intangible tangible, and the invisible visible. An art which can draw out the incorporeal adversary and make it real." And it will take a "new kind of politics," the "politics of opposition" and "of forcing accountability. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction."45

Yes, the secret to fighting terrorism in Non Sequituria is not taking action, but taking inaction. Better put, it's taking action through inaction. Roy understands it's a difficult distinction to make: "This is not to suggest that the terrorists ... should not be hunted down and brought to book. They must be."46 But in Roy's world, it cannot be done by war, or by spying (including eavesdropping, phone tapping, intercepting mail, or Internet surveillance), or by freezing bank accounts, let alone by violence or humanitarian aid.47

In our world, of course, you can't hunt down and bring to book anyone without at least taking some of those actions. In Non Sequituria, where so many things appear backwards to the people of Planet Earth, you must explicitly avoid such things in order to succeed. You must do nothing other than "to hold still, to delve into [the] wells of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern," to "acknowledge" that the world has been transformed, and to have "a modicum of honesty and humility" and "introspection."48 Roy's world turns a motto of our world inside out, namely: Don't do something; just stand there!

As far as ending the real terrorism (military and economic) on Non Sequituria, it is, ironically, the villain Bush who may succeed where Roy et al.'s "brilliance" cannot. Having below average intelligence, Bush cannot "smoke-up the glass and confuse the opposition," so he has "achieved what writers, activists and scholars have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire" — which just might mean "it could be disabled quicker."49 (What a keen eye for detail. In Roy's world, the most dangerous, potentially unstoppable machine is a locomotive in glass housing. In ours such a thing would make for a rather absurd juggernaut.)

Nevertheless, Roy alternates between such cautious optimism for Non Sequitur's survival and odd expressions of pessimism. She wonders what will happen to the "daily consumers of the lies and brutality smeared in peanut butter and strawberry jam being air-dropped into our minds."50 She wonders aloud, hauntingly asking something we're all destined to ask ourselves at some point in our lives, "Will it be possible ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a new-born gecko in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered in your ear—without thinking of the World Trade Center and Afghanistan?"51

It is this quality — the near-certainty of tragedy tempered with just enough hope, comedy and farce to hold it at bay — that sets Roy's new fiction apart and makes this world of hers seem almost alive. So alive that even its author can no longer distinguish between it and her journalism. It's a pity her biggest fans in academe have so far failed to appreciate her recent work in full. If this had happened to Tolkein, folks would still be out scouring the planet in search of hobbit-holes.

-------------------------
NOTES

1. Mullaney, Julie. Arunhati Roy's The God of Small Things: A Reader's Guide, Continuum, 2002, p. 70.
2. See, for example, Somdatta Mandal's "From Periphery to the Mainstream: The Making, Marketing and Media Response to Arundhati Roy," in Arundhati Roy: The Novelist Extraordinary, R.K. Dhawan, ed., Prestige Books, 1999, pp. 23-24.
3. Mullaney, p. 71.
4. Read: socialist.
5. "Dambuster," The Sunday Herald, Nov. 3, 2002.
6. Mullaney, p. 16.
7. Roy, Arundhati. Power Politics, second edition, South End Press, 2001, p.33.
8. "Dambuster."
9. Mullaney, p. 83.
10. Roy, Arundhati. "Confronting Empire" speech, Jan. 28, 2003.
11. Power Politics, p. 32.
12. Ibid., p. 86.
13. Ibid., p. 108.
14. Ibid., p. 119.
15. "Confronting Empire."
16. Power Politics, p. 118.
17. Ibid., p. 136.
18. Ibid., p. 140.
19. Ibid., p. 119.
20. Ibid., p. 136.
21. Ibid., p. 127.
22. Ibid., p. 130.
23. Ibid., p. 136.
24. Ibid., p. 131.
25. Ibid., p. 131.
26. "Confronting Empire."
27. Ibid.
28. Roy, Arundhati. "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates," The Guardian, April 2, 2003.
29. "Confronting Empire."
30. "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates."
31. Power Politics, p. 128.
32. "Confronting Empire."
33. Ibid.
34. Power Politics, pp. 122-23.
35. Ibid., p. 123.
36. "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates."
37. Power Politics, p. 129.
38. "Confronting Empire."
39. "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates."
40. Ibid.
41. Power Politics, p. 119.
42. Ibid., p. 140.
43. "Confronting Empire."
44. Ibid.
45. Power Politics, pp. 32-33.
46. Ibid., p. 138.
47. Ibid., p. 138.
48. Ibid., p. 127.
49. "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates."
50. Power Politics, pp. 144.
51. Ibid., pp. 145.

 


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