Azadi: Arundhati Roy’s Portrait of Terror | Adeeb Chowdhury

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She argues that in the fight against Modi’s authoritarianism, India is not only fighting for democracy or fundamental human rights — it is fighting for its soul. It is fighting to protect its writers, its artists, its creators, its visionaries. It is fighting for the minds that face arrest, imprisonment, censorship, and subjugation.

Terror may be a strange way to refer to a collection of political essays, but in the case of Arundhati Roy’s Azadi, hardly any other word could be more appropriate. Such is the distressing and alarming nature of her work, offering well-informed and masterfully articulated insight into the social crises that shape modern India. The human suffering, bloodshed, and demise that defines the so-called “world’s largest democracy” is not left to the reader’s imagination. Roy makes no attempt to understate the truly, frighteningly dark underbelly of the Modi administration, rife with crime, corruption, and caskets.

Azadi pulls no punches and minces no words as it exposes the BJP’s abuse of fundamental human dignity on a massive scale, as well as the catastrophic consequences that will inevitably result from allowing the government to continue on its current path of destruction.  Its tagline, “Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.”, aptly captures its central themes of demanding fundamental human rights, calling out the dictatorship instituted by the ruling party, and analysing how fiction and imagination can help us survive — and succeed — during these trying times.

“What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that,” reads the back cover — my first introduction to the contents of Azadi. After turning the last page of this book, it almost seems as if this quote was, in fact, a challenge Roy posed to herself when penning this. She not only confronts the crimes of the Modi government head-on but forges ahead with no pause in her step, constructing her vision of a better, safer nation where India can honestly claim to be the world’s largest democracy. Along the way, she invites us too to join her as she charges ahead at full speed to a brave new world.

In what language does rain fall over tormented cities? Apart from being an incredibly relevant question in a world that is rapidly diversifying and unifying at the same time, it is the title of the first essay in Azadi. Roy deconstructs what language is and what it means to her, taking us on a bumpy journey through her childhood in various pockets of the nation, starting in Assam. A child born to a Syrian Christian mother from Kerala and a Bengali father from Kolkata, Roy’s identity was at a crossroads from the start. Her understanding of herself and who she is has always been a melting pot of various cultures, traditions, lifestyles, mindsets, and, perhaps above all, languages. Surrounded and raised by languages ranging from English to Hindi to Baganiya.

Roy recognises language for what it is — a tool, a shield, and a weapon. She draws from her novel The Ministry of Happiness to illustrate these concepts as she explains the power of language and how it has shaped much of the social dynamics of modern India. In the compelling, creative, and commanding manner that has become synonymous with her writing, she dissects her own usage of English, the language of India’s European oppressors. Roy shares a story of a man who once aggressively posed the question, “Has anyone ever written a masterpiece in a foreign language? A language other than her mother tongue?”

Roy immediately responds with “Lolita”, a universally respected English classic penned by the Russian Vladimir Nabokov. The man storms off.

It is common to find South Asians even today who view the English language with disdain, seeing it as merely the tool of the wealthy white men who colonised, brutalised, and orchestrated the near genocide of their people. Roy, however, sees English not as a relic of British colonialism and the blatant racism of Winston Churchill that people conveniently sweep under the rug as they label him a hero. She finds within the English language an opportunity — an opportunity to reclaim the independence, identity, and autonomy the British had claimed from us. She is picking up the language used to oppress her people and using it to articulate her fiery soul, her dynamic personhood, and all the values she has built her life on. She is using English to establish her own identity as an Indian woman worldwide — precisely what her colonisers and oppressors were afraid of. After all, what could be more insulting to the former British rulers than to see their own language being used to tear down their own dark regime, barbaric legacy, and their chokehold on the Indian subcontinent?

Roy’s discussion of language segways into her searing criticism of the rising tide of Hindu nationalism. She paints a picture of India as a jigsaw puzzle of more languages than one can count, all inspired by and fitting into one another to form the colourful melting-pot identity of India. The “one nation, one religion, one language” philosophy of the Hindu supremacist RSS is not only supremely racist and born from xenophobia, but simply stupid. It is ignorant of the reality of Indian culture and the hundreds of languages, religions, and identities that form its basis. The wave of Hindu nationalism is not aimed to strengthen or solidify what it means to be Indian — it will destroy it.

Roy continues this train of thought in “Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy” and “The Language of Literature”, an essay shedding light on the role writing plays in the fight for democracy. As an author, her work has become tangled in politics and sparked protest within the BJP sphere. She shares the story of how anti-government activists are arrested and forced to “confess” that Roy’s books had inspired them to take up arms against Modi. “They’re building a case against me,” she explains, noting the strong possibility that the ruling party may use these “confessions” to justify banning her work or putting her behind bars in the future.

She argues that in the fight against Modi’s authoritarianism, India is not only fighting for democracy or fundamental human rights — it is fighting for its soul. It is fighting to protect its writers, its artists, its creators, its visionaries. It is fighting for the minds that face arrest, imprisonment, censorship, and subjugation.

“Our Captured, Wounded Hearts” centres around another movement adjacent to the fight for democracy at home — the Kashmiri struggle for independence. Roy delves into the recent suppression of the people of Jammu-Kashmir, starting from the BJP’s repeal of the law that gave this region political autonomy and relative independence. The Kashmir community has been under lockdown since before any of us were — with the Internet. All communication avenues shut down, the Indian military harassing people into not leaving their homes, and brutalising those who do, all the while broadcasting their screams of pain on local sound systems to advertise to everyone the consequences of disobeying the soldiers. Pellets fired from Indian guns have left thousands blind and handicapped. A regime of brute force, blackmail, physical assault, Internet shutdown, and militarisation has left Kashmir a warzone, devoid of spirit, soul, and dignity.

Roy draws an interesting parallel between the movement to free Kashmir and the fight for democracy in mainland India. Both sides have adopted Azadi as a rallying cry, chanting it in the streets, demanding the most basic and fundamental of rights. The threat of Indian occupation in Kashmir and the tide of Hindu nationalism in the cities of India have provoked the same response, digging deep into the common people’s psyche to draw out raw outrage, determination, and resilience.

The oppression of the Kashmiri people can be traced back to the questions at the heart of the BJP’s steamrolling of human dignity: who counts as an Indian? And who actually matters? Surely not the Kashmiri child with gaping holes as eye sockets as a result of an Indian soldier with a temper. Surely not the Muslim family who had lived in India for forty years, having to produce ancient documents showing they had arrived after March 25th, 1971. Surely not the thousands of Assamese men and women facing deportation if they cannot prove their belonging to a court that has already decided against them.

India’s growing intolerance of its Muslim brothers and sisters is centred on in the essay “The Graveyard Talks Back.” The title itself is a stroke of brilliance, considering that most graveyards in India host Muslims, given that Hindus are cremated. Roy takes a hard look at the decades-long effort to slowly chip away at fundamental rights for Muslims, culminating in the spats of bloody violence against these communities in the last few years. Roy quotes from BJP officials who brag about assaulting, raping, robbing, and wishing genocide on the Muslims of India, demanding that they either conform to Hindu norms, leave, or die. Massacre after massacre has defined the lives of Muslims in the country today, watching their communities being slaughtered mercilessly and trampled upon, being forced to recite Hindu prayers and pledge allegiance to a Hindu state to save themselves and their families. Roy draws comparisons to the current hostility towards Muslims and the beginnings of the Nazi Third Reich as they rolled out restrictions targeting the Jewish people of Germany. Further chilling is the fact that the Nazis had also begun by limiting its scope of citizenship based on arbitrary criteria — nor a far cry from what the BJP is doing.

Azadi culminates and concludes with “The Pandemic is a Portal”, an essay I had actually read online before starting the book. It makes sense that this was the essay Roy choice to end the book, as it in many ways encapsulates the soul, spirit, and struggle of Azadi. The essay is not only an analysis of the current affair of things as they stand amid the coronavirus lockdown, but also a total call to arms — Roy announces a vision and lays out a plan to secure it.

“The Pandemic is a Portal” describes the Modi government’s exploitation of the virus, as BJP officials scramble to pin the blame on everyone from Muslims to political “traitors”. It exposes the failures of the government at the highest level in protecting its own people, but also highlights the opportunities that come from these times. This is what the title refers to—the pandemic is a portal to a better future, but only if we use it as one. Only if we see how the wealthy are comfortably nestled in clean, safe homes while the poor wither on the streets. Only if we see how the healthcare system is fundamentally flawed and is structured to benefit the privileged. Only if we see how nations — especially those considered “developed” — spend more of their money on fighter jets than essential medical equipment. Only if we see how the way we as a society have designed our capitalistic system is inherently unjust and does not care for the needs of the many, but the wants of the few.

Azadi is a necessary book. It is important. We need it, now more than ever. We crave freedom from lockdown and ignore those who have been under military occupation half their lives. We take democracy for granted. Arundhati Roy performs an essential service here, and that is to wake us up. In her trademark commanding and creative style, in a manner befitting one of the leading political writers and thinkers of her nation, she crafts a masterful narrative of the destruction of democracy under a nationalist, race-baiting regime. Azadi is truly her portrait of terror. She strives to scare us into action because we should be scared. If we’re not scared, we’re not paying attention.

 

Adeeb Chowdhury is an aspiring lawyer and the leader of multiple social justice foundations in his city of Chittagong. He is currently studying Political Science at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.

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