Why Acche Din Needs Arundhati Roy
Last night, while watching TV, a friend said, "You know when you're a 24k celebrity? When just talking about you can make the one doing the talking famous. It's like she's now the Shah Rukh Khan of literature." The "she" in question is author Arundhati Roy. Yesterday, BJP MP Paresh Rawal wrote a throwaway tweet suggesting Roy be used as a human shield. By the evening, it had erupted into a trending hashtag and some news channels were planning primetime debates around it. Because it's so much easier to have a few people come on your show and tell the audience how much they hate Arundhati Roy. Who wants to deal journalistically with the uncomfortable news of Major Gogoi being officially commended for committing a human rights violation? Insert delicate shudder here.
Leaving aside the dodgy parallel that was being drawn between Shah Rukh Khan and Arundhati Roy (I'm so #TeamLiterature and #TeamArundhati that this is never going to get my vote), the whole business of infamy is not quite as simple as my friend made it seem.
To begin with, you need to have genius talking heads like Sudhanshu Mittal, who can't tell a bot from an official Twitter account even when the handle has "bot" in it. (He read out tweets by @roybot_, convinced that @roybot_ is Roy's Twitter account even though @roybot_'s bio makes it very clear that Roy is not associated with the account.) Another essential ingredient are media outlets that are basically zombies — instead of brains, they wants eyeballs (or hits), no questions asked. This means that we can just ignore non-trending and/or uncomfortable topics like our miraculous jobless growth, the rise of vigilantism (the Jharkhand lynching is the latest in a gory, horrible list), or how more than 50,000 people gathered in Delhi's Jantar Mantar to take a stand against caste-based violence after what happened in Shabbirpur. This is not even the tip of our iceberg. From water shortage to our education system, there's cause for despair on every front and all we seem to be doing is outraging in a way that we snap at each other relentlessly and achieve nothing but more animosity.
And that's the critical point. Roy has been in the news because her name was being used for misdirection. She was necessary for the flourish that is critically important for the magic trick that is Narendra Modi's acche din.
Our political leadership doesn't want us to be faced with the reality of how desperate the situation is becoming in India. This is not particular to BJP. No government wants its citizens to be aware of everything that's falling apart. For BJP, though, it's particularly important to keep up the illusion of progress because the party has promised, like Kingfisher beer, good times. Elections can be won because there's no political opposition to speak of, but it's also important to keep the public attention upon issues that the BJP can claim as victories — like putting Arundhati Roy in her place (which is on the bonnet of an Army jeep apparently, because she had the gall to suggest Army presence in Kashmir wasn't helping the situation in the state).
Much like Congress did in its prime, BJP too wants followers and subjects. They don't want a country full of people who are thinking for themselves. Irrespective of whether they're for or against your ideology, thinkers are a nuisance. They're harder to control, they raise questions and as a result, it's just generally a pain getting them to follow an agenda. The trick that the saffron brigade has cracked is to give the impression to its herd that they're raging against the system when in fact they're following a set agenda that serves the system. So, for instance, one favourite rallying tactic is to take down those who are considered the liberal elite — not for their values (because to figure out wrong or right values, one would again have to think and we can't have that), but by attacking them for being privileged and a clique. The rhetoric is aggressive, monotonous and easily customised, irrespective of the issue being discussed. Take "anti-national", for instance — a term that's vague, yet destructive and suitably broad, like Sambit Patra's smile.
The reason you want to set the agenda is the control that comes from predictability. As the herd grows, it just follows the agenda. By the herd I don't mean only those who are on the agenda-setter's side, but also the others. When people react rather than think, the responses are much easier to predict. You know how those on your side will react because you've fed them the arguments they should make. In that situation, if all goes according to script, you should also have a pretty good idea of how the opposition will respond. For instance, when Rawal says Roy should be tied to a jeep in Kashmir, what are the chances that the other side will respond with, "That's fine, but could you just make sure that the ties are secure enough that she doesn't fall off but not so tight that they hurt her?" The obvious response is to say that no one should be used as a human shield. But that's the considered response — and one that the Army clearly doesn't see much merit in, given Gogoi's commendation. Meanwhile, the knee-jerk response is to say Rawal is an attention-hungry has-been. To which his supporters will say he's a son of the soil and supports the Indian Army unconditionally. And before you know it, we've entered the "You are an anti-national!" territory. It's that thoughtless and that predictable.
When you set the agenda, there are no surprises, no disruptions; just regular programming with some scheduled, strategically-timed outbursts. Social media can be a phenomenal weapon for the establishment. It helps set these agendas and offers a quick release for building frustration. (Fortunately, it's a double-edged sword that also allows for dissent and dissemination of information.) Using misdirection with expert ease, our establishment today channels the country's underlying anger and despair into issues like this Rawal vs Roy debate that's been the buzz since yesterday*. To react, even if it is with something as inane as "Thanks @SirPareshRawal for giving publicity to Arundhati Roy's book" is a release. Rage against the machine or the liberal — whichever suits your fancy — fight a few fights on Facebook or Twitter, downgrade the rating of an app or two, and you're temporarily spent. All is calm, and the storm stays at a distance for a little while longer. When the clouds gather again and thunder rumbles too loudly, there will be another little outburst. Rinse, repeat and smile because you're on camera.
I would love to believe that Arundhati Roy can light a fire under the bums of all those who were on television yesterday and demanding she be booked for sedition, tied to jeeps, chucked out of the country, and so on. If people actually read her, then they'd realise what a formidable opponent she could be. Not because her arguments can't be dismantled or because she's figured it all out (they can and she hasn't), but because she's a brilliant storyteller. More than logical reasoning, it's her ability to turn fragments into the literary equivalent of an earworm that makes Roy's writing so powerful. Sometimes persuasive, sometimes provocative, always persistent — the stories she tells you, the details she'll bring to light, they linger in your memory. Consensus is not the point. You think about what you believe in and why.
Of course I'd also love to imagine us as a society where authors are cherished for their minds, rather than the advances they get, the number of books they sell or their social media following. But that is almost like believing in Santa Claus. Arundhati Roy, the writer, is not important. She's only an easy target because she's prominent and the current establishment is manipulative enough to turn her into a straw figure. Congress didn't, even though the bulk of her non-fiction was written when the Congress was in power. With BJP, the agenda is set and it's clear: if you stand by Roy, you're an anti-national because she's an anti-national, and she's an anti-national because she's raising questions rather than following the lead. It's quite obvious that Roy loves this country and doesn't want to leave it, despite all that has been thrown at her. Ironically, this suits the saffron brigade well — Arundhati Roy isn't going anywhere, which means she's an accessible enemy. In the past few years, Roy has been relatively quiet, but she hasn't budged from her stand, and she still defiantly tells her stories, with a smile and a glint in her eye.
There's a certain belittling that comes from being chosen as the target and it's really depressing because Roy deserves so much more from both her attackers and her champions. Those who support her can't get a word in, which means they've got to find more effective ways of communicating their points of view. As for her attackers, if there was an engagement with Roy or an actual discussion of some sort, then all the idiotic spectacle we see on television news would perhaps be tolerable. But last night was just people yelling, and yelling nonsense. The performances were all bile and jingoism, calibrated to prove the nationalist's nationalism, the party member's loyalty to the party line. It was a reminder to the audiences of what is expected from today's citizen: unquestioning obedience and surrender to those in power. Because, as vigilantes and Major Gogoi have taught us, might is right.
This is what our culture today thinks storytellers should be: hollow, so that they can be beaten to cause the loudest din from time to time, as and when the one with the stick feels necessary.
What's frightening to this world order that the conservatives are setting up, is a writer who isn't empty-headed; one who thinks and urges others to do the same. Once upon a time, writers were expected to engage with the world around them. Communities relied upon storytellers to preserve what was valuable and to gather what would enrich society. Their insights — honed by their chosen task of entering people's minds and understanding their compulsions — were not supposed to limited to fiction or the subjects they wrote about. For them to have an opinion on the world around them was not considered activism, but was just another aspect of being a writer. They were (and are) watching society, reflecting it in their works, embedding ideas into their readers' minds. Commercial, popular, avant garde, experimental, literary, scientific, journalistic — whatever the genre, literature is made by those who watch society and ferry stories from one group of people to another. Even when they choose to be escapist and flimsy, a writer creates a record of what is the ideal, simple life. Under that fiction and anchoring it are the anxieties and sadnesses that the writer and their society seek to escape. The reality may be out of sight, but it isn't out of reach.
Weirdly though, we expect our creative set to be apolitical, as though talent insulates them from the surrounding reality. We want our artists to focus on being successful and hollowing themselves out, rather than filling their mind with ideas. I imagine the dream is to have a creative set that bobs enthusiastically, like a bunch of balloons — fill them up with hot air and they'll float as high as the one holding the string will let them. Eventually, they'll deflate. Or get popped.
But what do you do with those who aren't quite so lightweight? You reduce them to straw figures and then set fire to them on televised debates that the rest of us watch. Not that this will stop the stories from either being told. After all, Ministry of Utmost Happiness comes out next month. In the words of EB White, "Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day."
* The prevailing assumption was that Rawal was reacting to a news report from a Pakistani website that quoted Roy. As it turns out the story on that website is fake and taken from a Right-inclined website that is part of India's fake-news bandwagon. Neither CNN News 18 nor Republic bothered to check the veracity of the article, as The Wire points out, thus further cementing their zombie status. But like I said, I don't think it matters to Rawal or anyone supporting his point of view whether or not the article exists or if Roy has visited Srinagar recently (she says she hasn't). The facts don't matter, only what she's made to embody by Rawal and gang, for their own purposes.