Sunday, May 29, 2022

A Letter From The Economist

The literary editor of The Economist responds to Arundhati Roy's letter about the review of her book, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.

A Letter From <i>The Economist</i>

22nd September 2009

Dear Ms Roy,

Thank you for your letter of August 25th. I have been away until today which is why I have not replied to you sooner. I apologise. I am sorry too that you did not like the review of your book, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, which was published in The Economist on August 1st.

On re-reading our review, I don’t see it as being negative. Nor does it contain any errors. The reviewer disagrees with some of what you say, but he begins with an admiring salute, asserting that you are “just the sort of brave and energetic critic that India needs”.

I’d like to address your individual points in the order you raise them.

1) You would have liked the review to be tougher on Narendra Modi. In two sentences we give a broad description of Mr Modi’s ambitions and his history. We argue that even Ratan Tata supports him, though to our knowledge Mr Tata, unlike some other Indian industrialists, has never specifically called for Mr Modi to rule India. It may be that you feel angry because you believe we are somehow endorsing Mr Modi by saying that Mr Tata supports him. We are not---as a reading of what The Economist has written about Mr Modi since 2002 would attest. In a book review of 650 words or so, it is impossible to go into the history of specific issues in great detail, but I cannot see how, in this instance, the reviewer’s words about Mr Modi can be described in any way as being wrong.

2) The reviewer’s remarks about your chapter on Kashmir were a reasonable inference from three paragraphs on pp 168-69 of the British edition of your book. I quote them below in full.

Day after day hundreds of thousands of people swarm around places that hold terrible memories for them. They demolish bunkers, break through cordons of concertina wire and stare straight down the barrels of soldiers’ machine guns, saying what very few in India want to hear. Hum Kya Chaytey? Azadi! We Want Freedom. And, it has to be said, in equal numbers and with equal intensity: Jeevey Jeevey Pakistan. Long live Pakistan.

That sound reverberates through the Valley like the drumbeat of steady rain on a tin roof, like the roll of thunder during an electric storm. It’s the plebiscite that was never held, the referendum that has been indefinitely postponed.

On 15 August India’s Independence day, the city of Srinagar shut down completely. The Bakshi stadium where the Governor hoisted the flag , was empty except for a few officials. Hours later, Lal Chowk the nerve centre of the city, (where in 1992 Murli Manohar Joshi, BJP leader and mentor of the controversial ‘Hinduization’ of children’s history text books, started a tradition of flag-hoisting by the Border Security Force), was taken over by thousands of people who hoisted the Pakistani Flag and wished each other ‘Happy belated Independence day’ (Pakistan celebrates Independence on 14 August) and ‘Happy Slavery Day’. Humour, obviously, has survived India’s many prisons and torture centres in Kashmir.

The reviewer read in this (encouraged by the forcefulness with which you express yourself) that you see the competing demands of Kashmiri separatists---straight independence or union with Pakistan---as being equally popular in Kashmir. If what you really meant to say was that many Kashmiri independence seekers also retain some affection for Pakistan, and can shout ‘Long Live Pakistan’ without wanting to join it, that does not come through clearly in your book. Under the circumstances it is hard to see how a reader could have a drawn any conclusion other than the one drawn by our reviewer from this passage. 

3) You object to the assertion that you appear to gather your facts from newspapers. Two of the pieces in your book are indeed critiques of the Indian media, and one would expect those to focus on newspapers and other similar outlets. These are not the pieces to which our reviewer was referring. Instead, a close look at the sources you cite elsewhere in the book would indicate that in eight of the 10 remaining pieces for which you provide footnotes, well over half of these footnotes are attributed to sources that are media outlets. From this calculation it would appear that you place great reliance on newspapers, magazines and other media as a source of information. No sensible reader would infer otherwise.

4) In your objection to the passage about Africa, we accept that you have visited the continent. Nonetheless, our reviewer was concerned that you seem to think America’s “new colonial” interests must bear much of the blame for Africa’s problems. That is not the view of most Africa experts---and, as it happens, our reviewer is one. The review should have mentioned that you ascribe the same destructive impact to Europe’s “old colonial” interests. To be scrupulously fair, we should all (your book and the review in The Economist) have mentioned that these now extend to the African interests and policies of both China and India as well. 

5) As for your last point, no one, least of all this paper or its reviewer, is trying to wave you back into your seat with the finance ministry’s Economic Survey or with anything else. Why should we refer to you as a “brave and energetic critic” if that were so? Our reviewer was, nonetheless, struck by the fact that your book, while filled with insightful criticisms of India, offers little in the way of solutions to its core problem: a massive, fast-growing and substantially poor population. You may reject the notion of economic growth for growth’s sake, but our reviewer, this newspaper and India’s finance ministry are quite clear that without sustained high economic growth, India’s great problem will not be solved. The  Economic Survey’s conclusion is one of the clearest articulations of this argument in any official Indian document. 

I see that you have already released your letter to The Economist to Outlook magazine. We are minded to do the same with this reply. 

Yours sincerely,

Fiammetta Rocco,
Books and Arts Editor,
The Economist,