After giving Those Ones to the Indian state, Arundhati Roy is sticking it to the (not so Great) Indian Middle Class.
Speaking at a sweaty gathering of adoring followers in Mumbai, specifically a meeting called by the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) on India’s War On People, Arundhati spoke eloquently (but alas, not too elegantly, as she wiped her brow, her face, her nose and her mouth repeatedly, even joking, “it looks as though I am uncomfortable with my politics…I am not, it’s just hot here”) about the alienation of the middle class that has, to quote her, “seceded to outer space”
Her arrival had been drum- beaten by a well meaning flunky who announced breathlessly, “Arundhati Roy paanch minute mein padhaar rahi hain”. He could have saved himself the trouble for there could be no mistake that a demi- god, a Small God, was on her way: a flotilla of photographers, followers and sticky eyes moved with her, all falling over each, each getting in the other’s way, outrivaling in scale and chaos the flutter caused by any major Bollywood star.
As someone who had travelled roughly 30 kilometres (one way) to see her (and I mean, see her) she was quite a pleasure. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she looks exactly the way she looks on Youtube i.e. very beautiful. She wore a beautiful, crumpled cream sari with golden border, in the tradition of Keralite couture, and a coiled roll of jasmine flowers in her abundant bun. Those who came to hear her also got their money’s worth. She spoke with a light touch, offering turns of phrases and neologisms that tickled us and made us giggle. I was disappointed to note that some of the turns were not so new or neo (“they call it the Maoist corridor, we call it the MOUist corridor”), like her many books that are ‘compilations’ of what she has said previously, but then she came up with a couple that were refreshingly original (as in, I hadn’t heard them before): “they ask me if I condemn the violence…as if we are all in a Condemnation Industry where we must buy stocks to prove our membership”, or the equally clever: “biodiversity of insurrection”
In broader, thematic terms, Arundhati said pretty much what she has always said; in fact, the whole room had flocked to this cubby whole of press room in south Mumbai only so they could hear her say things that she has been saying forever. In that sense, it reminded me of the enthusiasm of my friends who enjoy going to Iron Maiden concerts. They have heard all the songs already, they have practically memorized them and even bought the collector edition special DVDs but they still drool at the thought of going to see them in the flesh. And Arundhati in the flesh is far more enchanting than any Maiden.
At the end of the speeches, the audience was asked if we had any questions. We did. One elderly gentleman complained: “But it’s human nature to be greedy. What can I do?” Arundhati counselled him to hope and go onto make a change. The gentleman repeated, “But what can I do?” Arundhati thought, then stuttered, before coming back with: “Oh, I don’t know, I am sure you have some skill”. The room erupted with laughter and no one heard the old man bleat for the third time: “But what can I do?”
Another young man spoke rapidly, paraphrasing Arundhati into one line accusations. Arundhati, charming Arundhati, had this to say (with a smile, with a smile): “You sound just like a Gond adivasi…from the jungles of Dandakaranya”
I had been itching for a while and decided to take my heart into my mouth and ask a question. By some miracle of fate the microphone landed up in my hand and I stood up. Others, whom the miracle had sidestepped, now, in true rebel form, took matters in their own hands and screamed their questions out. And I waited, mike in hand, for my turn.
Eventually, it came. And I began, “Arundhati…”
I had wanted to say that name. Me to her. Arundhati. With a frown on her face, she looked around the room to attach voice to face. I waited till she located me before I continued. And then I asked my question.
“Arundhati, you talked about the media being bought out, or being those with a slow mind (She had. I imagine she meant Sagarika Ghose, Arnab Silly Gooseswami, Barkha & Co.). Most of us in this room agree, which is why a lot of us are here today. My question is this: We tend to hear these things in fora where everyone agrees; but if there is constant alienation of the mainstream by the fringe, like these news channels where you struggle to make your point because they repeatedly keep asking you if you condemn the violence, is there a danger of painting ourselves into a corner where we are all friends and we all agree and the people who really need to listen, get uncomfortable...”
I cited an article I had read in the morning by Vir Sanghvi.
“I am referring to an article that Vir Sanghvi wrote, where I think he meant to be kind to you because he said there is need for dissent. And he gave the example of the Vietnam war…where the great thing about America was that these civilians were coming out against the war, defending their country’s democracy and all of that. It was very disturbing to read because it means that we now have a label for you…so now I can deal with it because what was an uncomfortable truth for me is now ‘O.K. – dissent – good for the larger democracy – so I should hear you but not necessarily listen to you. How do you deal with that?”
I realized that I had spoken for too long and meekly, thudding heart et al, sat down. I didn’t take notes so I am a bit reticent to put all of her response within quotation marks but this is what she said in effect (I am paraphrasing here not just her response to my question but other comments that ran through her speech): The fear of painting yourself into a corner only arises if your universe is “Lutyen’s Delhi or Colaba , which is what I imagine Vir Sanghvi’s universe is”. The fact is that the world of television studios and middle class is a minority. It doesn’t matter what the middle class thinks. “You think the Maoists care? You think the people of Kalinganagar care what the viewers of NDTV are saying? They are fighting!” It is in fact the middle class that has allowed this soggy mess to come about with their “commonplace dreams”. I think it is the middle class that has waged the most successful secessionist movement and “seceded to outer space. They look down from there and say ‘what’s our bauxite doing in their mountains, what’s our water doing in their rivers’. They have their own social justice movements…you know ‘Justice for Jessica’ and all of that. We are the majority. We are the major majority…and as long as the Middle Class keeps deluding itself that it is the majority, this battle will deepen and deepen and deepen…It doesn’t matter to me if I am in minority, I am on this side and this is where I want to be...I am not polling for popularity here”
She said more and she said it all very convincingly, or so I suppose, for there was immediate applause. I had a few questions to what she had said but some Dr. Shetty was already screaming the room down with his vision for the new social world order.
When I had asked my question, it was a facetious one. I mean, I was more interested in having Arundhati answer my question than in an answer. Also, I was aware that I was posing a question which was, as they say, leading, for if you flip my question one could say that there is no alternative but to keep trying, to keep sharing, to keep growing the tribe of believers.
I would have been happy if she had said that. She didn’t. Instead she said, she is the majority and that the middle class doesn’t matter and sounded as if the Middle Class was to her what the Maoists were to Chidambaram.
I also know that the appropriate reaction to this is to agree. After all it is well known that the middle class is apathetic, it doesn’t vote, it’s fond of comfort and would like to access luxury. And yet, and yet.
Strangely enough, hearing Arundhati rail against the poor sods who qualify to be middle class, I felt resentful. Why must the Middle Class always be the bugger boy of all sides? The government screws the Middle Class by making them pay more taxes (because others don’t pay any at all), assigns them the back breaking work of actually running the economy (it doesn’t matter at whose behest, for the work is just as much and as back breaking) and scrupulously implements all provisions of the law available to keep them in check. Corporations run down their self esteem by showing just how uphill the task of earning status via symbols is, dangling one carrot farther than the other, always just slightly out of reach. And Arundhati majestically dismisses them from her vision of the new world order by scoffing at their commonplace dreams and slow minds that are awash with capitalist, consumerist beliefs.
In the presence of such great intellects, it is difficult to argue that all of middle class was not middle class to begin with. Many were poor. Very very poor. And they chose a specific response - they did the best they could to keep their necks above water. Is it entirely inconceivable that just as Circumstance forced the hand of the Maoists to take to guns, of some farmers to take to suicide, the specific circumstances of the Middle Class forced them to willingly submit themselves as grist to the mills of our Corporate State?
But never mind that. Let’s labour on what Arundhati said about popularity: “I don’t care if I am in minority…I am not polling for popularity”
I won’t question whether that is true because that gets into the murky land of motives. However, to pretend that the mainstream media, with its paid for news and slow minds, is not a relevant universe is to contradict herself.
To the hapless man who had asked what he can do, Arundhati had said: “We all do what we can. I am a writer, so I write….”
She is a writer. So she writes. Who does she write for? Who is the audience? Where does she publish? Do her exclusive 32 page essays appear in the monthly magazines published out of Dantewada (scribbled, one would imagine, in blood, on tendu leaves) or do they appear in magazines for the said Middle Class, who fork out the required Rs. 25 that they cost? Would seminars like these, where she enters with a phalanx of photographers, where adoring fans (yes, fans. One woman, dressed in a blue cotton sari with tribal print, said breathlessly: " I just want to touch her feet") dote on her vitriolic, attract anyone at all if she wasn’t popular? As a writer, to make any change at all, she needs to be read! Guess who, in this country of a billion, can read? The first name begins with an ‘M’ and the second with ‘C’.
There is also the question of what does she write for? One would assume, reasonably, that she writes to inform, to change minds, to change mindsets, and to rouse a hitherto callous, ignorant mass to action. It would be a bit of a waste if her powerful voice was aimed at the “major majority” for she (one is told) echoes those voices in the first place. Ipso Facto, she writes – should write, must write – for those whose universe consists of Lutyen’s Delhi or Colaba.
Curse be on me to suggest that the tribals of Dantewada or Bijapur or Kaliganagar or Jagatsinghpur or anywhere else are not currently the subject of the state’s great (and greatly unjust) fury. My rant is: Don’t dismiss the Middle Class, co-opt it. Let the middle class express outrage; it is an assumption that everyone in the middle class will shut out the world and count their savings. It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand. When Arundhati can so eloquently argue that not every Kashmiri is a terrorist, that not every tribal is a Maoist, why is it so difficult to understand that all of Middle Class is not hopelessly slothful and devoid of intellect or any sense of justice? How is it possible to talk about the “biodiversity” of the insurrection and then promptly exclude 300 million people, many of whom feel deeply about these issues, many who can make significant contributions to changing public opinions, to changing policy?
I can already hear Arundhati’s silken voice admonish me: This middle class that I talk about is a hegemonic mass of upper caste Hindu Brahmins (inexplicably, in this rarefied world of rebellion, all Hindus are Brahmins) who are all invested in the current order and can only hinder change. Off with their heads, she might as well say.
But, the middle class -- like the Maoists, like the tribals, like the Kashmiris, like the Nagas, like the Manipuris -- are invested merely in their survival. Their “commonplace dreams” comprise of dignity, some security for the future and, dare they hope, for some respect, of also sitting on the dais, not always looking up (as has been their lot since a few centuries or more, the very reason why they now function as a servile class of believers caring only to secure their own futures). For this they have adopted the path of least resistance.
Have they willy nilly acquiesced in a greater act of violence, in the Indian state's War On Its People? Maybe.
Is the answer to that to say they don’t need to be engaged with, spoken to, persuaded, made to see an alternate reality? Maybe.
But, equally, maybe not.
The middle class is teeming with just as much, or more, biodiversity as the insurrection that Arundhati speaks of. The Middle Class contributes the largest number of academicians, intellectuals, readers and media consumers. It is from the middle class that the Naxal movement in Bengal drew some of its finest leaders. In her talk Arundhati accurately mentioned that even within the broad bandwidth of resistance groups, there is much conflict, and even hatred. Why then is it so difficult to imagine that within this poorly defined and much maligned mass of the Middle Class there is scope for imagination, for romance? Arundhati speaks of the romance she finds in the poorest of the poor standing up to the might of the state. Is it possible that she might also see the romance of a numbed, dead of flesh mass come alive in solidarity for their countrymen? Is it possible to dream (for she is big on dreaming) that the secessionist Middle Class may accede to the greater Romantic state that she is the Sovereign ruler of?
Is the Middle Class more intransigent, more intractable than the Maoists or the Militants that one tries to understand and empathize with? If truly the current order needs to be overthrown and a new way of life be sown in, is it not imperative that the 300 million people who have been currently marked as enemy of the insurrection be part of an “inclusive agenda”? Is it not important or relevant to identify narratives and stories that speak to this brow beaten, generation weathered class that has only traded in sweat and labour and meekly accepted its due as decided by the rulers and to inspire them with a vision that they can participate in? Or is it sufficient to mock them, berate them, declare them as the enemy, a minority to be ignored and consigned to the farthest corners of the imagination? And if Arundhati wants to say “Yes” to that, then is that not a war on her own people?
Abhijit Dutta is a freelance writer. He hastens to clarify that the profusion of words that begin with capitalized letters in the article above should be read as a manifestation of his underlying affection for Arundhati, in spite of what this article may otherwise suggest