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Review: Arundhati Roy’s Latest Novel Lets Her Politics Overshadow Her Storytelling

Posted by Bijaya Biswal in Books, Culture-Vulture, Politics
June 14, 2017

Our personal is ferociously political.

We are adamant evolutionary miracles who tread under a cloudy sky that we have built on our own; of religions, revolutions and eternally flipping governments which we consensually grow in our wombs only to consider an unfair abortion for it when it starts growing teeth. We are mad scientists with aggressively masturbating brains who invented societies, only to realise it presumes the power to record, vandalise and chastise us for how far we ponder on the internet, for what we cook in the cauldrons of our kitchen, the hymns we know and the length of skin we show. In a way, we are, all of us, the illegitimate children of transient political set-ups, bandit queens and Guevaras and Thatchers in the Rye, our minds made of clay which media and politicians can easily stamp their fingerprints on. The difference between the height of ambitions of a woman raised in Saudi Arabia and another raised in Canada is purely the difference of respective politics, which breeds without our knowledge, in speech and wages, in the institution of marriages.

Arundhati Roy knows. She knows how poetry and politics build the very skeleton of mankind and safely outlive it, decaying into history, lessons, and irreversible regrets. Being the architect she is, she draws her own design of the world, like a laughing Buddha; the oscillation between communism and capitalism being her vicious cycle of life and demise, and anarchy being the ultimate salvation.

Sadly, anarchy is the one word with which I can describe her second book. And it feels nothing like salvation, but instead like an afterlife worse than life itself. A sinking afterglow of “The God Of Small Things”, which has died a Nietzschean death. It is an integrated but unassimilated reportage of modern India, a plate serving chewy titbits of factual fodder from all over, but not enough to curb hunger.

The lead characters are fleeting acquaintances with no intention of building intimacy with the reader; the story is patchy, recklessly digressing, like a cold sea studded with icebergs, but devoid of thrilling trade winds. Nothing sails in the plot, but the shipwreck is colossal. Anjum has a body which cannot be explained, lives in a graveyard still and unflinching like a lonely tree who has succumbed to its anchorage long ago, has the inspecting eyes of an activist but a heart that still beats in ashes after having survived the riots of Godhra in 2002. But Anjum is not pursued by Roy any further, does not flourish but also does not perish, and remains like a dead soul silently digging its own grave slipping out of the memory of the audience. Tilo is defined in haste and hindsight, almost in the peripheral vision of an unknown first-person narrator, and comes from the disputed land of cannons and calmness (Kashmir), at a time when dissent is curfewed and shot down in a timely fashion. There are others who are weeds in the garden of black roses – a Dalit masquerading as a Muslim; the neglected character of a daughter reduced only to the animals she keeps company of; an Adivasi freedom fighter; many important deaths and unnecessary ambassadors mentioned only to import global miseries (Iraq War, Afghanistan, 9/11).

The personal is intoxicated by the polemical and struggles for independence under the algebra of infinite injustice. Nothing leads to anything in the book. The incoherent tone heaves, sighs, leaks, and lets go; the literary devices act like doctors at times – but nothing manages to save the fractured poetry of a story diseased by dates and timelines.

The monotonous political commentary further amplifies into a distracting tinnitus because it often crosses the line which fiction never should. Clinging to sides. Abiding by opinions. Making a stubborn point. Modi is mentioned as Gujarat ka Lalla; Anna Hazare has been put to criticism and Kejriwal has been given a revealing disguise. The Murakami-like universality is lost within the confinement of regional circumstance, and since history is bound to repeat itself (in re-telling), the predictability is imminent. When the book stops having its own soul and is possessed by the author’s, the exorcistical mind of the reader unapologetically turns defensive against the devil in the details. “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Maybe it is not so easy.

Roy is a fiction-minded magician who can describe cities like women and hearts like oceans. Roy is also an embodiment of philosophy and phenomenon. Maybe it is due to an incompatible tryst between these dual lives, that her novel suffers from a split-personality disorder; that it yields under the weight of the same conflict it desires to portray.

But remember, negative reviews are just failed expectations. They are heartbreaks, hiccups, and hopeful tongues desensitised to the taste of anything they aren’t looking for. Maybe, in the turbulent waves of this ministry, the boat of some reader will sail straight unto utmost happiness. Maybe in this carnival of shattered stories, at least somebody will be able to become everybody and everything.

For the uninitiated and demotivated, here is my favourite excerpt from the book:

At magic hour, when the sun is gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke. When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out. The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase the production of milk, works—worked—like nerve gas on white-backed vultures. Each chemically relaxed milk-producing cow or buffalo that died became poisoned vulture bait. As cattle turned into better dairy machines, as the city ate more ice cream, butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy and chocolate-chip, as it drank more mango milkshake, vultures’ necks began to droop as though they were tired and simply couldn’t stay awake. Silver beards of saliva dripped from their beaks, and one by one they tumbled off their branches, dead.