When the British Empire left India: the historical tragedy of the India / Pakistan Partition of 1947 (watch 2 full documentaries)

BBC2

The Day India Burned – Partition, produced by BBC, is a devastating documentary about the 200 years of British rule in India, which ended in 1947 with a hasty and shambolic carve-up of the land between India and Pakistan. Sadly for those there at the time, harmony gave way to mob hatred and many lives were lost.This documentary looks to piece together the reminiscences of eyewitness. The accounts of the huge massacres are particularly chilling. Of course, with such a heavy subject, the mood of the show is grim, powerful, but nevertheless fascinating. The events that unfolded in the last throes of the Empire are still resonating today, making this show a must-see.” – Banglatorrents
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“The two self-governing countries of India and Pakistan legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on 14-15 August 1947. The partition of India was set forth in the Indian Independence Act, in 1947, and resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and the end of the British Raj. It resulted in a struggle between the newly constituted states of India and Pakistan and displaced up to 12.5 million people, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to this day…” – Synopsis of BBC’s The Day India Burned (watch full doc above)

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“Documentary about the effects of Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947 which triggered one of the biggest migrations in history. 15 million were displaced and more than a million lost their lives. The story is told through the testimony of people who lived together for centuries, but were forced out of their homes as one of the largest and most ethnically diverse nations in the world was divided. Dramatized reconstructions evoke some of the mistrust, violence and upheaval that ensued.

Partition of India and provides a good overview of the fateful events leading to that cataclysmic decision by the British and the catastrophic suffering of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of communal hatred.

It describes in detail: British motivation for leaving India after World War 2 in a quick and face-saving manner; the underlying distrust of Hindus and Muslims of each other despite centuries of living together; Muslim educational and economic backwardness relative to Hindus and their fear of Hindu domination in a united India; the failure of the March 1946 Cabinet Mission in Simla on account of Nehru’s refusal to a agree to a decentralized Subcontinent.

The beginning of the Hindu-Muslim communal riots with Jinnah’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in August 1946; the desperate attempts made by Gandhi to effect Hindu-Muslim unity via appeal to their humanity; and the pressure exerted on most Princely States to agree to ascension to India.

It also describes: the manipulation of people by political leaders in the name of religion; the slaughter, looting, raping, and mayhem among different communities at the village level; the deep reluctance of people to abandon their generational homes; the brave attempts of certain individuals to save their neighbors of other communities from forcible ethnic and religious cleansing; the horrific price paid by women for defendingtheir honor;

The utter lack of governmental preparation for a mass migration of people; the needlesshuman carnage caused by Mountbatten’s decision to expedite the planned Partition; and the decline of hitherto culturally rich and cosmopolitan cities like Lahore by loss of othercommunities.” – Top Documentary Films

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BROKEN REPUBLIC (Penguin Books, 2011) – The “World’s Biggest Democracy” according to Arundathi Roy

DSC05338DSC05331DSC05332DSC05333Photos from Arundhati Roy’s Broken Republic

INDIA: THE WORLD’S BIGGEST DEMOCRACY? By E.C. Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer 

AA1998: while we were reaching the end of the 20th century, India was testing nuclear weapons. The civilization which gave to the world masters of wisdom such as Gandhi and Sidarta Gautama, Ambedkar and Tagore, was very un-wisely on the brink of war.  It was like a reawakening of the politics of the Cold War, in which both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had atom bombs at their disposal, with both India and its next-door-neighbour Pakistan with weapons of mass destruction pointing at one another. The scars of Partition still imprinted in memory. Sad news, indeed. It’s as if, instead of learning from History (Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “the horror, the horror!”), some governments just won’t let go of this very lousy idea of messing with nuclear warfare – a situation so brilliantly mocked by Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

One of India’s greatest writers, Booker-Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy, instead of writing a follow-up for The God of Small Things (1997) – widely considered a masterpiece of contemporary literature – felt she had to devote herself to write about the political reality of her nation’s turmoil. She accused India’s government of dangerously throwing fuel to a fire of nationalist pride with the Hindu H-Bomb. “When you have dispossession and disempowerment on this scale as a result of corporate globalization”, she told David Barsamian, “the anger that it creates can be channeled in bizarre and dangerous ways. India’s nuclear testes were conduced to shore up people’s flagging self-esteem. India is still flinching from the cultural insult of British colonialism, still looking for its identity.” (The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, p. 37) Nuclear warfare on the hands of India and Pakistan was certainly no reason to celebrate, argued Arundhati Roy, who feared the worst might end up happening  -she finished one of her articles with apocalyptic imagery: “This world of our is 4.600 million years old. It could end in an afternoon.” (read The End of Imagination at Outlook Magazine)

broken-republic-arundhati-roy1Arundhati Roy’s political essays also denounce fiercely the Human Rights abuses in Kashmir, where India’s army imposes its rule with the colossal force of half-a-million soldiers (the largest military occupation in the world), crushing with violence all the demands of independence made by Kashmiris. Opposing the recent wave of celebration of India’s “economic miracle” and skyrocketing GDP, Arundhati Roy states that we shouldn’t be fooled by the ideology marketed by “experts in economics”. One shouldn’t measure the success of a nation by the number of new billionaires it produces each year. And wealth going into the pockets of large corporations and their politicians should never be confused with Common Wealth or Social Justice. She argues that India is a fake democracy, a society still deeply hierarchical, clinging to its rigid Caste System, with obscene rates of deaths by starvation and mass suicides by empoverished peasants (since 1997, it’s estimated that 200.000 of them have killed themselves, often by drinking Monsanto’s pesticides). Arundathi Roys, in her BBC interview, stated that no less than 800 million people in India live on less than 20 rupees a day (which means: 30 cents of a dollar).

According to Roy, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India aligned with the U.S.A. and the Indian state decided to open its gates to all the marvels of Free Market and “Development”. When the new century dawned, however, the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington were to be followed by a surge of islamophobia, fueled by the Yankees “War on Terror” that was beggining to plan its military invasions and bombings of Afheganistan. In India, this epidemic of islamophobia caused disaster, a re-awakening of communal violence, culminating in tragedy: in Gujarat, 2002, Muslims were massacred  by Hindu nationalists in a pogrom which killed at least 2.000 people and forced at least 150.000 out of their homes. Welcome to the “World’s Largest Democracy”.

Is Indian Capitalism working? If we look at growth rates and skyrocketing GDP, oh yes Sir! But let’s not get blinded by economists and their statistics: India is a country ravaged by famine: “836 million people of India live on less than 20 rupees a day, 1.500.000 malnourished children die every year before they reach their first birthday. Is this what is known as ‘enjoying the fruits of modern development’?” (ROY, Broken Republic, pg. 154).

The Indian State also has to deal with another kind of menace, the “inner enemy”, those dozens of thousands of Indians, called “Maoists” or “Naxalites”, who decided to insurrect in armed rebellion. They want nothing less than to overthrow the Indian State. “Right now in central India, the Maoists’ guerrilla army is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine of the kind we only associate with sub-Suharan Africa”, writes Arundhati Roy (pg. 7).

In 2006, India’s prime minister described the Maoists as “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”, a statement which Roy considers very exaggerated.  By magnifying in discourse the danger posed by the Maoist guerrilla, by painting in the media a portrait of them as cruel terrorists, the Indian government aims, argues Arundhati Roy, to justify its war measures against the poorest of its citizens. Quite honest in revealing the masters who he serves, the prime minister also told the Parliament in 2009: “If Left Wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.” (B.R., pg. 3)

For a quick example of the “tremendous natural resources”, it’s enough to mention that “the bauxite deposits of Orissa alone is worth 2.27 trillion dollars (twice India’s gross domestic product)” (pg. 23). In order for the mining corporations to have access to this precious things, India needs to be turned into a Police State. It needs to wage war against the hungry, desperate and destitute people who live in this very “profitable” lands, against the people who revolt against being displaced, impoverished and opressed. To simply leave the bauxite in the mountains seems out of the question for the government and the industrialists, of course, who have eyes only for the money that can be made and not to the environmental damage and social havoc that such procedures of extraction will cause. The alliance between a neo-liberal state and its corporate friends leads to a situation in which military power and police repression are massively used to enforce the so-called Free Market. In order to clear the way for the corporations to extract their profits from India’s natural resources, genocide is seen as an acceptable means, if only you preach in the media that a terrorist threat to national security needs to be crushed.

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Comrade Kamla, member of the Maoist guerrillas.

“What are we to make of the fact that just around the time the prime minister began to call the Maoists the ‘single biggest internal security challenge’ (which was a signal that the government was getting ready to go after them) the share prices of many of the mining corporations in the region skyrocketed? The mining companies desperately need this war… To justify the militarization, it needs an enemy. The Maoists are that enemy. They are to corporate fundamentalists what the Muslims are to Hindu fundamentalists. (…) Here’s a maths question: if it takes 600.000 soldiers to hold down the tiny valley of Kashmir, how many will it take to contain the mounting rage of hundreds of millions of people?” (31-34)

Arundhati Roy speaks from experience: she went to witness first-hand what’s happening in the areas where India’s State and the Maoist guerrilla clash. She tells the tale in Walking With The Comrades, one astonishing feat of investigative journalist that proves how courageous Arundathi Roy really is. She puts herself in danger in order to see for herself what’s going on there, in order to be able to write truly about the battle for the “mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal – homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.” (pg. 42) It seems to be a situation with many similarities with Mexico’s conflict in Chiapas, where the Zapatista’s armed insurrection confronts the Mexican State in its tendency to favour corporate plunder of indigenous lands.

“The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organized, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion.” (pg. 39)

India’s Constitution, adopted in 1950, “ratified colonial policy and made the state custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land.” (pg. 43) Dispossessed of their right to livelihood and dignity, the tribal people became pawns in the Big Business game. “Each time it needed to displace a large population – for dams, irrigation projects, mines – it talked of ‘bringing tribals into the mainstream’ or of giving them ‘the fruits of modern development’. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people.” (pg.  43) Here we have an example of what Bruno Latour calls The Modernization Front. In India, The Modernization Front, in order to protect corporate interests (after all, corporations are vehicles of Progress…), won’t refrain from engaging in a war against its own people. A War that Arundhati Roy prefers to call by another name: Genocide.

ArundhatiIn the 10-hour drive she untertook through areas known to be “Maoist-infested”, she noted: “These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.” (pg. 45) She walks for hours and hours each day, along with the comrades, under the shining and vehement sun, carrying a backpack filled with essentials for jungle-survival – and when it comes the time for sleep, she doesn’t mind that much not having a roof over her head. Resting on a sleeping-bag on the forest floor, she celebrates her “star-spangled dormitory” (pg. 63): “It’s my private suite in a thousand-star hotel. (…) When I was a child growing up on the banks of the Meenachal River, I used to think the sound of crickets – which always started up at twilight – was the sound of stars revving up, getting ready to shine. I’m surprised at how much I love being here. There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be.” (pg. 57-60)

While she walks with the comrades, she knows some areas they’re crossing run the risk of going underwater because of Mega Dams. Since Independence, 3.300 big dams were built, and the amount of displaced is estimated in over 30 million people.

“The Bodhgat Dam will submerge the entire area that we have been walking in for days. All that forest, that history, those stories. More than a hundred villages. Is that the plan then? To drown people like rats, so that the integrated steel plant and the bauxite mine and aluminium refinery can have the river? (…) There was a time when believing that Big Dams were the ‘temples of Modern India’ was misguided, but perhaps understandable. But today, after all that has happened, and when we knoe all that we do, it has to be said that Big Dams are a crime against humanity.” (pg. 142-143)

 In the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, 45% of its cadre are women. The so-called Maoists or Naxalites consist mainly of people from the lowest caste of India’s piramidal society: the Untouchables, the pariahs of India, those who are treated as human scums, crushed underneath a heavy weight of hierarchical machinery. When the Prime Minister said the Maoists were a grave security challenge, “the opposite was true”, argues Roy, who remembers that the rebels were being decimated in a Purification Hunt destined to “send the share-value of mining companies soaring” (pg. 80)

What it all boils down to is a clash between Corporate Capitalism, on the one side, and the majority of the population, on the other. In times where ideologies of Free Trade reign, the exploration of natural resources is made not in order to provide for the commonwealth of the whole of society, but for private profits gained through ecocidal and genocidal means.

“Allowing ‘market forces’ to mine resources ‘quickly and efficiently’ is what colonizers did to their colonies, what Spain and North America did to South America, what Europe did (and continues to do) in Africa. It’s what the Apartheid regime did in South Africa. What puppet dictators in small countries do to bleed their people. It’s a formula for growth and development, but for someone else. (…) Now that mining companies [in India] have polluted rivers, mined away state borders, wrecked ecosystems and unleashed civil war, the consequence of what the coven has set into motion is playing out like an ancient lament over ruined landscapes and the bodies of the poor.” (pg. 170)

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“If the motion picture were an art form that involved the olfactory senses – in other words, if cinema smelled – then films like Slumdog Millionaire would not win Oscars. The stench of that kind of poverty wouldn’t blend with the aroma of warm popcorn.”  – Arundathi Roy

Arundathi Roy’s political thought is so intensely relevant nowadays because she is one of the fiercest critics of what goes by the name of “Democracy” nowadays. States that impose with authoritarian means – including military atrocities and police brutality – the policy of Free Market (which means: let’s protect the private interests of wealthy corporations and billionaires!), call themselves “democracies”. India is often called the world’s biggest democracy, and yet “the Indian State, in all its democratic glory, is willing to loot, starve, lay siege to, and now deploy the air-force in ‘self-defense’ against its poorest citizens.” (pg. 186) So we have to distinguish between Ideology / Propaganda (“India is a Democracy, a Fast-Growing Economy, with a State concerned in providing Security from terrorists”) from Reality (there are a lot of natural resources that corporations are eager to get a hold of… if only the people are thrown out of the way!).

The essential question to be asking is this: what about the future of the planet? If the current model of development continues, what will happen to mankind as we move towards a future that’s bound to be filled with ecological crisis and all the cataclysms ensuing from Climate Change? In India, there’s “several trillion dollars’ worth of bauxite, for example. And “there is no environmentally sustainable way of mining bauxite and processing it into aluminium. It’s a highly toxic process that most Western countries have exported out of their own environments. To produce 1 ton of aluminium, you need about 6 tons of bauxite, more than a 1000 tons of water and a massive amount of energy. For that amount of captive water and electricity, you need big dams, which, as we know, come with their own cycle of cataclysmic destruction. Last of all – the big question – what is the aluminium for? Where is it going? Aluminium is a principal ingredient in the weapons industry – for other countries’ weapons industries…” (p. 211)

Such is the suicidal logic of the Powers That Be, a situation so bleak that many of us are worrying about Mankind’s path: are we following a road that will lead to our own extinction? Does our future hold new horrendous explosions of Atom Bombs and civil wars?  Will Corporate Capitalism be allowed to proceed with its ecocidal practices and its obscene tendencies to concentrate wealth in a few hands (while millions die from hunger and curable diseases)? How to shift direction in order for us to slow down this process that has been turning Planet Earth into an Ecological Wreck? This is how Arundathi Roy finishes this deeply moving and concerning book, Broken Republic:

“Can we expect that an alternative to what looks like certain death for the planet will come from the imagination that has brought about this crisis in the first place? It seems unlikely. The alternative, if there is one, will emerge from the places and the people who have resisted the hegemonic impulse of capitalism and imperialism instead of being co-opted by it. Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still hope. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonized by that consumerist dream. We have a living tradition of those who have struggled for Gandhi’s vision of sustainability and self-reliance, for socialist ideas of egalitarianism and social justice. We have Ambedkar’s vision, which challenges the Gandhians as well as the socialists in serious ways. We have the most spectacular coalition of resistance movements, with their experience, understanding and vision. Most important of all, India has a surviving adivasi population of almost 100 million. They are the ones who still know the secrets of sustainable living.

The day capitaism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers… It is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past but may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask: Can you leave the water in the rivers, the trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain? If they say they cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.” (pg. 214)

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DOWNLOAD ARUNDATHI ROY’S BOOKS (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!):

algebra

ALGEBRA OF INFINITE JUSTICE – DOWNLOAD

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LISTENING TO GRASSHOPPERS – DOWNLOAD

In Praise of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” – by Eduardo Carli de Moraes

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“She is one of the great writers and intellectuals of our time. I was thinking about what makes her a really great writer, a really great person, and a really great rebel: someone who listens more than she talks. Someone who goes to find where the silence is, and tries to understand why the silence is there. She is so precious and so rare. Like Charles Dickens, like Charlotte Brontë, like Virginia Woolf, like Victor Hugo, like all those wonderful writers who spoke for the people who had no voice. Arundhati Roy joins a long and proud list of people who care deeply, and who listen deeply, and who then speak fearlessly. This is our salvation, this kind of writer, this kind of person…” – ALICE WALKER , author of Pulitzer-Winning novel The Color Purple (filmed by Steven Spielberg)

I.  A SUNBEAM LENT TO US TOO BRIEFLY

ARUNDHATI ROYTo listen attentively, to care deeply, to speak fearlessly: these are some of the many virtues of our brave sister, Arundhati Roy. Even if she never writes another book of fiction, she already deserves a place in the history of English-language literature: The God Of Small Things, the winner of 1998’s Booker Prize Award, can be easily included in the Olympus of the 20th century’s true masterpieces in the realm of novels. Her story-telling talents are such that it’s hard not to get hooked on the tale she’s telling so compellingly: The God Of Small Things entrances with its language, seduces withs its humour, and then delivers, apart from a delicious verbal banquet, a blood-soaked tragedy.

She told BBC that she never meant to write a thriller, but her novel is filled with thrills, like a rollercoaster ride through Aymenem, Kerala, India, where Arundhati Roy grew-up. Perhaps it’s her own way of embarking on a Proustian recherche du temps perdu. Yet this book ain’t a memoir or an auto-biography, but something much more ambitious: an Indian tragedy, set to the background of a nation in turmoil. Bloody messy turmoil. We only need to remember what happened in Gujarat in 2002 – more than 1.000 Muslims butchered and murderer openly in the streets by Hindu fanatics, and more than 150.000 fleeing the scene of the pogroms as refugees – to have a glimpse of the turmoils of India. Who dawned to the 21st century on the brink of nuclear war with Pakistan, and who holds Kashmir hostage with the biggest military occupation in the word – this is a scary picture of India, which Arundathi Roy paints, and it rings so much true than the demagogues propaganda.

She belongs to a pantheon of writers capable of writing passionately, with words that a sensible reader feels at the same time as he deciphers them. While reading The God Of Small Things, I was frequently aware not only of an intellectual process going on in my head, the whole process of language-deciphering, but of something else, ringing with truthfulness and verve: Arundathi’s words were injected with feeling. These are sentences written to be felt rather than simply understood. In a prose so marvellous that I can only find something similar in writers, which I cherish a lot, such as Anton Tchekov, Katherine Mansfield, Heinrich Heine, Manoel de Barros…

And yet The God of Small Things, so often, seems to focus on banalities, on minute occurrences – for example, the funny description of the twins in their “delight with underwater farting”. Several times, it seems she’s jokingly playing with language like Lewis Carroll or James Joyce did so well. She evokes images – for example: a child been forced to eat spinach – that seem at first sight to be trivial chronicles of day-to-day life. But Arundhati Roy portrays this commonest matter of life as something dynamic, in perpetual motion, and that can undergo sudden changes. As if she is saying that the extraordinary is the most ordinary thing there is, yet not all among us can see it and realize it. The motto, running like an underground stream in her narrative, is this: “things can change in a day”. So we better be prepared.

 When you reach the last page of the book, and you look behind you, remembering the path you’ve traveled together with Arundhati, you can feel the wisdom of every minute detail to the general composition. It reminds me of an interesting piece of literary criticism written  by an excellent Artist-of-the-Word, Cioran: “No true art without a strong dose of banality. The constant employment of the unaccustomed readily wearies us, nothing being more unendurable than the uniformity of the exceptional.” (CIORAN, The Trouble With Being Born, p. 37) In other words: a work-of-art doesn’t necessarily need to be an overdose of extraordinary occurrences and events. The common fibre that weaves human life must be used to compose a portrait of human life as it is – and life undeniably includes in its bosom much minute trivialities and minor events without further consequence. Until it comes: the day that changes everything.

The genius of Arundathi Roy’s book lies in her hability to portray how the extraordinary disrupts the web of common life. Thus the leitmotiv in The God of Small Things – “things can change in a day”, which means: your whole life may be suddenly transformed. It may be thrown out of its usual tracks, like a derailed train bound to a blind-date with fate.

After reading this book, I also emerge from it like a diver rising up from the seas, where he saw and witnessed little fish behind devoured by big ones (just like in Radiohead’s song). Life as a frail flame that can be blow off by the wind. Life as quicksand where our feet can never quite stand in firm ground. Life as box-of-surprises (not necessarily gentle ones) . These are some of the feelings about life Arundathi’s novel  may evoke and provoke. When she describes injustices being done against the powerless, her words have the beauty and the courage of similar ones written by Simone Weil or Emma Goldman. It seems to me that Arundathi depicts the destructibility of life as something that’s part of its essence –  mortality is something no mortal can escape from – and yet Arundathi’s voice is far from depressing. Her words have an up-lifting effect, like an injection of enthusiasm shot right in the veins. It’s a voice filled with such compassion and boldness, and such lucid indignation and witty critique, that listening to her is a delight. Art can be empowering, it can communicate enthusiasm, it can teach a frame of consciousness, and it also certainly can act upon life – like Spinoza taught, it can become something we love because it enhances our vitality, adds vigor to our conatus.

20130628-gramsciThis book may be playful and filled with wit, but ain’t kitsch at all: there’s pedophilia and police brutality and class struggles ending up in bloody mess. There’s scenes to make a punk’s hairdo spike-up. There’s enough to make Chuck Norris cry. She extracts beauty from tragedy, from loss, from terrible grief, as if Arundathi was some sort of magic bee capacle of manufacturing sweet honey even from fly-trap plants. From brief sunbeams drowned out too soon. Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem says that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”; Arundhati Roy also paints a poignant portrait of loss, and also points out that even the most precious things can easily be lost (“things can change in a day…”). Like the fateful day in which Sophie Mol tried to cross a river on a little small-boat with her cousins, the twins Rahel and Estha. Touched by tragedy in childhood, the twins learn from life some lessons that are usually reserved for older people. The wisdom that dawns upon them, written in their flesh by death’s killings upon the living, is stated very cleverly by little Estha: “Anything can happen to anyone, so it’s better to be prepared.” The wisdom of keeping eyes opened to the possibility of the worst, and yet continuing the struggle to act in order to build something better, is something that, it seems to me, is one of the many virtues of Arundhati’s work. Maybe she agrees with Gramsci that we should keep burning two flames, simultaneously: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

It’s always good news to discover that Humanity still holds among the living some people so wise and so courageous.

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II. HOLES IN THE UNIVERSE

In The God Of Small Things, I kept bumping into some re-occuring events, popping up several times in the narrative: the Holes in the Universe. No: this novelist isn’t venturing into the territories of astrophysics, nor trying to decipher the mystery of supermassive Black Holes. Arundhati Roy uses “holes in the universe” in order to portray the human mind’s experience of death: “Joe was dead now. Killed in a car crash. Dead as a doorknob. A Joe-shaped Hole in the Universe.” (p. 113)

Of course not only death can open these holes in the Universe, subjectively-perceived, and Arundathi knows it well. It’s so brilliant the way she is able to communicate a lot with a single word, when for example she writes “die-vorce”  (p. 124). This is no crass error of misspelling, and this is no mere typo that the publisher’s reviser didn’t detect: this, my friends, is poetry in action. Instead of writing the word as the dictionary demands (“divorce”), she subverts official language, and in this process links divorce with death. Both death and divorce (understood not only as the end-of-marriage, but as a sudden separation between affectively bonded humans) have the power to “open” these Holes in The Universe that The God Of Small Things so frequently talks about.

(She also uses, with equivalent brilliancy, the witty expression “die-able” (154), to convey the sense of “being able to die”, of being in a state of danger.)

The way she deals with Time in her narrative is also quite fascinating, and it works really well: instead of following a straight path in her story-telling, always going forward in linear time, she messes up with our coordinates. Like a brat willing to spread confusion in a world of bureaucrats and stock-market money-junkies, she sets the clocks to different times and steps back to laugh at how confused and lost in Time we really are. We, short-sighted short-term beings who are neither beasts nor prophets. She does not only take us on a ride through India – it’s also a ride through Time. For example: Ammu’s death occurs in the middle of the novel, at page 154 (out of 315), and yet Ammu is present in the very last chapter. She even says the very last word of the book (“Tomorrow”).

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“The church refused to bury Ammu. So Chacko hired a van to transport the body to the electric crematorium. He had her wrapped in a dirty bedsheet and laid out on a stretcher. Rahel thought she looked like a Roman Senator. (…)  It was odd driving through bright, busy streets with a dead Roman Senator on the floor of the van. (…) Outside the vans windows, people, like cut-out paper puppets, went on with their paper-puppet lives. Real life was inside the van. Where real death was.

The crematorium had the same rotten, rundown air of a railway station, except that it was deserted. No trains, no crowds. Nobody except beggars, derelicts and the police-custody dead are cremated there. People who died with nobody to lie at the back of them and talk to them. When Ammu’s turn came, (…) the steel door of the incinerator went up and the muted hum of the eternal fire became a red roaring. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. Then Rahel’s Ammu was fed to it. Her hair, her skin, her smile.

20 minutes: that’s how long Chacko and Rahel had to wait for the pink receipt that would entitle them to collect Ammu’s remains. Her ashes. The grit from her bones. The teeth from her smile. The whole of her crammed into a little clay pot. Receipt No. Q 498673.”

(pg. 154-155)

aroyrArundathi paints images of holes in the Universe that emerge and take the place where joy was once intensely present. She portrays beautifully some occurrences that are far from cute – including pedophilia; child-sized coffins; police brutality against people from the lower castes; several acts of violence (both verbal and physical). As if she was trying to paint a huge mural of a world – ours, the real one – where careless words are legion, and where sometimes death comes to claim life’s yet to be lived, or who had many fruitful years ahead of them. Untimely deaths. No one should live somewhere where infancy is normally considered as a very “die-able” age. And yet India, may I remind us, has the largest population of undernourished children in the planet. And the emergence of shopping malls and billionaires, of Bollywood movie-stars and triumphant stock markets, ain’t stopping neither the tragedy of massive deaths by famine, of children and adults alike, nor the tragedy of massive suicides of empoverished peasants, which sometimes end up killing themselves by drinking pesticides made by Monsanto…

algebraWithout resembling in any way a political pamphlet, the novel is in fact deeply political. I would strongly recommend to you Arundhati Roy’s books of essays, excellent and thought-provoking books such as Algebra of Infinite Justice and Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. After reading them recently, I got the impression that, both in her fiction and non-fiction writings, she delivers a portrait of India as a country still suffering from the tragedies that ensue from the rigid social hierarchy of a Caste System.

Baby Kochamma, for example, feels very proudly that she is higher and nobler in society than those she calls “the sweeper class” (pg. 132). It seems to be one of the main intentions of The God of Small Things to give voice to the voiceless. To portray those who are so often killed without leaving behind them no portrait. No footprints in the sand’s shore. Those Power wants to thrown into Oblivion. Arundhati Roy, through the means of such a compelling story, communicates to the reader the lived experience of the lower castes, the toiling masses, and she makes us suffer together with those who suffer from the anathema and the stigma of being “Untouchables”, the pariahs of Indian society.

And some books, after we finish them, never quite leave us. They become part of us. We move on, but transformed by them. We have been taught to care more for the voiceless, for the powerless, for the wretched of the Earth; we have learned empathy towards small frail things such as ourselves. We now have been enriched by the new holes we now carry in our hearts: a Sophie-shaped hole in the Universe; a Velutha-shaped hole in the Cosmos; an Ammu-shaped hole in the Fabric of Life…

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Arundhati_Roy_,_Man_Booker_Prize_winner

III. THE LOVE LAWS (AND THE RISKS OF TRANSGRESSION)

It’s evident that Arundhati Roy is pretty well-read, and that she has learned a lot from the masters of the English Language: she evokes images and characters from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, for example, and she inserts into her narrative verses from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Apart from the direct references to other books, she also can remind the reader of highly creative artists such as Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett or Julio Cortázar, especially because of her ability to invent a language of her own, a verbal landscape that’s quite unlike any I’ve ever read. Of course some of the scenes may remind us of other novels – for example: when Arundanthi described the minute details of the family business Paradise Pickles & Preserves (“Emperors of the Realm of Taste!”), I felt some resemblance to John Steinbeck’s marvellous narrative in The Winter of Our Discontent. And wild rivers, with dangerous secrets lurking below the surface of the waters, may also make some experienced reader reminisce the days spent surfing the pages of Moby Dick.

Of course a little boat, with three children in it, crossing a river in India, is quite different from Ahab’s vessel, in its epic journey in search of the giant white whale. But what I mean to point out is this: The God of Small Things is such a great book also because it can evoke in us past reading experiences, and good thrilling ones such as Herman Melville or Steinbeck wrote. Arundhati Roy’s work can “drown” us in a literary experience of aesthetic amazement. However, there’s  no l’art pour l’art here: this novel can teach us a lot about India, if we care to listen to the narrative’s details. When you least expect it, she writes, for example: “Some days Estha walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans.” (p. 15) That’s how politics manifests itself in this novel: acting directly on the characters and their environment. Politics is something the flesh-and-blood, the pulsating heart, knows about by its effects on life.

There’s a mist of mystery surrounding the narrative that contributes a great deal to the thrilling sense of suspense of the book. He are told right from the beginning  about the tragic loss of Sophie Mol, but Arundhati takes her time in unveiling what happened to this English child visiting her cousins and aunts in India. Sophie and her mother came to India after experiencing trauma in England – the death of Joe – but unaware that they would be further traumatized rather than healed. After all this is India, a country filled with “public turmoils”, where “various kinds of despair competed for primacy”, “poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace”, and where “Worse Things kept happening” (20).

I see in The God of Small Things a tragedy set in India, a country where “caste issues are very deep-rooted” (263). People are “conditioned from birth”, says Comrade Pillai, to think and feel in accordance with the caste system – which is, of course, a system of stratification of social classes in which a lot of violent conflict keeps exploding (in his century, the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 stand as examples). This Caste Segregation is the political background for a tale of forbidden love, and love loved in spite of laws forbidding it.

Ammu and Valutha are a bit like Romeo and Juliet, daring to love when the social landscape around them deems it a scandal. What an obscenity, to love someone outside of one’s caste! In Arundathi Roy’s novel, two persons from two castes who aren’t supposed to mix end up choosing the experience of forbidden love, even tough they know this could be their doom. When Ammu and Velutha join their bodies in the delights of wild love-making, there’s a big fear lurking inside them. There’s an anguished panic poisoning their delightfully forbidden love. This love, in the wildness of its force, tramples underfoot the taboos of caste. They will be punished, for certain, by their transgression. This love is risky business, and in daring it you gamble with your life.

Stanton_R&J CoverIt’s quite similar to what happens in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: the “clash” and conflicts that sets apart Capuletos and Montecchios, as you well remember, is the background for the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet. They transgress the Laws of Segregation with their Union in Love. Tough brief, it’s a symbol of love’s power to demolish frontiers and unite what has been kept severed. Romeo and Juliet refuse the segregation imposed by their families, and by the social structure, and dare to love and unite amidst a conflict filled with bloody hate. I wouldn’t say that The God Of Small Things is inspired by Romeo and Juliet, but rather that Shakespare’s famous play deals with similar dilemmas.

Rahel and Estha, Ammu and Velutha, are characters which transgress the Love Laws, which lay down who should be loved, and how much, and according to what dogmas and rules. “…once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.” (p. 311) Ammu and Velutha unite in the art of seeing the common, beyond differences, in the boundary-transcending light of a loving-eye. They transgress the Love Laws and then are crushed to an horrendous death. And yet the genius of Arundhati lies not only in the tragic grandeur she can convey in her story-telling, but also in the lush sensuality of her imagery. The sex scenes at the very end of the novel are the greatest example. Love-making description skyrockets to Shapespearean heights in these pages, and the beauty of them resembles the beauty in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley or in Abdel Kechiche’s film Blue Is The Warmest Color… 

In Arundhati’s Roy, the tragedy of the lovers runs parallel with the children-in-the-boat subplot. An accident happens, the children’s boats hits some obstacle in the waters of the river, and then the fragile vessel throws into the water Rahel, Estha and Sophie.  “Just a quiet handing-over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam.” (pg. 277) Velutha – the Romeo of the forbidden-love saga – now is claimed by another play, another saga: he’s to be a scape-goat, the one to be punished by the death of a child. Velutha, tender lover and hard-working man, an activist of the Marxist Party and a friend of maoists, ends up being beaten to death by the police. Beaten out of existence. To be buried in the Pauper’s Pit. And then one suddenly awakes to the fact: what impels Arundhati Roy to write is clearly indignation for the horrors and strifes that she describes. She suffers with these crushed lives because of her extraordinary capacity for empathy. An hability to have attentive antennas to listen to the voices of human diversity.

In recent years, amazing works-of-art also reflected upon false accusations and unjust punishments – Ian McEwan’s Atonement and the film The Hunt by Thomas Vinterberg are examples take occur to me. It would certainly be interesting to attempt a comparison of these works with The God of Small Things. My impression is that Arundhati Roy deals with matters of Crime and Punishment with such depth and intelligence as one can find only in the works of great masters such as Franz Kafka or Dostoiévski.

Alive, awake, alert. That’s what some books do for us: they kick-start our mind’s capacities to marvel and wonder. They expand our horizons by unveiling the magnitude (it’s huge) of all that we can’t understand. They enchant us with their language, until we wake up to what what we were previously unaware of. They tell stories that we feel that needed to be told. When he reach the last page, we feel that the book isn’t finished, it will reverberate and echo inside us, perhaps for years. We close this book and it’s possible we’ll be burdened by a grief similar to the one we feel when a loved-one dies. I surely carry now within me a Velutha-shaped hole in the Universe, a Sophie-shaped hole in Existence. And yet I feel enriched by these new holes, by these tales of transgressive love, by these human kaleidoscope flowing in Time on the Earth Woman’s bosomThe God Of Small Things is a fountain of life: drink it up with might, O you who thirst for Truth, Freedom, Justice, O you who grieve everyday by seeing them crushed!

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You might also like:

BBC’s Book Club Interviews Arundhati Roy (Audio Only)

Read “The Earth Woman” section of The God Of Small Things

Download Arundhati Roy’s books for free on Library Genesis