Art can wait

Novelist Arundhati Roy returns—with a radical essay collection.


by Arundhati Roy (South End Press, $12)

AROUND 20 million people so far have read Arundhati Roy's saga of South Indian family life, The God of Small Things. With luck, perhaps a hundredth as many will read Power Politics.

The God of Small Things (1997) is an edgy, angry book, but it's fiction, and for Western readers its exotic setting lends the subject matter a comforting distance. Power Politics is nonfiction, with nothing to protect the reader from contemporary Indian reality and the author's rage against it. Small wonder HarperCollins passed on its star author's latest, leaving the book to the nonprofit publisher of Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich.

Power Politics was a slim volume even in its Indian and European editions; in the U.S. it's slimmer yet: basically a single essay flanked by a lecture (delivered in the U.S.) on creative writers and political dissent and an affidavit defending the author from charges of contempt before the Indian Supreme Court.

That single essay, though, is searing enough to make it hard to read at a single sitting without coming to share its author's rage. Over the last 15 years or so, Roy reminds us, the United States and supergovernmental bureaucracies under its control like the World Bank and the Agency for International Development have bullied the Indian government into a series of privately funded hydroelectric projects in the name of agricultural development, clean water, and affordable electric power. These projects, dominated by names like General Electric and Siemens, have already rendered tens of millions of rural Indians homeless and indigent, and threaten the independence and livelihood of a hundred million more.

Since Roy wrote her essay, the story has taken an even more lurid turn, as one of the principal players in the gutting of India's existing public utility system is none other than our homegrown collapsed colossus Enron. The process of drowning land and displacing populations in the name of the Indian public good has already dwarfed the human catastrophe that laid the foundations of capitalism in 16th- to 18th-century Europe.

THERE'S NOTHING temperate in Roy's indictment of Indian (and international) business as usual. At times her prose rises to the intensity of a scream. Most painful for an American reader, though, is the revelation that the rape of rural India could not have taken place without our passive acceptance of the mantras of privatization and deregulation.

This book would make thoroughly depressing reading were it not for Roy's courage, her defiance of the odds against her, and her glowing vision of grassroots resistance not as a rearguard delaying of inevitable defeat but as positive action, an absolute negation of negative forces threatening to make an unlivable world.

"Cynics say that real life is a choice between the failed revolution and the shabby deal," she told an Amherst audience earlier this year. "I don't know . . . maybe they're right. But even they should know that there's no limit to just how shabby that shabby deal can be. What we need to search for and find, what we need to hone and perfect into a magnificent, shining thing, is a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance, the politics of opposition, the politics of accountability, the politics of slowing things down, the politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing is dissent."

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