Tuesday, March 9, 2010

48. “The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire” by Arundhati Roy [English version]

Year of first publication: 2002-2003
Genre: non-fiction
Country: the author is Indian, but the essays also deal with other countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My review of The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire has appeared in Italian on the cultural magazine Paper Street and it’s available at this link. In order not to repeat myself, even if in another language, I will write more in general about the author and about a recent outcome of her political activism.

Arundhati Roy the cannibal, Arundhati Roy the hooligan. Some people hate her and some people love her. I’m among those who love her, even though I don’t always agree with her. For example when, in a recent article published in Outlook India, she justified the Maoist rebels, a guerrilla group that is giving a lot of troubles to the Indian government. In my opinion, the problem is not whether or not these people are right (of course they’re right in wanting their lands not to be exploited and expropriated), the problem is that they use violence and terrorism to do that. Has Roy forgotten the “Gandhian non-violent approach” that led her country to independence? Has she come to the conclusion that it’s old fashioned and useless to fast and strike for your rights in times like these? Violence only lead to more violence; “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” Gandhi used to say. Moreover, all the guerrilla groups I can think of (the Colombian FARC or the Shan in Burma) started off as idealistic and ended up using illegal activities like drug smuggling to finance themselves, caring less and less about their original aims.
Apart from my personal disagreements with some of her opinions, what makes you admire this 48-year-old skinny Indian woman who wants to change the world is that she uses writing as a weapon. It’s the passion that she puts in what she fights for and believes in that makes you read with trepidation every article that she writes, even if it’s about something very distant from your everyday life as the tribal groups of India. And my admiration for her has not been touched by this unexpected outcome of her activism.
The Ordinary Person’s Guide to the Empire is a collection of essays by Arundhati Roy written in 2002-2003 on the aftermath of 9/11. Far from sounding dated, the essays are about the relationship between the powerful and ordinary people, helpless and exploited by those who detain the power. Whether they are Talibans, a tribal group of India or American citizens, ordinary people are what matters for Roy and this is evident in her defence of the Maoist rebels, who are ordinary people deprived of their lands.
Now the Maoist rebels have asked Roy to mediate with the government. Roy has of course rejected the offer, on the grounds that she is a writer and she doesn’t have the skills of a mediator. She hopes for a ceasefire on both sides, instead. So does Arundhati Roy actually support the Maoist’s means to get what they want in absence of alternative ways or does she only agree with the cause? Because it seemed to me that, at least from the article aforementioned, she was not only advocating their cause, but also justifying their acts of violence in name of “a greater good”.


  1. I have only read God of Small Things, was suitable impressed. I am totally against supporting the Maoists simply because of their way of doing things. yes, they have reasonable demands, but violence is not the way to address it.

  2. Hi Stefania, it's David from California. I saw your link and thought it was really interesting, so I decided to comment. I haven't spoken to you a while and hope you are doing well. :)

    Hm... a couple of thoughts come up as I'm reading it. I'm not good at literature and I don't know very much about the specifics of the Indian Maoist movement. In modern international relations, it is universally accepted that an independent state retains the sole right to use force within the area of it's jurisdiction. The inability to do so is a display of weakness and are signs of a "failed state" in IR jargon. The mere existence of Maoist forces in the midst of India is a challenge to the Indian government's right to rule and legitimacy. For the Indian government, a nuclear state and a rising superpower, this is greatly insulting and there is little incentive for them to negotiate, unless it leads to a total surrender.

    With that said, I feel compelled to ask this question. The Maoist insurgency has been going on in that part of India for 30-40 years now and what has the people living there actually gained? Aside from political rhetoric- which all sides utilize to their advantage, what good has socialism bought these people? I dislike words like "imperialism" or "empire" because the definition to these words are ambiguous and the use of those terms is often much like childish name calling. All developing countries have vast economic inequalities and "human rights abuses." All economic development has winners and losers, so to speak, but usually even people at the bottom of the society have more in absolute terms than they would otherwise if no development occurred. So at the end of the day, I think if trends from other developing Asian countries are repeated, then these people may have more to gain in joining with India than by continuing a losing insurgency.

    Also my former flatmate was Indian and he told me that he does not like the portrayal of Indian Independence and Gandhi because it marginalizes the roles played by groups like the Indian National Army and other people who lost their lives in the fight for independence. I'm inclined to agree with him. I think the idea is of a nonviolent path to Indian Independence is a myth: a bit of a face saving measure for the British, because they knew it was impossible to retain control of India if it came down to a military conflict.

  3. Ho amato da morire il God e penso che AR sia una delle persone che scriva meglio sul pianeta, a me le sue tesi politiche sono sempre sembrate un po' troppo semplicistiche.
    In tutti i suoi articoli che ho letto, è come se il mondo fosse diviso in due: capitalisti spietati e povera gente, il che in prima approssimazione può anche essere vero, ma poi i rapporti di forza sono più complessi e sfaccettati.

    Capisco perfettamente il sentimento di fondo della sua posizione, ovvero: giustizia, diritti umani, democrazia (vera) anche per gli esclusi, per gli ultimi. E la ammiro per il suo attivismo.

    Però, allo stesso modo, recentemente ho trovato troppo di parte i suoi articoli sull'indipendenza del Kashmir (ma ci rendiano conto di che massacri in tutta l'India e il Pakistan ci sarebbero se diventasse uno stato indipendente...?) e sugli attentati di Bombay.
    Per rispondere a una delle tue domande: sì, ha dimenticato, anzi accantonato il pensiero gandhiano. Ricordo un articolo in cui diceva chiaramente che la non-violenza non ha combinato niente e che a questo punto non rimaneva che la forza (era pubblicato su un'Internazionale di circa 2 anni fa).
    Spesso poi dice che il terrorismo non porta da nessuna parte, ma la simpatia per i maoisti secondo me è eccessiva: se (paradossalmente) fossero loro a governare le violenze e i soprusi non finirebbero...

  4. @Raj: I agree with you, I'm always against violence, even if the efforts don't always lead to good results.

    @David: What can I say? It really shows that you studied in an excellent university, because it taught you to challenge things that everyone believes to be true (like the importance of Gandhi in the Indian independence)! I think that Gandhi helped Indians realize that, if joined, they could get the British out of the country. His message of sacrifice is still followed by many (I heard of a Cuban activist who's fasting these days), but it is true that maybe he was not a good politician, simply because he was not a politician at all.
    PS: You are so pragmatic, I am more of an idealist, ahahah! :-P

    @Silvia: Beh, è lecito non essere d'accordo con lei qualche volta, no? Ciò non toglie che, sia come scrittrice che come giornalista e attivista, è bravissima. Se poi tornasse a scrivere narrativa sarei ancora più contenta.