This is my review of The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy.
In her fight for rights, Arundhati Roy is compelling. Her book of essays (8 of them) makes her sadness, pleas, anger, and righteousness crush you a little with each paragraph that lays bare the injustices perpetuated by protectors and guarantors of freedoms and livelihoods.
In the essay, The Greater Common Good, which she wrote during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she blasts the lid off the scam and scandal behind the worst planned damned dam in the world. She exposes the scam through numbers that tellingly don’t add up. On recognition of the shoddy engineering and planning, the World Bank (the happiest lenders in town, when they have lending targets to meet, that is) was shamed into withdrawing funding. Nothing can be “for the greater good” if it displaces and destroys millions of tribals. And especially nothing good will come of Big Dams, a concept that’s been abandoned for scientific and economic reasons, but still pushed for in third world countries like India (because it’s a great way to grease the wheels…).
In her essay Power Politics, she says that capitalism works because there are greedy givers and moneyed takers. And lost in these vicious transactions are the have-nots, in line to be swallowed into the belly of the monster. Her sarcasm, dry and twisted (twisted is the world, she’d tell you), is a little difficult to digest. She is extraordinarily bold in her accusations, but some of her broad accusations are flawed. Markets are decried so much that I was beginning to think her suspicion for market economies was ideological. The State’s promotion of privatisation is not always bad, Roy. It’s just bad if it’s business-friendliness, not liberal and (then) privatised. It’s the difference between the State supporting an Ambani and allowing a Silicon Valley to grow. One of them reeks of corruption. But the other is transparent, accountable to consumers, and responsible to its stakeholders (who are in the thousands, and hence also provides for shared welfare). It is no good throwing missiles (she hates those from the bottom of her big heart) at them. Take the case of social capitalists, for instance. I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not really one, as proven by social capitalists themselves. Schools (that are run at a no-loss, no-profit basis) are an example. Nevertheless, Roy is right in this essay. She describes a disgusting nexus between bureaucracy and greedy capitalists – in building a dam that helps no-one, but manages to destroy millions of people’s houses and large forests. A dam that is likely to be built by a textile trader and a garbage incinerator (go figure!).
Another essay that I found poignant was The End of Imagination. Nuclear weapons’ Disarmament has become a joke, and nuclear weaponisation has become a dance that the powerful perform; around the pyre that they will create, of people and countries that they will inevitably destroy. “No, nuclear missiles are created to prevent such destruction”, they’ll tell you. Arundhati Roy allows you to laugh at them. Sadly.
The essays are powerful, exposing the great lies told to us today, that we are confused by. How can a dam be good for us if it displaces a million people? It is for the Greater Good. Of course. Of course. Naturally…
Roy hits you hard across the face and tells you not to believe them. That, I think, is what makes her a powerful writer. Waking up your readers from a slumber (intoxicated and hallucinating) is no joke. With the tools of grassroots work, and relentless pursuit of truth, she helps us with a point of view wholly different from what we’ve been fed by the drunken mainstream media. She’s good. But she also leaves you unsettled. She tells us to fight for specific causes in specific ways (like joining the NBA). But is that feasible for lay people like me? Moreover, will that not result in insufficient change? Should we not work upstream? How can we institutionalize participatory democracy? These are some unanswered questions. Perhaps one will be angry enough to figure them out oneself.
To work upstream is to abandon the shelter of grassroots, and to foray into the unknown elite groups, of bureaucracy and politics. It is arduous. Also, horrible as it is, the truth is that well meaning men and women who enter politics and the bureaucracy are converted into leeches and leprechauns, blood sucking and bribe seeking. Perhaps Roy has seen too many of that ilk. Hence the disillusionment. Hence the well placed anger.
Quick epilogue to the essays:
- Since the NBA’s struggle, the World Bank withdrew from the project. Despite that, the project went ahead. The Supreme Court, however, ordered that the implementation of the dam project, especially the resettlement and rehabilitation of people, should be done in a participative and democratic manner. This end of the struggle has been held as a way forward for many more specific struggles to be waged in specific ways.
- Nuclear disarmament is still a dream, and dream it will remain for generations to come. However, there have been significant agreements signed between the more powerful nuclear armed countries (US, Russia) to not expand the nuclear arsenal but only to modernize it (make it more potent, powerful). This is a joke, to be honest. They already have enough missiles to obliterate the earth and the moon. Now the buzzwords are non-proliferation of nuclear technology.