#173: INDIA: MYTHS, ESSAYS AND CASTE/THE WRITER ARUNDHATI ROY. You have to keep an eye on those Indian economists: they just won’t stay home. Bibek Debroy, for instance, a longtime writer on economics and Chairman of the Indian Economic Advisory Council, has over the last decade been on an astounding tear of translating the great works of Sanskrit literature: ten volumes of the Mahabharata, three volumes each of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Shiva Purana, two volumes of the Brahma Purana, and single volumes of the Harivamsha (an addition to the Mahabharata), the Markandeya Purana, and the Vishnu Purana. And he shows no sign of letting up: he is currently head-down, apparently, in translating more of the Puranas, having taken some time off to do a collection of limericks (when does he sleep?). This means there are modern translations of the great texts of Sanskrit literature, accessible to the common reader in affordable editions from Penguin India—this from someone professionally involved in straightening out the Indian economy, a task to stagger strong men. I grant you, ten volumes of the Mahabharata may be a bit more than most people will take up for a bit of reading on the weekend (“Prolixity is not alien to us in India,” Amartya Sen has written. “We do like to speak.”) but there they are for people on their India binge. Count me in.
Amartya Sen, who took the Nobel for Economics in 1998, has written an absorbing collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005). The topics range over a number of the touch-points of contemporary India: class, women’s rights, the bomb, as well as the mirrors of Indian and Chinese culture, the Western image of India, and “India Through its Calendars.” What struck me most strongly, though—something which has altered my sense of the culture—is the title piece, which is about the long and often unnoticed tradition in India of skepticism, heterodoxy and argument. It’s like a reverse version of Barbara L. Eck’s superb volume India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony Books, 2012), which so beautifully details the way in which India’s landscape is saturated with the resonances of its mythology. Sen’s focus instead is on the surprisingly ancient roots of the impulse to say, I think I may be on the other side of this one, as if the Oxford Union debating team had set up a booth in the middle of the Kurukshetra war. This is not likely to be our image of the Indian mind; Sen points out that the Buddhist emperor Ashoka not only legislated for religious toleration but set out what are likely the oldest rules for disputation on record, and that the Muslim emperor Akbar enunciated similar principles of toleration as the Inquisition was raging in Europe. He doesn’t attempt to overprove his case—he just shows us, and convinces us, that these particular hues are part of the Indian tapestry. Here and throughout the book his own arguments are cogent, informed, thoughtful and humane.
Narendra Jadhav, who is chief economist for the Reserve Bank of India, begins his book Untouchables (University of California Press, 2003) with numbers: “Every sixth human being in the world today is an Indian, and every sixth Indian is an erstwhile untouchable, a Dalit. Today there are 165 million Dalits (equal to more than half the population of the United States) and they continue to suffer under India’s 3,500-year-old caste system, which remains a stigma on humanity.” With the current encouragements these days not to be ethnocentric, it is part of our experience to have to reconsider our condemnations of other countries’ customs and behavior: to hear out Muslim women, for instance, who defend the wearing of the hijab, which westerners tend to assume is a male-imposed restriction. We have to some degree learned to not completely trust our first reactions, which can often be the results of our upbringing. But if you ever thought to consider caste as merely a difference in local custom to the vaunted individualism of America or the cosmopolitanism of the modern world, Jadhav’s account of his family’s experiences as untouchables will be one almighty spanner in the works. I have always reacted almost viscerally to the depictions of caste in Indian cinema; and Jadhav’s book, which traces the experiences of his parents, going back and forth between father’s and mother’s recounting, can be pretty wrenching. As we see in the great slave narratives the workings of the system of slavery, we see in Untouchables the mechanics and effects of telling people that they are, by God’s decision and accounts, polluted and unworthy. It is a wily and instructive act of kindness that the book ends with an account by Jadhav’s daughter; Apoorva Jadhav did not know until she was twelve years old that she was a Dalit, and the tone of the oppressed has no place in her ease and bubbling optimism. As I write, the United States has just elected as Vice President a woman of not only African but South Asian descent. Take off the shackles and sky’s the limit.
Throughout Jadhav’s book we find reference to Dr. Ambedkar: this is B.R. (also Babasaheb) Ambedkar, a groundbreaking scholar, jurist and social reformer, one of the authors of the Indian constitution, and, yes, an economist, having taken his doctorates at both Columbia and University of London, the first Indian to have taken these degrees outside the subcontinent. For the thousands of westerners who could at least identify a photo of Gandhi or Nehru, Ambedkar’s fame is limited, but he was one of the strongest critics to this day of the caste system, and fought energetically and wisely against it, to the extent of encouraging Dalits simply to abandon Hinduism for other faiths. The success of his advice was partial at best, as the markers of caste—family names, professions—are almost impossible to escape; but he remains a rallying name and inspiring figure for the continuing efforts to raise the fortunes of the Dalit community. The best introduction to Ambedkar’s work and to the maze of the traditional and contemporary workings of caste, is Arundhati Roy’s book-length essay “The Doctor and the Saint,” which shows the incisive and enraged moral eye as well as the command of a remarkably complicated subject that marks all her work. She also puts the brakes on our worship of Gandhi, who could be wildly inconsistent and not nearly so enlightened about The Lower Orders as we like to picture him. (“Though Ambedkar had a formidable intellect, he didn’t have the sense of timing, the duplicity, the craftiness and the ability to be unscrupulous—qualities that a good politician needs.” Ouch.) The essay is available, with Ambedkar’s most famous work on the topic, in Annihilation of Caste, published by Verso (2016), edited and annotated by S. Anand, and in My Seditious Heart (Haymarket, 2019), the wonderful doorstop compendium of Roy’s non-fiction.
People keep trying to pin down what kind of a writer Arundhati Roy is. She has written two imaginative and widely-read novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but has also done a considerable amount of political non-fiction, leading her to be branded a “writer-activist.” “Sort of like a sofa-bed,” she says, and you can hear her snorting. She writes, “For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.” The subjects of her essays are, along with caste and women’s rights, the troubles in Kashmir, “nuclear bombs, Big Dams, corporate globalization, and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism,” as well as her measuring of “the corporate-military cabal of ‘empire’ at work.” (The dams are a series of these structures in India that have resulted in massive evictions of the Adivasi population and increasing ecological disaster.) My Seditious Heart is a thousand-page omnibus bringing together pieces published in smaller volumes over the last twenty years; in them, as mentioned, she shows an extraordinary skill in guiding us in few words and pages through some terrifically complex situations, but we read them for the fire of her moral insight as well as for information. Because she deals so often with the “less pretty and more complicated” side of things—her essay “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” for instance, is the most powerful evocation of the obscenity of corporate wealth and influence I’ve read—my first thought was to compare My Seditious Heart to the experience of reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States; it’s an awful lot of bad news all at one time, and as often as not can be painful reading about what she calls “this restive, despairing time.” But other comparisons struck me: “Public Power in the Age of Empire” is something you can put next to Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and her involvement and urgency made me think of Camus’s wartime writing; Roy really earns and warrants these comparisons.
The pendant to My Seditious Heart is Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (Penguin, 2020), her nonfiction published from 2018 to 2020. In addition to the beautiful opening essay on the centrality of translation in the multilingual cultures of India, there is much on the continuing terror of the right-wing Hindutva movement, and harrowing news of the war zone that is contemporary Kashmir (“Azadi” is the Kashmiri word and battle cry for “freedom”). “The Graveyard Talks Back” is a superb piece on the uses of fiction in the time of fake news, as an action in disregard of “The Project of Unseeing.” The final essay in Azadi is on the current pandemic, and gives a right, blessed end-note: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” We hope, we hope.