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Book Review: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy

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As the most populous democracy in the world, India has been gaining attention and accolades in the West for quite some time due to its “progress.” Much is made of the rise of the business community there, with celebration from those with a lot to gain and heartbreak from those with nothing left to lose. India is truly a land of contrast clutched in both dreadful poverty and tremendous wealth, so it stands to reason that what lurks beneath the glittering surface of Bollywood and Mumbai is a dark mechanism of politics and shattered democracy that will stop at nothing to keep the process moving at all costs.

Arundhati Roy, in her blistering new book Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, sheds light on that very dark mechanism of democracy in India.

The book is a collection of essays holding on to the common thread of “life after democracy.” Roy wonders what has happened to democracy and whether India actually does know true democracy. She rails against the government’s demonic thirst for short-term, immediate gain at the expense of human rights and rallies against the cruel justice meted out in the courts.

There are many similarities between the blossoming India and the exploding China. Both countries are gripped with governments hellbent on arranging a system that works best for business and leaves the rest in the dust. Stability is the name of the game and much, if not everything, is to be sacrificed in the name of development.

Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of the brilliant The God of Small Things, tears into each issue with awesome precision. Hers is an attack that leaves no stone unturned, blasting through the media spin and government doublespeak to draw out the truth about the deep wounds development and Western influence have cut into the skin of her country.

Some essays dig into more specific territory, calling for a little research on behalf of a non-Indian reader such as myself. Roy explores, with poetic vigour, the issues of Kashmir, the attack on Indian parliament in December of 2001, the Gujarat violence in 2002 and the aftermath, the meaning of “progress” in the context of the 2009 elections, India’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the violence in Mumbai, and the acidic intersection of capitalism and fascism.

“When a government more or less openly supports a pogrom against members of a minority community in which more than one thousand people are brutally killed, is it fascism?” she asks. Outlining the “politics of avenging wrong,” Roy contemplates the plight of the Dalits and Adivasi people as well as the extensive, violent persecution of Muslims and Sikhs with vile government sanction.

Field Notes on Democracy draws the questions Roy asks about India democracy back to what democracy means in the West, firing poisonous darts, found mostly in the hilariously rough “Animal Farm II” essay, at George W. Bush’s obscene military imperialism in the name of capitalism and expansion.

But she is also oddly hopeful, and she loves her country and its people. In bringing attention to the plight of the poor and the lower class in India, Arundhati Roy displays tremendous courage and compassion with each keystroke. In that way, Field Notes draws on universal themes and doesn’t particularly require intensive knowledge of the subject matter. She boldly speaks of common values and morality in the face of faceless, mindless, gutless, heartless expansion and progress, drawing us all into the experience not only as Indians but as human beings.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Jeeves

    This books is about the forest when most of us see only trees. The forest that Roy takes us into is very different than the one constructed by the media and the powers to be. Sometimes over the top, you cant shake shake the feeling that Roy is right about most things.

  • Laxmi

    Yep India has a lot of problems besides its giltering economic development. I travelled Indaia again in 2008,roamed around the city of Mumbai,where I found the vague problem of sanitation as the smell was everywhere and the poverty in every corner. I hope the book would show path to this present government of India towards Indeginous people and thier rights.
    Regards, Laxmi, Tromso

  • Alfarid

    No, she exactly protrays India for what it is. We Indians have a very bad habit of not being able to acknowledge our ugliness. And when she scathes on it, we cry like babies like we have just come of a Bollywood Shahrukh Khan movie. I think she is honest and opinionated and we need such harsh critics in India.

  • K Harish

    India has a lot of social and economic problems and these are questioned quite rationally by a number of intellectuals, but I wouldn’t put ms roy in it. And the notion she gives to a non indian reader is dishonest potrayal of India. She is poetic but not truthful and the only thing she love passionately is her writing. If you love this book, please make a trip to all the places she has mentioned to make a unbiased opinion and then recommend this book.

  • A bold and great book on the myth of democracy in India. Similarly there are many other countries out there but few will speak up as Roy.

  • nice review jordan. i saw roy once giving a talk at a book conference on cspan and was totally mesmerized.

    i’ll have to add this book to my list.