My immediate reaction upon completing Arundhati Roy’s Walking With The Comrades was a sense of sadness and futility. How could a country with as rich a cultural history as India be (seemingly) turning against its own people as it works arm in arm with mining and banking conglomerates? How can a nation that was capable of producing someone as wonderful and peace-driven as Mahatma Gandhi be turning its own soldiers against their own citizens (all in the guise of rooting out Maoist guerrillas) as they commit unspeakable atrocities daily… and how can I not have heard of this until this book crossed my path?
Maybe I should just review the book and not my own limited experiences.
In Walking With The Comrades, Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy sets out to better understand the Maoist movement in India. Much as the term terrorist is used here in the states it seems that Maoist is used in India. Unfortunately Maoists — at least those labeled as such — are not always, well, Maoist. If you are simply an Indian citizen who questions or fights the system in any way, whether for better pay or food or the simple right to keep your land in the face of a corporation wanting to strip mine it for the minerals that lie beneath the bones of generations of your ancestors, you are going to be branded as a Maoist no matter your actual political affiliation.
Searching for firsthand knowledge, Roy ends up spending time with and walking through the dark of dangerous forests with actual Maoists who live there. There are no true villages, cities or “homes” in the sense that I am used to, mind you. These are a people able to pick up and move everything — hundreds of people and all of their pots, pans, clothes, weapons, etc. — and leave barely a trace that they were ever there in their wake.
These determined people live their life constantly on the move only there is no “tour of duty” time-table where they know that after a year or two they will be able to return to their homes. There is no returning home… at least not as long as India itself seems determined to hunt them down and exterminate them.
At least, I think that’s what I’m supposed to think. Throughout the collection of essays that make up this small book I get a sense of Roy taking the side of the Maoists — or at least the people of India in the sites of their government — as she seeks to take that government to task for its abuses. As she never really gives me the visceral feeling of truly and vehemently being angry at the government, it made me realize that this is exactly why this story had not caught my attention before.
Every day there are awful things happening in the world and at times it is all too much to take in and comprehend. There are things happening in the small county I call home that often make me want to hold my head in my hands and weep, so the fears and torments being subjected to people half a world away never seem quite as real to me as my neighbors’ problems.
Once I finished this book, though, and allowed myself time to digest what I’d read before picking it up again and rereading it, I see that the anger I was searching for is indeed in there. Maybe it was just that Arundhati’s talent was too sublime for me when I was wanting the brute force of a hammer to knock the information into me. I don’t know… whatever the reason, this book finally brought tears to my eyes.
Walking With The Comrades is both an easy read and a difficult one. It is so concise as to make you think nothing of simply tearing into its pages and rushing straight through until the end. Then again, it is deep enough that if you take your time you will slowly sink into understanding. Either way will leave you uneasy and thinking that you should be DOING something.
I have no idea what I could be or should be doing, but at the very least I am thinking and I am trying to keep my eyes open. If for no other reason than that I am supremely glad I have read this book.