July 05, 2008

Shape of the beast

Another of the aforementioned four books that suddenly came my way to review was The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy, a compilation of interviews of Roy by various people. Here's my review, as it appeared in Time Out Mumbai some weeks ago.


Through nearly two hundred pages, I wondered: Will nobody ask the lady a tough question? One that isn't a gentle full-toss that Arundhati Roy can swat for six? Then on page 185, S Anand suggests that her views are just "tokenistic", just a "career" for her.

How Roy responds is unimportant here. The fact that she is asked even this much, in this book, stands out. I mean, Roy is outspoken, opinionated, astonishingly gifted with words: all that, sure, but why won't her interlocutors challenge her more than they do? Turns out that's my major problem with this book.

I mean, I thought "God of Small Things" was outstanding, and when I read the first couple of Roy's political essays, I wished I could have written them. But the rest started to get wearying, and I felt that in this book: weary. This is a knight who slashes at everything, sees deep connections between all the world's demons, and I think: is there really a value to that? To seeing everything as one massive beast to be brought down? Would we not be more effective if we fought each battle as it comes, on those terms?

Yes, I think Roy is wrong on many counts. For example, I don't believe the US is a land of "emotional emptiness", that "thrives on insecurity, on fear", that it's a "culture under siege" -- things she said to David Barsamian in 2002. Yet I agree with other insights she has. There's "a space for the unpredictable" in India, she also tells Barsamian, "which is life as it should be." That's just why I find this vast country so fascinating.

Like nobody else, Roy makes you think about issues, question assumptions. The old mantra is that journalists should afflict the comfortable: Roy's ability to afflict is why she gets many people mad. And in the more recent interviews, her arguments are less flamboyant, more considered -- and more persuasive for being so. So yes, I believe there's a place for Roy's views -- whether you agree with them or not -- and how she presents them.

I just wish her interviewers were as feisty as she is.


Anonymous said...

When is she going to get a Nobel Prize for speaking out on behalf of the underdog.
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Good review, thanks. To add to your own thrust, it should be noted that your mild, thoughtful criticism of Roy's unremittingly harsh, increasingly paranoid screeds is itself a highly unusual sight anywhere, and especially in the mainstream Indian media these days.

Anonymous said...

Kind of OT on this but you said:

"... I don't believe the US is a land of "emotional emptiness", that "thrives on insecurity, on fear", that it's a "culture under siege" ..."

I dont believe it takes anybody anywhere close to 3 seconds to come to that conclusion about that statement, but your thoughtfulness and discretion came thru as Anon above mentions.

When you go 3 seconds etc. at others there is a barely concealed disdain there for them or their worldview. This actually reflects back on you.

What happened Dilip? I read an old thread of yours somewhere (dancing with dogs?) where you were genially swapping notes with a lady about honey wine on the corner of mesa street? and she was directly defending sandeep(web) for dawkinssakes!

I kind of miss that guy. Is there anyway we can get that Dilip back, rather than the poisonous "previous commenter" and "wont even call Nitin by his name".

If its something you will NOT be able to get back to, well what you write is (mostly) still worth reading but this is just dimmer.

Best regards,