Crossing Borders, Writing Back: The Work of Arundhati Roy and Mahasweta Devi

“For the intellectual the task, I believe, is explicitly to universalize the crisis, to give greater human scope to what a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the sufferings of others.”

— Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual

“Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it … With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”

— Arundhati Roy, War Talk

Arundhati Roy used to have nightmares about becoming a gook (sic). During her childhood in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a childhood that coincided with the awful years of the horror that was the Vietnam War, Roy was plagued by a persistent fear that she, her family, her world would be bombed to shreds by American fighter planes. After all, she notes, recalling her thoughts, Kerala wasn’t so different from Vietnam. Both places were lush, tropical, “remote”, and mostly rural regions populated by a breed that Roy refers to as “us natives”; namely, Third World non-Caucasians. If innocent Vietnamese civilians asleep in their homes could be mowed down by that colossus, America, who was to say that the young Roy couldn’t, and wouldn’t, meet the same fate?

The secret, incredibly percipient terrors of this woman’s childhood reveal, when stripped to their core, a truth in this age of post-truths that so many millions are inexplicably blind: what one army, one government, or one corporation does to someone else, it can certainly do to me and you, too. “Universalism” has, of late, become a taboo word; or rather, has become defunct in the eyes of those eager to dismantle the last of the 20th Century’s “grand narratives”. Today, Roy is fighting back by writing back; writing against the prospect of an entirely relativist world in which the only ethical standards that exist are situational, individual, and can be born and dissolved with the firing of a bullet. And her audience is growing.

Roy’s first encounter with international fame occurred in 1997 when her debut novel, The God of Small Things, shot to the top of best-seller lists across the world and garnered the coveted Booker Prize. In a heartbeat the New Delhi-residing former architect catapulted to stardom and earned a spot in the critic-appointed coterie comprising the new, international, Third World literary elite. Roy, the first India-residing Indian and the first subcontinental woman to win the Booker, also suddenly became to many of her Western readers the voice du jour of all things oppressed and Indian. This was due largely to the fact that her depiction of the injustice suffered by her novel’s dalit (another word for “untouchable” i.e., the lowest ranking individuals in Hinduism’s caste-divided social order) characters was written in such breathtakingly magical, flying prose, and because her novel critically addresses the position of women in patriarchal South Asian society.

And Roy decided to ride that wave in a most surprising way. Finding herself suddenly propelled into a blur of posh hotel rooms, and receiving fat checks from publishing companies and calls from Oprah’s people, Roy saw an opportunity to, of all things, start writing essays about irrigation in central India. (India has 3,600 large-scale dams that have displaced and negatively affected 50 million people already, the promised “development” gains from the dams never reach those who most need them, the dams disrupt and destroy the natural environment, and no one in the official arena is willing to recognize any of this). It all began when Roy, acting upon what she called “curiosity”, decided to investigate the site of the construction of the massive Sardar Sarovar dam in the Narmada River Valley. Finding there the prospect of environmental destruction and mass displacement, she began researching and writing, quietly at first, critical commentary on the proposed “development” project. (See The Friends of River Narmada).

In 2003, Roy is not so quiet. She has become an activist for an anti-dam campaign, even spending time in jail for her activism. She has published three books by Cambridge, Massachusetts’ fabulous South End Press; The Cost of Living (1998), Power Politics (2002), and most recently, War Talk (May 2003). She has written many other articles for the Indian and international press, given numerous thoughtful interviews, and has appeared all over the world in front of packed houses to speak about irrigation. And nuclear weapons. And religious fundamentalism. And American exceptionalism. And corporate greed and lies. The list goes on. Indeed, the range of issues at which Roy is now aiming her redoubtable verbal artillery is truly enormous. She has traded her cascade of black curls for a short, spiky boy-crop and as a result has grown to look something like a tiny brown elf, but one whose angry, eloquent voice has awarded her a towering stature, and made her a formidable presence.

Is the transformation from The God of Small Things era-Roy to the now fierce political gadfly really so baffling? Or is it even a transformation at all? Not really. As a writer of fiction, Roy’s job was to create and embellish narratives. As a journalistic dissenter, defender of the oppressed and marginalized, and a critic of inhumane and irresponsible policy-making, her job is still to tell stories. Along with storytelling, her task is to write alternative histories, contest accepted narratives, voice the experiences of the poor, the powerless, and the unspoken for. Roy has chosen to act upon an imperative perhaps fueled by the fears she experienced as a girl growing up in the Third World during the Vietnam War; she has chosen to tell local stories, stories about specific injustices (such as her aforementioned focus on devastating individual irrigation projects in India), and raise these stories up and throw them out to the rest of the world.

Of course, her work is not confined to issues facing Indians. She writes about the state of the world, about “Confronting Empire” (the title of her speech at the closing of the World Social Forum this January in Brazil), about George W. Bush, about the bombing of Iraq. The twist, though, is that Roy intertwines local and universal stories to tell a larger story about the exploitation of the powerless by the self-interested powerful. By connecting the dots, Roy demands that we see the big picture without giving us license to ignore the vast worlds of injustice contained within each dot, each specificity. She is not the first to do this, of course. But her success as a fiction writer has granted her a unique position in the international popular spotlight, and thus her activist work as an intellectual has that rare power to reach people all over the world.

Art and activism. Literature and politics. Novelists across generations and national borders have had feet planted simultaneously in the worlds of fiction and non-fiction, creative writing and journalism. Such writers are not willing to be pigeonholed and accept the separate and narrow definitions of art as art and politics as politics. James Baldwin did it. Ken Saro-Wiwa did it. Simone de Beauvoir did it, and so did Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Upton Sinclair, and so many others. The tradition continues today, most notably, one might well assert, with one of Roy’s most towering peers: the incredible Bengali novelist, historian, organizer, journalist, and activist named Mahasweti Devi.

If Roy looks like a harmless elf, then Devi, peering out from her small, wrinkled, sari-clad, bespectacled frame, could be any South Asian nani (grandmother) who spends her days in the kitchen frying samosas and reclining in front of the television watching soap operas. Instead, Devi has published 94 titles of fiction, written copiously as a journalist, edited books and periodicals, produced textbooks, traveled extensively, and lived in remote and underdeveloped tribal regions of India. She has formed and led a number of grassroots organizations and effectively terrorized corrupt Indian government officials for decades.

Devi and Roy address many of the same issues in their fiction and non-fiction such as irresponsible projects in the name of development that displace and destroy the lives of thousands of tribal and lower-caste citizens of India; the entrenched corruption of the Indian bureaucracy and Indian government officials; the oppression of women; and the racism and often naked instrumentalism and imperialism of the West, to name a few. Central to their work is a scathing critique of the hypocrisy of the powers-that-be, and a celebration of the resilience and the refractory potential of the currently powerless.

However, while Roy takes care to link local issues to wider international problems and in doing so maintains the attention of her vast Western audience, Devi focuses on hitting very specific, very particular, very local issues over and over again without heavy-handed supplementary universalizing. While Roy is an international Third World intellectual, Devi is an undeniably Indian intellectual. Roy writes in English, Devi in Bengali. Roy’s novel is at its core a coming-of-age narrative; Devi’s novels and short stories are historiographies, rehabilitated folklore, political allegories steeped in local conditions, traditions, dialects, and customs.

Devi has dedicated herself to fighting irresponsible globalization and international “development” policy, and also to rehabilitating the forgotten stories and revealing the forgotten pasts of India’s indigenous tribals (adivasis). In her words, “the old stories are also getting lost, they are losing their way, like notes in the face of a dust storm, ancient tales, history, songs, sagas, folklore, folkways” (“Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha”, 1994). With her fiction she revives the “old stories”, and in writing what are her creations but nonetheless essentially histories that the Indian government and upper-caste Indian society has suppressed, she has brought to the surface a legacy of the devastation of indigenous peoples that attacks the foundation on which today’s corrupt government stands. All of her fictional characters and plots, she asserts, are based on real people and real events. In her non-fiction, journalistic work, Devi fights for government accountability, an end to indentured labor, environmentally sustainable development, literacy campaigns, and for recognition of India’s marginalized tribals as citizens with full rights.

Yet to the careful reader, Devi still manages to ever so subtly situate all these specificities and her blistering focus on India’s own injustices in a worldly context. Satirizations of ruthlessly profit-hungry international corporations, ridiculously out-of-touch Western academic elites, and a touch of good old-fashioned American neo-imperialism pepper her short stories, plays, and novels. As does Roy, Devi carefully engages in what hints at self-reflection without getting carried away and being obnoxiously post-modern about it. Both writers recognize that they themselves are educated, upper-class Indian citizens and thus members of an oppressor class. At the same time, as Roy’s “us natives” anecdote reveals, they acknowledge that their larger national identity (and gender identity) renders them vulnerable to the exploitation, the Orientalizing, and the instrumentalism of the Western world.

Where does this leave the Third World artist-activist-intellectual? This oppressor-oppressed paradigm, while reductive, is illuminating. Roy and Devi are floating in a manifold identity limbo. Are they storytellers or truth-tellers? Grassroots activists or elites? Instead of viewing this limbo as a prison limiting the range of issues they can legitimately or authentically address, these two women have chosen to view it as enabling. Roy blurs the boundaries between “gooks” and all other “natives”, sketching a powerful vision of global solidarity. Devi explores the line between true, factual, written history on one hand and oral legends and mythology on the other — and finds that it doesn’t exist.

Who do their writings reach? Devi is not even remotely trendy even in her own India, except among a select group of nerdy academics studying postcolonial culture who drool over Gayatri Spivak and her cohort, and perhaps an equally insular legion of hard-core development activists. This, of course, is due to the extreme specificity of her work, but it is also due, not in small part, to the language in which she writes. A native of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Devi composes in her regional language, Bengali. Though her work has been translated into other regional subcontinental languages, only recently did Seagull Books collect a number of her major works and publish them in a series of reader-friendly English translations. Even though each volume comes with a necessary glossary explaining untranslatable jargon and concepts, the English versions are still intimidating to the Western reader who knows little about South Asia or development or indigenous people’s issues. And this is only her fiction.

On the other hand, English, that blessed medium, is Roy’s original written language of choice. It has been years since Salman Rushdie published to an uproar his controversial essay in the New Yorker on post-Independence Indian fiction that (irresponsibly, I argue) asserted that the best literature to come out of South Asia has all been written in English (“Damme, This is the Oriental Scene for You”, 1997.) Yet, the unfortunate truth contained in his message, that English-medium writing is that best equipped to reach a global audience, rings truer today than ever.

Devi is not unaware of the limitations of what is an undeniable real border in this globalized era: language. For this reason she has taken up the fight for the recognition of tribal languages as official languages by the Indian government (India has 18 official languages, many of which are actually spoken by what amounts to a tiny fraction of the number of people who speak unrecognized tribal languages). At stake is not only the tribals’ access to basic public information, but mainstream India’s (and, ultimately, our) access to the stories, histories, and realities of these indigenous people.

Roy is fighting hard to use her fiction-won international fame to bring worldwide, and particularly Western attention, to the injustices of American foreign policy, globalization, corporate greed, and specific injustices in her own India. Devi is fighting equally hard with an arsenal of realistic fiction and journalism to bring to mainstream India’s attention the plight and stories of its tribal and lower caste citizens.

These women have cared enough to learn and write about people they are separated from by class borders; can we now care enough to read their work and learn about the real struggles of people from different cultural universes than our own? Storytelling is one of the most powerful modes of resistance. It disrupts the grand narrative we are sold on CNN every day and brings to new audiences a rehabilitation of life’s “small things” (as in The God of Small Things). Storytelling succeeds in unearthing forgotten, suppressed histories and reviving forgotten, oppressed fights against injustice.

In one of Devi’s short stories about a journalist visiting a famine-swept tribal village, the protagonist asks, “Is the pen mightier than the sword?” Is it? The best way to find out is to begin engaging ourselves with works such as Roy’s fiction and essays. Since her works have all succeeded as bestsellers here in the West, we have easy access to them and ease of access to their subject matter. If we’re really concerned world citizens, however, we will go a step further, and also search far and wide to seek out Devi’s work and the work of countless other writers (often writing in indigenous languages) dealing with specific, unglamorous issues; the conditions and struggles of foreign peoples living foreign lives.

Devi and her ilk write local stories and don’t offer us the explicit connect-the-dot universalizing that Roy provides us to help us as Western readers understand the relevance of something like dam-building in central India to our own lives. But we’re big kids; we can do the connecting for ourselves. The pen is only mightier than the sword if we heed its imperative: go forth and read. These stories could be our own.