By Zehra Munir
Arundhati Roy, Penguin, 2020
Megha Majumdar, Knopf, 2020
The Urdu chant “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!”—which translates as “What do we want? Freedom!”—echoed across India earlier this year, as protestors gathered in opposition to the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the introduction of a National Citizen Register (NRC). Both acts were introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government: they work in tandem to exclude millions of minorities currently residing in India from claiming citizenship, as well as persecuted Muslims from neighbouring countries. Azadi is also the name of Arundhati Roy’s latest book, a collection of lectures and essays composed over the past two years, in response to what she sees as India’s blossoming love affair with fascistic Hindu nationalism. Roy reminds us that there is irony in Indian protestors claiming “azadi” as a mantra, since it was first used in Kashmir, as part of protests demanding liberation from India. With this in mind, she seeks to understand what this call for freedom means in an increasingly fraught political climate.
We expected a collection of this sort from Roy, who has involved herself in Indian politics through her essays ever since she shot to prominence after winning the 1997 Booker Prize. Though she once told an interviewer, ‘Each time I write an essay, I get into so much trouble I promise that I won’t do it again’, the writer-activist has established herself as a leading voice of Indian progressivism.
Megha Majumdar, however, is a 26-year old newcomer, whose debut novel was released earlier this year to glowing reviews. Like Roy, this young writer penned her book in response to India’s current turmoil. With its critical takes on Islamophobia, transphobia, police brutality and patriarchal structures, A Burning is one of the first works of fiction in what will perhaps become a sub-genre of Indian Anglophone literature, dedicated to charting the rise of the far-right in India.
Majumdar’s novel follows the intertwined narratives of three characters as they work and struggle in an increasingly polarised Kolkata. The backdrop to their tale is the inexorable ascent of the Jana Kalyan (Well-Being for All) Party, Majumdar’s thinly veiled depiction of a regional offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s foremost Hindu nationalist organization (of which current Prime Minister Modi is a proud member). As the party’s grip on various mechanisms of governance strengthens, the lives of all three characters are affected by heightened Islamophobia and jingoism.
Majumdar sets the pace with A Burning’s opening chapter, where we witness the young retail worker Jivan being falsely accused of participating in the terrorist plot behind a recent train bombing. The “evidence” gathered against Jivan is speculative at best: a series of unrelated messages she has exchanged with someone who is—unbeknownst to her—an alleged terrorist recruiter, alongside a question she posts online. After viewing a video of the police watching while the bombed train burns, Jivan writes on Facebook, ‘If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’ Shortly after hitting send, Jivan is arrested, charged with sedition, and is scapegoated as an anarchist by the media, so much so that the public begins to demand the death sentence for her “crimes”. And as a young Muslim from the slums, with no more education than a 10th grade ‘pass’, Jivan has no recourse to the networks of power that could assist her.
Majumdar, like Roy, is concerned with the uneven distribution of power in political systems. In their eyes, several of India’s most influential institutions are not the equitable spaces they purport to be. Rather, the municipal courts, the police, and even NGOs act as mechanisms of injustice.
Far from being uplifted by such institutions, Jivan has been consistently failed by law enforcement throughout her life. As she tells a journalist, her memories of early childhood are tainted by the police violence faced by her parents and her neighbors. After being booted out of their home in a village to make way for a corporate land-grab, her family learned quickly whose interests the local police exist to protect. Majumdar’s censure of the Indian law enforcement’s bigotry is rooted in recent episodes of police-sanctioned violence, some of which have been dismissed and ignored by the Indian media. In Azadi, Roy makes the same point, and speaks of the countless times the police have turned a blind eye to mob violence against Muslims and Dalits (those who belong to the “Untouchable” caste in Hinduism). Occasionally, she dwells on individual instances, such as the case of Tabrez Ansari, a Muslim man who survived an attempted lynching in 2019, but was subsequently left to die in custody by the police force instead of being taken to hospital.
In A Burning, it is also the legal system that fails Jivan—judges succumb to public pressure and dismiss the testimonies of transgender witnesses and those who are deemed too poor and uneducated to be heard. And while the system fails the marginalised, it works all too well for the powerful. In Azadi, Roy reminds us of Babu Bajrangi, who was convicted of participating in the killing of 97 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. In a YouTube video, Bajrangi can be heard talking about how ‘Narendra bhai’ (Prime Minister Modi) got him out of jail by ‘setting’ the judges. This case of systemic imbalance, like many of Roy’s examples, forces us to question: who are these systems built to protect? The plot of A Burning serves as a similarly insightful primer for understanding the various faces of institutionalised oppression and violence in India.
If being poor, Muslim, or Dalit is reason enough to live a life under siege, what would be the criteria for being a valued person in India? Majumdar provides us with a case study in her character PT Sir, who becomes increasingly attached to his local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated party. Up until his initial encounter with the party, he had been existing in a detached and dispirited fashion, working as a Physical Training teacher (hence the “PT” in his name) at a school for rich girls, most of whom don’t show him the deference he feels he deserves. As PT Sir’s involvement with the party grows, he reaps the benefits of being entrenched in local political networks. He garners new respect both within his workplace, and in public spaces, where he is recognised as being affiliated with a powerful organisation. But the price he pays for this new-found status is perpetuating Islamophobia by assuming the role of a witness in show trials against poor Muslims. Of course, the municipal court never questions how the same man could be present at crime scenes all over the city, and on such a regular basis, too. Moreover, should anything ever go wrong as he carries out his work for the party, his own safety is guaranteed. At one point, Majumdar writes of PT Sir’s journey home from a meeting with his superior: ‘Afterward, PT Sir walks down the road, feeling the protective wing of the party sheltering him’. Majumdar tells us that, while being male, Hindu, and middle-class offers some structural protection in today’s India, it is loyalty to the right party that provides real immunity.
Conversely, Roy’s explanations of what renders a life vulnerable in 21st-century India leaves no confusion about why she is, by her own admission, on the government’s ‘A-List of “Anti-Nationals”’. Her description of the impact of Modi’s recent decision to lock down the country with four hours’ notice is a bitter indictment of the government’s dismissal of the lives of the poor. Roy says of the immediate aftermath of Modi’s announcement, ostensibly made to prevent the spread of Covid-19: ‘Our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens... like so much unwanted accrual [...] millions [...] began a long march home to their villages’. On a visit to the Delhi border to witness the exodus for herself, she interviewed a Muslim tailor who was walking to the nearest Nepalese border. He told her ‘Maybe when Modiji decided to do this, nobody told him about us. Maybe he doesn’t know about us’. ‘Us,’ writes Roy, ‘means approximately 460 million people’.
Having laid out their critiques of modern India, both authors contemplate routes to liberation beyond present horizons. Their hopes are predicated on ideas of solidarity and protest. Roy’s fear of political complacency is palpable in the direct comparisons she makes between present-day Hindu nationalism and Nazism. She writes, ‘We know what happened in Europe when an organization with a similar ideology imposed itself first on a country and then sought “Lebensraum” (living space). We know that it happened because the rest of the world did not pay heed to the early warnings from those who saw and heard enough to know what was coming’. Her solution stems from her belief in the power of protest: ‘We can only hope that, someday soon, the streets in India will throng with people who realize that unless they make their move, the end is close’.
Roy’s tone softens when she moves away from her structural critiques and onto her hopes for resistance. In one essay, she writes of a precarious solidarity that is emerging between Muslim and Dalit activists, despite a history of animosity. At recent protests against the Indian government’s attempts to exclude Muslims, Assamese, and other poor and marginalised peoples from being granted Indian citizenship, a young Dalit politician appeared late one night on the steps of Delhi’s Jamia Mosque. Roy writes that his appearance was part of a night ‘filled with shouts of “Jai Bhim” (long live Ambedkar!) and “Inquilab Zindabad” (long live the Revolution!)’.
In highlighting this shared resistance being forged between Muslims and Dalits, she recognizes solidarity as unstable and uneasy, but posits it as the only solution for oppressed peoples. Yet, Roy’s own faith in protest as a fix falters at times, and occasionally it feels as though she is trying to convince herself that there is still hope. An essay entitled Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy ends with a near-plea: ‘The vulnerable are being cordoned off and silenced. The vociferous are being incarcerated. God help us to get our country back’.
Majumdar, too, spends the latter part of her work dwelling on the difficulties that a commitment to solidarity and resistance can bring. A poignant example is found in the struggle faced by one character, Lovely, as she seeks to support Jivan, while pursuing her dreams of a Bollywood career. Before her imprisonment, Jivan was trying to teach Lovely English, visiting the aspiring actress at the ramshackle house she lives in with her “sisters”, all self-identifying hijra (transgender) women, and all estranged from their families. After Jivan’s incarceration, Lovely is determined to help in any way she can, and she delivers an impassioned defense of Jivan’s character as a witness during her trial. However, the judge dismisses the words of a hijra, and Lovely is laughed at by those watching. Later, after a WhatsApp video of Lovely acting goes viral, a liberal film director seeks to ride the wave of public enthusiasm for this down-and-out hijra from the slums and offers her a role in an upcoming blockbuster. The only condition is that Lovely must publicly withdraw her support for Jivan and denounce her character. She is forced to grapple with a dilemma familiar to many marginalised individuals, one where support and kinship must be weighed against newfound cultural capital and individual success. For women like Lovely, there exist only a few opportunities for self-promotion and an escape from the slums, which, when they come along, cannot be so easily dismissed. After much internal deliberation, Lovely accepts her big Bollywood job offer; in that same moment, Jivan loses a friend and a newly powerful supporter.
Both authors are clear in their assessment: India’s present, as well as its future, appears bleak. It is only Roy, however, who provides us with cogent historical analysis of how we got here. As we have come to expect from her earlier work, the culprit she identifies is a toxic blend of nationalism and capitalism. But rather than focusing on abstract theoretical attacks, she uses these essays to highlight the specific interests at play in the largest political moments of India’s recent past. She links Modi’s governments’ annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, and its attempts to create tiered citizenship in India, to a growing awareness of the perils of climate change. She writes that the annexation, which paves the way for corporate land grabs, ‘[H]as as much to do with the Indian government’s urgency to secure access to the rivers that run through the state of Jammu and Kashmir as it does with anything else’. The NRC and the CAA, she reminds us, ‘will create a system [...] in which some citizens have more rights than others... a preparation for a time when resources become scarce’.
Roy’s essay format grants her the luxury of analysing real political speeches and government policies. As a writer of fiction, Majumdar is not so well-placed. However, her fictitious context gives her a different kind of license. As if to compensate for a lack of hard data, the young author overfills her narrative, stuffing it with political metaphors and manufactured moments of symbolism. Her novel’s pace slows considerably every time we reach a chapter devoted to a background character’s stream of consciousness. In these short interludes, the main plot is sidelined in favour of a didactic episode reflecting on the role of the cow in Hindutva thought, or the impacts of modernisation on the psyche of working-class men. As interesting as some of Majumdar’s semi-ethnographic insights may be, her plot is looser for them.
Protest has many faces. It can take the form of a single chant, “Azadi!”, reverberating through a country of one billion. It can look like the hijab-clad students who are leading demonstrations at their respective universities, and, in the process, confounding the Hindu right and their expectations of submissive Muslim women. It can look, too, like a pair of writers sitting at their desks, trying to make sense of the chaos surrounding them.
It is difficult to gauge the impact that could be had by two texts about India’s political condition, written in English, and circulated during a global pandemic. It remains to be seen whether readers will take up Roy’s invitation to treat the pandemic ‘as a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. But the urgency that propels both books is enough to wake up most readers.
And if we step through the portal, what will “Azadi” look like? Majumdar imagines a world in which certain communities no longer have to live in the shadows. Her character Lovely attends the wedding of a former lover, Azad, and stands to the side thinking, ‘My love for Azad [...] is existing in some other world [...] There, our love story is being written’. Roy imagines a world where Kashmir is free, Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet are no more than a painful memory, and where minorities can exist in India without persecution. But she remains painfully aware that, in the end, efforts like hers and Majumdar’s may not be enough. If this is the case, then Azadi and A Burning will simply be, in Roy’s words: ‘intimations of an ending from one who lived through these times’.
ZEHRA MUNIR reads History at Wadham College. She can be found gazing out of windows in lecture halls, thinking about her next meal.
Art by Isabella Lill