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August 19, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Anil Nair

The idea of apocalypse

I went because writers are drawn to stories the way vultures are drawn to kills. My motive was not compassion. It was sheer greed. I was right. I found a story there. And what a story it is.'' --- Arundhati Roy.

Exactly what Nabokov -- whose books, Roy reveals, she temporarily set aside to journey to the Narmada valley -- would endorse. Except that the story she so gushes about is one that should do a newspaperman or activist proud, not a writer of such boundless `ecat and terrifying ubiquity as the author of The God of Small Things.

Post-Booker prize, Roy has become a purveyor of pamphlets: two of them, the End of Imagination on Pokhran II, and very recently, the Greater Common Good, which excoriates the evil of big dams, have created ample controversy. Even a perfunctory perusal of these tracts confirms that it is the celebrity status of the writer that has contributed more to the controversy than the logic or arguments which are sub-standard and sentimental.

However, if anything redeems these tracts it is the occasional highly idiosyncratic, almost fictive, ideas with which she punctuates the narrative. Like the pustules that break out during pox -- the negative metaphor is to convey the potency -- they partially compensate for the longwinded loquaciousness of the remainder.

These inchoate ideas ought to be the germs of new stories and, not as Roy seems to want it, the building blocks of a new political manifesto. It is doubtful if she, in the neophyte's fervour for the Green cause, is aware that in arguing so emotionally and at such length against the pollution of our air, water and soil she is, ironically, polluting her own sources of storytelling.

A writer of fiction, to be sure, can and must react to public and political happenings which he/she feels deeply about. But such polemics, however sharp or angular, should never deteriorate to moralising. That way lies tract and sermon. When a thesis or framework -- any kind of prescriptiveness or tendentiousness -- leeches into a storyteller's sensibility, imagination flies out of the door, and with it the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and demands.

A novelist should feel responsibility only to the comely shape of a sentence and to the unfettered imagination, which sometimes leads to wild places via some wild routes. No writer of stories can aspire to be a champion of morals because s/he is simply not trustworthy or steady enough for that.

The point here is not the emperor's new clothes. As a writer Roy is fully clad and fully present: she doesn't pander to mass delusion, but possesses instead, in her fiction at least, undeniable talent which ensures her (despite just one book in the kitty) a respectable, if modest, place in the world of letters.

But we are so inflationary in our estimates. That is to say she is still far from being the 'great' writer that the dustjacket of her book and the innumerable rave reviews of it proclaim. She might never come anywhere close to what she is capable of if all she is going to hear is such unqualified praise.

To all this we can imagine Roy's retort as she waits at Domkhedi for the Narmada to rise and submerge this and scores of neighbouring villages: What is literature compared to the death by drowning, or hunger, of hundreds of children?

Till very recently the answer to this -- actually implicit in the query -- was predictable. No longer. Roy's novel itself is, as both the theme and title emphasise, a deliberate debunking of the big questions: Revolution, Change, Politics, Religion et al. As she writes in Greater Common Good, ''who knows, perhaps that's what the 21st century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big countries, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there's a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Could it be? Could it possibly be? It sounds finger-licking good to me.''

The problem is that the sanctification of everything small can turn into the pursuit of something big. This is conspicuous in Roy's polemic. Even as she argues for the cause of small things and small battles, they all, like diverse streams emptying into the sea, lead to a big idea. An idea not simply big but bigger than big: the idea of apocalypse.

''We must get used to the idea of extinction,'' she constantly exhorts. But what is this idea of extinction? Is it something that can be ratiocinated, like learning arithmetic or memorising the Periodic Table? It is like eight-year-old Rahel in The God of Small Things asking her mother Ammu when they come out of the police station, ''what does veshya mean?'' Even if Ammu had condescended to explain the child would have only comprehended it abstractly.

When it comes to patronising, to taking on the role of 'delivering' people from their real and imagined troubles, Roy and her ilk can be worse than those powerful elites she so reviles. Indeed the idea of extinction is interesting and can become a very valuable tool to wean people -- whether cityslickers or tribals -- away from ''the heart of whiteness,'' or unlimited progress.

But it's an idea that has to be understood individually, privately. It can't be taught or proclaimed from the pulpit, it has to be intuited. If at all it can be taught only experience can do that, but then such experience can be incapacitating, whereby ''getting used to the idea of extinction'' becomes an oxymoron.

This is where fiction and Roy's real vocation as a storyteller comes in handy. It is only in the stories that things can really be small yet significant. Small things that can rebound from the page and insinuate themselves permanently in the reader's imagination. Making the ineffable graspable.

Roy should go into hibernation. She should probably take up a small, cosy house on a remote coast and endlessly watch the sea, the waves, the changing patterns of sky and shadows till they are one with the rhythm of her breathing.

Or she should, like a mendicant and backpacker combined in one, become incognito and roam the outbacks, the far places. Perhaps she should learn to drive or, in case she already does, learn to kayak. All these small things turns one inwards, they are small quests in self-knowledge. They refresh the imagination, make the spring of storytelling well up.

For, in the final analysis, where the whys and whats and hows of life are concerned it is the stories alone that can even begin to answer them. As the writer James Carroll says, ''the very act of arranging memory and invention in the order of narrative is holy. It is our stories alone that can save us. The stories are enough.''

Arundhati Roy would know that better than anyone else.

Anil Nair

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