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Don’t shoot the messenger!

Much of Ramchandra Guha’s critique of Arundhati Roy might be uncalled for; but at the same time, her polemical essay cannot be considered exempt from criticism just because it is about matters close to her heart
At the core of Ramachandra Guha’s critique of Arundhati Roy’s polemical essays against big dams, nuclear tests and globalisation is his questioning of her right to stray into unfamiliar territory. “I am told that [she] has written a very good novel,” he stated condescendingly in his first salvo, “The Arun Shourie of the Left” (The Hindu Sunday Magazine, Nov 26). “Perhaps she should begin another. Her retreat from activism would be… good for literature, and good for the Indian environmental movement…We would all be better off were she to revert to fiction.”

I think Guha doth protest too much and gives himself away by suggesting that Roy stick to fiction. By personalising his critique, he is guilty of some of the very things he accuses Roy of perpetrating. It is surely everyone’s right to campaign on issues which he or she holds dear to his or her heart. You can criticise the message, not the messenger.

The notion that creative writers are good only in exercising their imaginations and not in dealing with the “real world” is the attitude of philistines, which Guha would certainly distance himself from. He is far too seasoned and sensitive a writer himself, and has referred glowingly to the considered commitment of novelists like George Orwell and our very own Mahasweta Devi, not to mention “the finest novelist-activist of modern India” - the late Shivram Karanth - whom he knew personally. One also thinks of Gunter Grass campaigning for the Social Democrats in Germany, though his intervention often came under attack for its ineffectiveness.

By the very same token, however, I would uphold Guha’s right to criticise either the tone or content or both, of polemicists, provided the attack is not personalised or caricatured. Once a person writes a novel, she must suffer the fate of receiving bad or indifferent reviews (even though many of the world’s most famous novelists claim they do not read them).

Once a person resorts to the polemical essay, she must be similarly subject to scrutiny on all grounds - whether her facts are correct or her interpretation of these is fair. Merely because a writer’s heart is in the right place does not exempt her from such criticism, as some of those who have written letters in Roy’s defence in
The Hindu (Dec 17) appear to imply.

Contradictory though it may seem, therefore, I would defend
both Roy’s right to express herself through her essays as well as Guha’s right to censure them. This is the lifeblood of any truly democratic society; and both the world of literature and that of academics can only be strengthened, not weakened, by the cut and thrust of such debate.

The only caveat is that the debate ought to be informed, and no one should be maligned in the process. It is absolutely true that the polemical essay occupies a different world from that of well-researched and well-argued academic writing. But that does not prevent either practitioner from switching to the other form wherever the need is perceived to arise.

Guha would know better than most the anecdote regarding a fellow Bangalorean, the late sociologist Dr M.N. Srinivas. He had studied the life and times of a village in Karnataka in great detail and obtained a fellowship at Berkeley in California to finish writing a book about it. As fate would have it, the campus was caught up in the anti-Vietnam protests in the ‘sixties and the faculty room in which he had stored his original research papers was burnt down by agitating students.

He was understandably distraught but decided to write what he could recall, in the absence of detailed data. The result was a book titled
Remembered Village, which many academics admit, was one of his finest works! This only goes to show that resorting to imagination can often do no harm to scholarship.

Roy has done the anti-Narmada dam movement a tremendous service by bringing it to the attention of many more people who would otherwise have remained ignorant about the controversy. At a time when the movement was at a low ebb, she reinvigorated it, at least as far as the literati is concerned.

Guha is by no means the first to question her “celebrity endorsement of social movements”. In the listserve run by the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, there was a discussion on how during the “Rally for the Valley” a couple of years ago, the media concentrated on Roy, ignoring the celebrated leader Medha Patkar.

The cameramen in particular followed Roy’s every movement, and seemed to forget the larger issues at stake. Some scandal-seeking journalists even conjured up a non-existent row between the two redoubtable ladies… After much debate, the consensus among journalists who participated in the discussion was that the fault lay with the media rather than Roy for covering a celebrity in the manner it did. She certainly didn’t seek publicity, as some imply. In the welter of responses to Guha’s article, one letter-writer even accuses her of “carrying along a battery of photographers”, which is quite unfair.

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