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In which Lord Ram gave it those ones

Photo illustrations by Mishta Roy

Ram Guha’s attack on Arundhati Roy lacks analytical precision and indulges in the most blatant form of character assassination. Is this anger at being displaced by a celebrity/ activist, wonders S Ravi Rajan

New Delhi, December 21

A reputed journalist once wrote to me and asked a simple question for a column he was about to write. Why is it, he asked, that Indian environmentalists are so routinely at each other’s throats? At that time I did not quite know how to respond. Sure enough, his observation is valid ­ and applies not only to environmentalists, but to just about every Indian professional, including journalists and the academics that I have encountered. Yet I have found it difficult to pin the reasons down and afford an explanation. Until now.

On November 26, Ramachandra Guha, a historian and social commentator, wrote a piece in the reputed newspaper,
The Hindu, in which he attacked the novelist and activist, Arundhati Roy, for her writings and utterances on the Narmada dam controversy. He ended the article with a statement that conveys the vitriolic essence of his polemic: “I am told that Arundhati Roy has written a very good novel. Perhaps she should begin another. Her retreat from activism would ­ to use a term from economics ­ be a “Paretto optimum”: good for literature, and good for the Indian environmental movement.”

Guha’s column, needless to say, has drawn considerable attention. On December 17, for example,
The Hindu published no less than thirty letters in response. Twenty-two of these sang Guha’s praises, while eight expressed some reservations. Clearly, if this were a mob trial, Guha would win, and Arundhati Roy, lynched (as some might argue she already has been). Curiously though, 20 of the 22 pro-Guha letters were written by men, many with Ph.D.s and academic reputations. Of the 8 contra letters, five were by women and three by men.

I often discover my students find the work of the former laboured and that of the latter exhilarating and liberating. This is not
to deride either genre or claim that either lacks validity ­ but
just to point out
that different styles
of writing appeal
to different
audiences and serve different purposes

Luckily, we do not live in an era of show trials and mob justice and there are many among us who like to partake of civilised discourse and consider controversial issues with care. Let us therefore systematically examine Guha’s argument. In essence, he makes five inter-related points. Roy, he argues, is a new kid on the block and “as a work of analysis, it (her piece on the Sardar Sarovar dam) was unoriginal.”

Secondly, he declares, “Her vanity was unreal.” Next, he describes her writing style as
“self-indulgent,” “hyperbolic,” “irresponsible;” “stream of consciousness;” “romantic”; and characterised by “a conspicuous lack of proportion.” Fourthly, he describes her as an “anti-patriot,” akin to a “super-patriot” such as Arun Shourie. Both, he argues, “think exclusively in black and white” and “arrogate to themselves the right to hand out moral certificates.”

Last, but by no means the least, Guha attempts to seal his argument by comparing Roy unfavourably with two “genuine” “novelist-activists,” ­ George Orwell and Shivram Karanth who, he claims, are “men (who) wrote with a proper sense of gravitas, in a prose that was lucid but understated, each word weighed before it was uttered.”

Let us examine each of these propositions carefully. Consider Guha’s first argument. Granted, Arundhati Roy is a new kid on the block in the Narmada dams controversy. But so what? I remember being constantly advised as a doctoral student many years ago, that if there is something worth saying, it is worth saying again. Needless to say, this advice is particularly relevant to the world of political writing. Since when has activism been only about stating “original” things, as opposed to acting on and mobilising around passionately held beliefs?

As far as I can tell, Roy has never claimed that any of her writings were original. Rather, all she has been doing is lending her voice - as a citizen (albeit with celebrity) - to a cause that she happens to believe in. What exactly is wrong with that? Her style might well turn off some and Guha’s response, as well as those of the many men who wrote in support of him, testify to this. Yet, at the same time, it manages to motivate several others. Indeed, many who had been neutral on the controversy, have become new converts to the cause of the environmentalists in the valley and their wider cohort who, for more than two decades have been painfully building the case against large dams. Is this not the way with most political writing?

Guha’s second statement is a bit more puzzling. “Her vanity is unreal,” he says. For someone who makes so much about the need for careful scholarship, what, exactly, is Guha basing this contention on? Does he tell us something about Roy the person that speaks to this issue? Or, does he have privileged access to Roy’s psychological state? If he does, he is certainly very discrete in suppressing such valuable and relevant data. Instead, Guha relies on one paraphrased extract from Roy’s writings to drive home his message.

Roy, he writes, “quoted, without irony, the judgement of her friend that after having written one successful novel she had seen it all, that a barren stretch of life lay before her until the final meeting with her Maker. She spoke of how she had disregarded the advice of those who she insisted that the tax man would come chasing her were she to write against the bomb.” If Guha is accurate in paraphrasing Roy and if, further, Roy is read strictly literally, the case can be made that Roy displays a hint of vanity.

Even if this were the case, how, exactly, is Roy’s supposed vanity, “unreal”? Surely, Guha provides no evidence to support such a serious claim, nor does he elucidate a method to investigate it further. In essence, he either wants us to believe him because he said so, or he himself is letting loose a hyperbolic polemic. If the former is true, then it will be truly sad, for a scholar who accuses a novelist of writing with “passion without care,” should surely base his statements on factual accuracy and a commitment to method, not to speak of basic fairness. If, instead, the latter is the case, then surely, he de-legitimises his own argument.

To move to Guha’s next point, it is obvious that he does not like Roy’s writing style. But then, style is a matter of both taste and training. What appeals to some does not appeal to others. Besides, different traditions of literary training emphasise different qualities. While it is certainly important for genres and intellectual traditions to converse with and thereby cross-pollinate each other, it is disingenuous to demand, as Guha does tacitly, that certain modes of linguistic expression and argumentation are illegitimate.

Having assigned both Guha’s and Roy’s writings to my undergraduate classes, I often discover my students find the work of the former laboured and that of the latter exhilarating and liberating. This is not to deride either genre or claim that either lacks validity ­ but just to point out that different styles of writing appeal to different audiences and serve different purposes. Indeed, as a teacher, I consider it my duty to help my students appreciate the internal logic of these very different methods and rhetorical styles.

A related issue concerns the language Roy employs. Guha accuses her of being hyperbolic. But is not the very point of deploying language for political purposes to do just that? Imagine what would have happened had Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar begun his famous speech by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen ­ In the wake of my boss’s assassination, I am here to socially construct your emotions so that your appendages in turn deploy themselves and dispatch yond Cassius and his conspiratory cohort to the other realm!” He would have probably got a few rotten eggs thrown at him ­ and surely Shakespeare would have sounded awfully like a trite post-modern academic! The point simply is that the very essence of the use of metaphor and the hyperbolic in language is to provoke, excite, mobilise.

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