Arundhati Roy

Book Review: Azadi - Freedom. Fascism. Fiction

ROY'S AZADI MAPS THE CONTOURS OF THE PRESENT TIMES

Written by Hunardeep Kaur

Artwork by Anna Abraham

Roy’s essays do not reflect bleakness. Instead, they emit hope while realistically portraying the arid realities. For her, hope lies in literature and in an alternative imagination.

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Azadi - Freedom. Fascism. Fiction can be read as an elegy for the loss of democracy in the face of the rise of authoritarianism but more importantly, it can be read as a clarion call to action through a reimagining of the world by means of literature and the art of protest.

As the pandemic rages on inexorably, almost irreversibly, and society grapples with multiple afflictions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of the times. The mainstream political language is coloured with spite and hatred, the voices of the poor and the marginalised are delegitimised and the voices of dissent are crushed. Society seems to be becoming an antithesis to the very idea of democracy. And yet, amid the mayhem, the voices chanting the Azadi slogan, the spirit of the women at Shaheen Bagh and the youthful vigour of the nationwide anti-CAA, NRC protests provide a counter language and an alternative imagination to the venomous hate that has seeped into the political language.

The question of freedom then becomes intricately linked with language and imagination. How does society define freedom? How does a nation define itself? How do we vocalise our assertions against the curtailment of freedoms? What role does literature have to play when the idea of freedom itself is being jeopardised? How do we make sense of the times we live in? These and many other such questions become the premise of Arundhati Roy’s latest collection of essays titled Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. Written in the span of two years, from 2018 to 2020, the essays take the reader along to bear witness to the slow descent of the Indian nation into the dark abyss of authoritarianism. Her essays are reflections on the various afflictions imposed on the society by the incumbent government- demonetisation, the falsification of history, dismantling of the educational institutions, abrogation of Article 370 and its aftermath, the CAA-NRC bill, riots in the north-east Delhi and the lockdown imposed without prior preparations, to name a few. 

Her essay, “The Silence is the Loudest Sound”, gives a detailed account of the aftermath of abrogation of Article 370 and condemns the internet blockade as well as the arbitrary curfew imposition in Kashmir. The vulgar celebration after the abrogation of Article 370 by the so-called ‘Indian nationalists’ has been condemned by Roy when she writes, “Amid these vulgar celebrations the loudest sound, however, is the deathly silence from Kashmir’s patrolled, barricaded streets and its caged, humiliated people, stitched down by razor wire, spied on by drones, living under a complete communication blackout”. In yet another essay in the collection titled “Intimations of an Ending” Roy writes, “The horror that Kashmiris have endured over the last few months comes on top of the trauma of a thirty-year armed conflict that has already taken 70,000 lives and covered their valley with graves. They have held out while everything was thrown at them — war, money, torture, mass disappearance, an army of more than half a million soldiers, and a smear campaign in which an entire population has been portrayed as murderous fundamentalists”. The authoritative militarisation of Kashmir, the arbitrary imposition of curfew and internet blockade, the propagation and imposition of the illusion of normalcy when ordinary lives have been brought to a standstill is outrageous to say the least. It reflects the undemocratic, militaristic attitude of the incumbent government leading a conquest of land with least regard for the lives and rights of people inhabiting the ‘territory’. Roy’s essays condemn the anti-people policies and attitudes of the government, warning about the imminent ending if the streets continue to stay silent against the oppression.  

In the same essay, Roy traces the historical roots of the conflict in Assam in the context of the NRC exercise being carried out in the state. The plight of the people who have had to prove their citizenship is powerfully voiced. She writes, “Imagine a whole population of millions of people like this, debilitated, rigid with fear and worries about their documentation. It’s not a military occupation, but it’s an occupation of documentation”. The question of citizenship intertwined with the question of identity becomes central to Kashmir and Assam. The language of the ruling class becomes a violent language of exclusion that wishes to take away the sense of identity and belonging from an entire section of the population. According to Roy, “The real purpose of an all-India NRC, coupled with CAA, is to threaten, destabilise, and stigmatize the Indian Muslim community, particularly the poorest among them. It is meant to create tiered citizenship, in which one set of citizens has no rights and lives at the mercy, or on the goodwill, of another…”.

Yet another significant essay in the collection, titled “There is Fire in the Ducts, the System is Failing”, written after the pogrom in northeast Delhi powerfully denounces the fascist tendencies of the incumbent government and their attempts to invert the victim-perpetrator binaries. Roy reflects on the failing of the system as she writes, “We watch the state withdraw its protection, we watch the police get communalized, we watch the judiciary gradually abdicate its duty, we watch the media that is meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted do the very opposite”.   

The perils of an arbitrary, undemocratic rule that almost amounts to fascism as well as the perils of thoughtless production and consumption are becoming manifest in the maladies that continue to plague the society. As Roy says, “A democracy that is not governed by a constitution and one whose institutions have all been hollowed out can only ever become a majoritarian state. You can agree or disagree with a constitution as a whole or in part-but to act as though it does not exist as this government is doing is to completely dismantle democracy. Perhaps this is the aim. This is our version of Covid-19. We are sick”.

This assertion is followed by the idea of the pandemic being the portal between the world we live in and the world that we could create and reimagine. In her essay, “The Pandemic Is a Portal”, she writes about how the raging virus has exposed the fault lines of the entire system and has made a mockery of the very idea of progress and development. She asserts that the roots of the malady go far deeper than what we see today and that nothing could be worse than a return to normality. The pandemic then becomes a means to assess how far we have reached and at what costs, how far we have come from the ideals of humanity and where do we head next- into the abyss of capitalist authoritarianism or away from it. 

As Pandemic becomes the portal, a 'gateway between one world and the next’, it becomes important to reimagine the present world anew. It is here that the role of language and literature becomes significant. In her essays, “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?”, “The Language of Literature” and “The Graveyard Talks Back”, Roy beautifully captures the importance of language, imagination and fiction in current times. Her essays ask difficult questions about what it means to be a writer and what is the politically correct, culturally apposite language in which a writer should write. Roy asks, “So, as we lurch into the future, in the blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook likes, fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race towards extinction- what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides?”

In times when fake news has become all the more rampant and speaking truth dangerous, these questions become all the more urgent and important. With repeated attacks on the freedom of expression and repeated attempts to muzzle the voices of those who speak up against the fascist, anti-people policies and ideologies, to speak and write has become a precarious activity. Notwithstanding its precariousness or rather because of it, the act of speaking, writing and reimagining has become all the more significant and urgent. This becomes the focus of Roy’s essays.

Roy’s essays do not reflect bleakness. Instead, they emit hope while realistically portraying the arid realities. For her, hope lies in literature and in an alternative imagination. She beautifully writes, “Hope lies in texts that can accommodate and keep alive our intricacy, our complexity and our density against the onslaught of terrifying, sweeping simplifications of fascism”. She beautifully encapsulates the idea of literature in the lines, “It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds”. 

 

The collection of essays masterfully links the idea of freedom with literature or fiction in the context of the rise of fascism. The placement of the essays in the book in the chronological order in which they were written, makes the collection even more powerful as the reader is made aware of the multitudinous changes that have adversely affected the democratic fabric of the country over time. The sense of time introduced into the essays makes them even more urgent and compelling. The readers are left with thoughts that continue to haunt them, forcing them to question and interrogate the ideas that were left unquestioned before. The chant of Azadi seems to ring throughout the book, resonating with the title of the book. The image of the falcon on the cover page of the book echoes the spirit of Shaheen Bagh - the assertion of freedom and the majesty of fearlessness. 

Azadi - Freedom. Fascism. Fiction can be read as an elegy for the loss of democracy in the face of the rise of authoritarianism but more importantly, it can be read as a clarion call to action through a reimagining of the world by means of literature and the art of protest. The book documents recent events that have jeopardised the inclusive idea of India as well as the very spirit of the Constitution. At the same time, the collection of essays presents us with choices and with hope, with an insight into the present and a vision for the future. Just like all literature, it provides shelter, inviting the readers to come to imagine an alternative world and take into account the present realities.  The book, while asserting the idea of the pandemic as a portal, itself becomes a portal of sorts that breaks the illusion of normalcy and compels the reader to face the truths about what India as a nation is heading towards. What better way to succinctly sum up and convey the message of the book than to quote the epigraph of the book taken from Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days, “May tomorrow be more than just another name for today”. Amen.