Home Read Book Review: Azadi – A Thickly Political Reading

Book Review: Azadi – A Thickly Political Reading

by Arjun S Mohan
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Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction by Arundhati Roy | 245 pages | ₹280 (Kindle edition)

The words of Hannah Arendt, “Citizenship is the right to have rights”, are cited twice by Arundhati Roy in her latest book.

The quote represents the soul of her work–titled ‘Azadi’, which translates to ‘real-unfettered freedom’ and is published as a collection of political essays. Speeches and articles by the author at several instances have been put together to speak about ‘Freedom, Fascism, and Fiction’.

The nine chapters of the book discuss various issues in the contemporary Indian context from a humanitarian viewpoint. While Roy does denounce the currently celebrated version of Hindutva-nationalism, her love towards the nation and its people is evident from the very first chapter.

In her response to a British historian’s provocative remarks, Roy recognises the use of English as a link-language, a merely ‘practical solution’ to the problems created by imperialism in the first place. The language politics of India is majorly pulled around the invasion of the Devanagari script and the gradual decline of Urdu, leading her to strongly condemn Hindi imposition and its politics in her book. Roy praises a native slogan in Kerala, ‘Swathandryam, Janadhipathyam, Socialism, Zindabad’ which translates as “Freedom, Democracy, Socialism, long live!” for accommodating four words from four different languages.

For common Indian readers, Roy provides solid and substantial reasons for her sympathetic approach towards Kashmiri Muslims. At the same time, she does not forget to bring up the hardships of Kashmiri Pandits. Her essay also focuses on how the extraordinary situation of military surveillance and periodic political problems had made life in Kashmir worse. Roy’s throbbing descriptions on Kashmir makes sure that readers think twice before calling people ‘born into war’ as ‘terrorists’.

While writing about the abrogation of Article 370, the author criticises the ‘cheap deceitful way’ adopted by the Indian State by locking down Kashmir over a night. Imagining two hundred days without proper internet would be a disastrous nightmare, she adds. A major concern raised was the betrayal of India’s allies by the government itself.

As a state prone to separatist movements, political parties affiliated with India were the only narrow bridge between the reluctant Kashmiris and the Indian union. The leaders of those ‘allies’ were placed under house arrest and governor’s rule was imposed. This sealed off the very last hope of a peaceful Kashmir in the near future.

The Booker-Prize-winner proposes fiction as a defence mechanism in the time of fake news. The author thinks that the allied regime of ‘neoliberal evangelists’ and Hindutva forces manipulates people using their own media outlets and a ‘divert and rule’ policy, along with the older idea of ‘divide and rule’.

In a situation of immense scrutiny over dissenting voices, Roy believes that ‘fiction can be true because truth cannot be told’. Characters from her earlier work ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ are brought into present fictional case studies which are obviously intended to be truthful portrayals. This idea goes in tandem with what the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak had mentioned in a TED talk – fiction erases all boundaries of imagination (Shafak, 2010).

Roy’s reaffirmation of fiction as a tool, however, has some clear flaws. In the introduction of the book she states that writing a novel is ‘freedom with responsibility’. A major tool of today’s Hindutva forces is the highly imaginative fake news stories propagated in the cyberspace. BJP’s lead in electoral prospects seemed proportional to a surge in fake news propaganda in social media (Pai, 2020).

Also, the fundamentals of the Hindu right-wing are rooted in early religious myths that appear imaginative from a rational dimension. So, encouraging fiction as a tool against fascism might be counterproductive on the day when certain right-wing intellectuals write attractive prose with majoritarian ideologies.

Azadi seems to be successful in narrating the ‘what-factors’ and ‘how-factors’ of fascism. The timely evolved authoritarian nature of the regime in a constitutionally democratic nation and the instrumentalisation behind the process is explained well. From ‘falsification of history’ to ‘fake-news-factories’, Roy manages to provide a bird’s eye view of the unethical political-play of Hindutva forces in manipulating mobs.

However, the ‘why-factor’, the reason behind the consistent growth of Hindutva-nationalism, is not precisely discussed. Addressing the common Indian mob as a section of manipulated citizens, the author could have dug deep into the psychoanalysis of a secular society transforming into polarised right-wing sympathisers.

The reaction towards global political Islam and the comparison with Semitic religious structures has induced a sense of oneness among the Hindu community and influenced public consensus–this aspect was never brought into discussion by the author. As sociologist Sanjay Srivastava notes, ‘the new ordinariness is the basis of majoritarianism’ (Srivastava, 2020). For reimagining the world as Arundhati Roy wishes to be, one must change this ordinariness.

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