Broken Republic, By Arundhati Roy<br />The Beautiful and the Damned, By Siddhartha Deb

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The Independent Culture

In the years since Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things, she has become the anti-globalisation mascot in India and abroad with her strident opposition of the Indian state, free market economics, the war on terror, and much else. Her prose is vivid and sometimes poetic: witty wordplay interspersed with biting satire that riles India's middle class, the wealthy, and the elite.

But as her appeal rises abroad, she has become increasingly irrelevant at home. Sincere anti-poverty activists find her shrillness exasperating, with some arguing privately that her writing about a cause is a distraction, shifting the focus to herself, and delaying, if not damaging, the prospect of a solution. Roy doesn't like compromised half-measures, but others have different views of what constitutes the best solution. Her fans abroad, who have little personally at stake in India, applaud her rapturously, so making her more marginalised among nationalistically-minded Indians.

The exasperation comes from the fact that what Roy describes is often an accurate description of a slice of the reality, but her prose has little room for layered nuances and granularity. It makes her critique almost comic-book like, with sharply edged "good" and "evil" forces. In her latest collection of essays, Broken Republic, Roy rightly points out the abysmal treatment of India's indigenous people who live in the tribal belt, which is rich with minerals and abounds with Maoists. But she is wrong in seeing those amoral nihilists – the Maoists – as harbingers of a better future. That's a dehumanised worldview.

True, the millions of tribals (as indigenous people are called in India) have been neglected and exploited. And India now wants mining companies to invest there. If the past is any indication, it will cause a massive upheaval, disrupting traditional lifestyles, displacing communities, with the abuse of many human rights.

Roy is a brilliantly articulate cheerleader for the Maoists, who claim to be fighting for the tribals. In perhaps a quarter of India's districts, the state doesn't have much control. Paramilitary forces have been deployed, and Maoists have launched spectacular strikes, killing many in the security forces.. In retaliation, politicians and landlords have created a vigilante militia to take on the Maoists.

That's a grim scenario, and can end in tragedy, but Roy absolves the Maoists. She sees their violence entirely as a reaction when all other means have failed, even portraying them as green egalitarian warriors fighting to preserve a pristine life. In that Manichean world, the tribals and Maoists are one; and anyone against Maoists is against the tribals, therefore for the state, and hence complicit in the abuses.

In her first essay, the Indian home minister P Chidambaram must be colluding with mining companies, since before he became a minister, when he was a corporate lawyer some of the companies were his clients. When mining shares rise after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the Maoist threat India's gravest security challenge, she sees causality in that coincidence. In her second essay, she travels through Maoist territory, and makes the Maoists almost as likeable as characters in the film Avatar. She notes, but doesn't condemn, their use of child soldiers, nor their summary show trials against "informants", some of whom are put to death.

But there is hope. In her third essay we see an introspective Roy, slightly disillusioned by Maoist rhetoric. She no longer ridicules Gandhi; now she cites him approvingly. Perhaps her education has begun. Roy sees India's upwardly-mobile aspirants as morally compromised. But it isn't that simple, as novelist and journalist Siddhartha Deb shows in his inspiring non-fiction portrait of India in transition, The Beautiful and the Damned.

Deb introduces us to labourers moving across states looking for work at any factory; farmers caught in the overwhelming rural crisis; software engineers retreating into enclaves of Americana to avoid the chaos of urban India; the dismal lives of waitresses and call-centre operators keeping India "shining"; and the thousands who invest in a degree of dubious value. They enact a tragicomic pantomime, in which students get qualifications that few blue chip companies seem to want, and the graduates learn to play-act as if they have corporate jobs. (Many in fact work for other businesses of the man who runs the business school.) Deb's deceptively simple style is warm and engaging; the points he makes are profound, respecting the reader's intelligence.

In his most engrossing chapter, Deb offers a glimpse of India's farm crisis by seeing the story of red sorghum from the perspective of the farmers who feel cheated, the wealthy middleman whose property gets destroyed but who is himself a victim of manipulation, and a bureaucrat who understands the forces but can only offer temporary reprieve. Deb also notes the irony of the sons of wealthy farmers living in America, some of them as engineers. They won't become farmers, nor do poor farmers wish to remain farmers.

Deb writes about the Maoists, too, letting a bureaucrat (the type who would get no sympathy from Roy) tell him: "If you see the Maoists who are killed by the police, none of them have more than forty kilos of flesh on them. They're skin and bones. And these are the enemies of the state?"

While Deb writes as a detached observer, his apparent distance is misleading, as the impressions he writes are sharp. When he meets a district collector, he describes the rituals he undergoes as layers of bureaucracy bring him closer to the top official, and the hierarchy that places distance between the official and the subjects he rules. Describing his home office, he writes: "It was a large room, with rows of empty chairs facing the collector's desk, as if he was in the habit of giving lectures or performances from the desk." Indian bureaucracy at the district level has rarely been described so accurately.

Finally, Deb introduces us to Esther, a waitress at an upscale restaurant, dreaming of a better future. Not only does she want to blend with the middle class, but also with the larger Indian identity. She is from the north-east, is aware of her distinct looks, and poignantly says: "Sometimes, I wish I looked different, I wish I had bigger eyes. That I looked more Indian."

There are many Indias, and they meet in unlikely places. At one point, Deb needs a rest room and, unable to find one, relieves himself on the wall of a factory. A man stops besides him. Deb is annoyed, but that man has seen him come out of the factory, thinks of him as important, and tells him he wants a job. When Deb tells him he is a writer, the man asks him: "Sir, have you read Amartya Sen?" He continues: "You remember what he said about famine, that it doesn't necessarily happen because there isn't enough food but because the powerful take food away from the powerless? It's still like that in India. Are you going to write that in your book?'

In his own way, Deb does – and so well, because he listens. In her own way, Roy dominates her narrative, because she prefers to talk.

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