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Arundhati’s ‘Azadi’ Is Minute Commentary on World Events

Arundhati’s ‘Azadi’ Is Minute Commentary on World Events

Arundhati Roy

‘Azadi’ contains several essays in which Roy gives us a powerful but partial look at the situation in Kashmir.


Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. is a collection of essays written by Arundhati Roy through the eyes of a novelist. These essays were written between 2018 and 2020, two years that in India have felt like two hundred.

Several of the pieces in Azadi are reprints of speeches given by Roy, and she speaks with open contempt for the regime that was possible only for Germans who had managed to exile themselves from the Third Reich.

The book also includes a speech that was scheduled to be delivered in February 2020 at Cambridge University.

Few of the essays reflect on the role of fiction as alternative imaginations in these disturbing times of renascent despotism across the world.

Some essays analyze the rise of Hindu nationalism. Few essays include meditations on language.

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Azadi contains several essays in which Roy gives us a powerful but partial look at the situation in Kashmir.

The work collected in Azadi provides a clear picture of how an authoritarian government can yoke hatred and fear into a weapon to consolidate their power. Something that isn’t just happening in India. We see it happening in Russia, Hungary, and Poland where these tactics successfully justify their leaders in assuming more power.

On the onset as an essay-writer, Roy had some concerns: Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss as childhood? About the salinization of soil? About drainage? Dams? Crops? About structural adjustment and privatization? About the per cost unit of electricity? About things that affect ordinary people’s lives? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature?

But, the writing in these essays has her signature style where political essays are written like stories and have the literary taste of her fiction.

Arundhati Roy challenges us to reflect on the meaning of freedom in a world of growing intolerance. Roy provides comprehensive background context, reportage, studies, and lays down the groundwork brick by brick to lead us to the situation we face today.

Some of the essays are about how fiction joins the world and discuss the importance as well as the abuses of language in Indian politics; the attacks on Muslims and the way the government has not only disenfranchised them but encouraged physical attacks against them; the situation in Kashmir and how the government has tried to shut down any communication with the rest of the world; the caste and class systems; and, in the last essay The Pandemic Is a Portal (first published in The Financial Times in April 2020), the pandemic and how it is being handled by the Modi government. She also explains how these issues have influenced her fiction.

Azadi Book

The ruthless imposition of martial law in Kashmir – a running sore ever since Partition – deluged in the political ruse, throws the masses in the psychological horrors, disorders, depressions, distresses, dilemmas. The annexation of Kashmir and Jammu, the subsequent internet blackout and physical lockdown, the silencing of Kashmiris’ freedom and voices, radicalization – this blood-soaked tense area continues to sit on a knife’s edge.

For India’s hundred and more million Muslims, the choice is “Pakistan or the graveyard.” Roy compares the BJP’s Citizen Amendment Act and its National Register of Citizens to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws which decreed who was, and who could not be, German.

“While many countries are dealing with a refugee crisis,” Roy remarks, “the Indian Government is turning citizens into refugees.”

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In the essay Intimations of An Ending, she addresses the statelessness of Assam people by the controversial NRC. To grasp the beginning of the tale, she brings us to the chilling history behind Assam slavery perpetrated by the British for their coffers.

Brit caused the deaths of millions of lives and refugees streaming across the border intended to weed out and the ironic unintended result of requiring legacy papers. The Citizenship Amendment Act is still in place. And recently, Amnesty International was just booted out of India brusquely.

In The Language of Literature and In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities, there is an in-depth discussion of the caste system, its invisible and visible effect on all aspects of living in India, and its concomitant violence on the ‘lower’ castes India classifies ‘other backward castes’ or OBC  like Dalits. This violence includes erasure of their identity and lynching which sadly continue to this day.

With essays varying from the political situation to the onset of a pandemic and the national response – the writing is crisp, to the point, and often makes you think about the mirage of normalcy that most of us live in.

Many of the issues brought up in Azadi continue unabated.

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There is some inevitable overlap between the essays and some may argue that the earlier ones are outdated. Roy repeatedly refers back to her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and one finds a new understanding of her authorial choices, the fragmented book structure, the layers of language, and the meaning embedded in there. She can be a scathing, wryly sorrowful, and incandescent rage in both her fiction and non-fiction writing and her passion shines through.

Railing against fascism, patriarchy, capitalism, government-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, toxic nationalism, one can’t but admire her persistence and courage, her audacity despite the clear danger to her and other writers like her.

Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy

Some of her targets are familiar to western readers: free-market capitalism, the exploitation of natural resources, and the degradation of the environment, the persecution of minorities, male violence directed at women. These are tunes we can all recognize, and, impassioned though she is, it is fair to say that she has nothing new or original to offer on these questions.

It’s not often we can read about history as it’s taking place, but that’s what Roy has done in Azadi; providing us up to the minute commentary on world events. More specifically she’s writing about the current authoritarian regime.

If we are going to have a chronicler of the apocalypse, we could not have a better one. While many of us dreamt that ‘Another world is possible’, some other folks were dreaming that, too. And it is their dream – our nightmare – that is perilously close to being realized.

And when it comes to hope and optimism, Roy’s words are divinatory: What we need are people who are prepared to be unpopular. Who are prepared to put themselves in danger. Who are prepared to tell the truth. Brave journalists can do that, and they have. Brave lawyers can do that, and they have. And artists—beautiful, brilliant, brave writers, poets, musicians, painters, and filmmakers can do that. That beauty is on our side. All of it.

Lastly, if readers are approaching Roy’s works particularly for Kashmir or problems of minorities in India, her essays shouldn’t satisfy the curiosity.

For Kashmir, read Kashmiri writers and journalists. To know what is happening with Dalits, read Dalit literature. To understand the predicament of Indian Muslims, you must dig deep to find honest voices. It is all out there.

Arundhati, due to her fame and huge marketing, is easily available everywhere. To find diverse literature of dissent, one must make some effort and learn from those who have lived in suffering all their life.


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