Sunday, August 01, 2010

What Next?

Grasshoppers were not a part of our childhood world. Ants, bees, cockroaches, butterflies, all of them, even houseflies, were fun to observe. I remember how houseflies used to torment our dog during summer afternoons. After a while it used to look like a play, a game: hide and seek. But grasshoppers. They came and went once in a blue moon day. They were kind of solitary creatures. One would always spot a single grasshopper. There was an albino in our colony. He never used to come out of the house and socialize. We seldom saw him. So grasshoppers and that albino man had a kind of connection in my mind. Both unapproachable but assured harmless by the elders. This was one of the two reasons that made me pick up Ms. Roy’s ‘Listening to Grasshoppers; Field Notes on Democracy’ from the pavement booksellers paying around Rs 50. I thought I would learn more about the special significance of grasshoppers which we had shunned during our childhood. The second reason was that I enjoy any type of ‘after what’ discussions like after life, after capitalism, after man etc. So naturally I had to read the book which I thought promised to provide answers to the following questions which had been printed on the back page:

Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? What happens once democracy has been used up? Could it be that democracy, the protector of our individual freedom and nurturer of our avaricious dreams will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?

Bold questions. Timely, I would also say. If you have read Sir Vidia’s ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now’ or any of P Sainath’s articles or books you would know what a difficult and complex phenomenon India is. To understand India or write about her as one whole unit is not a straight forward job. You also realize when you read them that response to crisis situations and making use of opportunities for growth and development are not uniform throughout the land. Meaning of Democracy, how it is practiced and its impact is also not same across the country. So if anyone has written about the working of democracy in India and has also felt the inadequacy of the system then that person ought to receive the loudest cheers. ‘Field notes on Democracy’ in the title, though, in small print assured me that I would get a view from the bottom, hear voices from the grassroots on democracy. I was expecting to read about viewpoints of second line, third line party workers, disinterested voters, industry-wallahs who contribute money to party fund, disillusioned and also over-sated politicians. I thought her 'research' would provide some kind of insight in to working of democracy. Whether the definition of democracy by the experts bears any resemblance to its practice in reality etc. It was with these expectations that I began to read her collection of essays. And thought in addition I would also learn the art of listening to grasshoppers.
Ms.Roy's work cannot be considered seminal if one is interested in democracy and its functioning. The book basically lacks unity, a common thread. The best part of the book is Introduction. Because here she has articulated in her especial style the concerns of middle-class Indians and their misgivings about the system. The rest of the book is drawing room discussions on current affairs be it Gujrat riots, Kashmir, Afzal Guru or Elections, based on newspaper reports & newsroom discussions, given out as essays. I am not saying that these issues are not important. They are of course. They have defined and redefined democracy in the country. The result is there for all of us to see. But some parts of the process is missing for the public understanding. And I thought Ms. Roy would have dwelt on them. In 'A Million Mutinies', Sir Vidia tells the reader what is the most important thing to win elections in India from a Minister's point of view. And further tells us about various movements such as Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra,which has empowered people but at the same time changed the nature of society. You begin to understand the slow process through which the country has emerged from the 'darkness' of 1962. And how it has changed the political and social landscape.
Ms.Roy says that her book is ‘meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy- too much representation, too little democracy- needs some structural adjustment.’ I wish she had given more thought and elaborated further that interesting idea -too much representation and too little democracy- in her later part of essays. What does she mean by that? Why has she come to that conclusion? You will not get answer to these questions in the essays. Nor her opinion of coalition politics. She further says that her essays ‘only demonstrate, in some detail, that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver justice and stability we once dreamed it would.’ Well, I thought Democracy’s main objective was to ensure ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’. But I should not mix up my notions of democracy here.
The imaginative title suggests different perspectives, expectations from and viewpoints of democracy. Ms. Roy’s grasshoppers are mostly newspapers of all kind, web journals and magazines. 95% of the reference material listed in the Endnotes is national and regional newspapers, magazines, web journals. This dependence on newspaper reports, articles for her exposition on democracy is extraordinary in more than one sense since you have quietly accepted Ms.Roy’s mockery and cynicism as far as the fourth estate is concerned. That’s when you marvel at Ms. Roy’s expertise in picking up news stories that tell her version of ‘story’ and that which can someway discredit the State or at least raise suspicions.
In the Introduction she states that most of the essays were written in anger at different points of time as response to some incident or some external thing. I was wondering about that. You know, its like saying ‘Oh I said that in anger, don’t take it seriously’. Ms. Roy is a brilliant writer and a passionate, romantic person. But she is not genius enough to keep that anger, passion, longing for romance from clouding her thought processes and judgement. That you will realise even while you have just started reading the first essay. And her efforts to balance the approach, to provide objective analysis are half-hearted. That’s when the thought crossed my mind that Ms. Roy is like girls yearning for ‘damsels in distress waiting for the knight in shining armor’ situations. She wants to be an activist in the real sense. But her writing should not become an act of rabble-rousing. In one of her essays she says ‘ we need to look up and urgently discuss strategies of resistance, wage real battles and inflict real damage. We must remember that the Dandi March was not just fine political theatre. It was a strike at the economic underpinning of the British Empire.’ Shocking, unnecessary exhortation, isn’t it? Why perceive State as The Enemy and fight against it? I mean, tell me what was the end result of Charu Majumdars, Bhindranwales? That’s when I fondly thought of Pyaasa’s protagonist! Guru Dutt in The Saviour Posture mumbling 'yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai!'
I was quite sure of some legend/fable with reference to grasshoppers, just like the one with locusts. But that story of Grasshoppers and Armenian genocide does not figure till page 131, which is a pity because by then I was just skimming through her essays like a disinterested reviewer.
I enjoy reading Ms.Roy because of her style of writing. Never mind all there is in her books are just words. Never mind if she is writing about red corridor or nukes or dams or in this case democracy, all she has in her armory is words. But this collection of essays taught me to further lower my expectations when it comes to Ms.Roy's non-fiction.

Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor – James Russell Lowell

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