Arundhati Roy talks about the issues highlighted in her latest book of essays

Arundhati Roy's “Listening to Grasshoppers” treads through dark episodes in our recent past; it engages, prods, questions and compels readers to see the stories from the other end of the spectrum. The recently published collection of essays, written at different points in time, treks through the Gujarat pogrom, the Parliament attack, last year's siege of Mumbai, the ills of a corporatised media, the judiciary, dwells on the visit of former United States President George W. Bush to India as well as the killing of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Many pieces in the book, published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, as Roy writes in her introduction, “were written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something.” She asserted it last week at the Jamia Millia Islamia, where Roy read out from “Listening to Grasshoppers” and engaged in a dialogue with faculty member Shohini Ghosh.

On what led Roy to her political writings, she said, “I don't know, often a kind of anger. I know I am being lied to by the corporate press.” She wrote, she added, “When it gets easier to write than not to write.”

Roy spoke about the subjects in the book and beyond — Kashmir, Narmada, dams, their aftermath, Maoists and violence as a mode of protest. The talk hinged on the thread running through the book, “What have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens when democracy has been used up?”

Hope vs reason

The book's title is drawn from a piece of Armenian folklore about grasshoppers unusually descending on the fields as if pre-empting the genocide of more than a million Armenians in Turkey in 1915. On invoking such a dark premonition, Roy said, “My book is dedicated to those who have learned to divorce hope from reason.”

She cited chapters from history where the fight has always been against a more powerful one — in South Africa, slavery in the United States, colonialism in India. Picking out an episode from her novel, “The God of Small Things,” where Chacko tells the story of an optimist who rummages through a heap of horse dung hoping to find a pony, Roy said, “There must be a pony somewhere,” as an answer to all the battles ahead.

“All of us who engage with very serious problems that face our society are optimistic. Whether we win or not, this is the side we want to be on….The legacy of political resistance is a complicated one,” she said. The book, Roy said, is about the “systemic problems with our democracy.”

Though it was her political writings that invited discussion, the writer whose ambition is to grow “into an irresponsible, giggly old lady” also lingered on her identity as a fiction writer. “I pay a lot of attention to how a story is told. You can move across genres in order to tell a story how it needs to be told. To me fiction is the simplest way of telling a complicated thing,” she said.

She quoted Lennon as she looked back at her pile of non-fiction in the past 10 years. “It happened while I was busy making other plans.”

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