Some days ago, a friend of mine who stays abroad, sent me a gift. Since he is very special to me, I was extra-eager to open the box and find out what it was.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. My friend thought that the best way to make me happy was to send me this book written by Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer who by now has become an international phenomenon. My reaction was a mixed one- happy but not too thrilled since I already had one copy myself; and I have seen people 'overdoing it' literally, expressing wild excitement over a book they haven't really read. It only shows how the writer herself in the age of social media, is an epoch-making profile with millions of followers across the world, and the fandom seems to cover every possible range of readers: professors, paramedics, housewives, cultural activists, to name a few. I saw even a class-seven boy posting a Facebook status with an image of The Ministry. A big name among the writers today since the publication of God of Small Things, Roy stands out among the contemporary Continental writers as one who passionately advocates the rights of the common people. She is a fearless critic of things that happen in the name of democracy. Often prone to controversy; her writings on Kashmir, the 9/11 attack on the Twin Tower, the discursive politics behind the so-called development agendas have made her a household name throughout the world.
Personally, I do not seek justification of what she says in her prose-works or fiction, nor do I have the scholarly caliber to do so; but she gives a highly perspective, critical if you like, to decode and demystify the socio-political realities of South-Asia and Africa. Her writing is full of pointers even for a layperson to connect the missing dots and close gaps within his/her geopolitical consciousness.
In my case, I still remember my first visit to Dhaka from one small south-western town of the country; I was excited of course. I was sitting sandwiched between my parents in a bus at Aricha ghat, sweating like a dog in the stewing heat of summer. We were waiting for a ferry; it took us twelve hours to reach Dhaka that day. Two years ago, I rode a BRTC bus from Barisal and waited for hours at Mawa ghat just to board the ferry. The river is big; she challenges anyone who dares to cross her.
The challenge will be no more once our much-cherished Padma Bridge is constructed.
Weeks ago, I was travelling to Shimulia Ghat en route to Dhaka. At Bhanga of Faridpur, I paused only to be surprised--Bhanga is now a hub for a massive construction- work of an enormous intersection leading to the construction-site of the Padma Bridge. Trucks, dredgers, bulldozers are working there all day long, pulling and bending massive iron bars like some juggernauts. The atmosphere is incredible: people are hopeful, one can sense that money is flowing about in plenty here; Bhanga, once a drab and dusty place is now magically transformed, and apparently, this is what our future looks like (?)
As I reached Shimulia, I felt thirsty; I hurried down the bus and looked desperately for two-wheeler carts selling green coconuts. There were many of them.
“I have lived here my whole life and I owned lands; now I live in the colony set up by the organizers of the bridge," said Mainuddin, a sixty year old man who handed me the biggest coconut of his cart. I was busy swallowing the delicious juice, but I knew there was one sentence missing from his account of himself- "I am a complete destitute now."
The construction of the bridge has proved to be a 'gold rush' for many. Lands at the construction-site are being seized aggressively by wealthy people with the long political arm; properties are fenced with barbed wire, with august signs bearing names of owners; ordinary people these owners.
People like Mainuddin who was born here and owned properties are evicted out on the street; they are strangers in their own land; you can see them vending food to passengers, working at bridge-construction sites on a daily basis. They are a floating people at the very site where the country claims to be making millennial progress.
Any compensation for such Mainuddins, you ask? A slip of land with a tin-shed structure. That's all. It is amazing to think how so many people, in the name of progress are made homeless, stripped off lands and dumped in the trash-can of history! No statistical reference, no official record at all! Meanwhile, the landscapes of the ghat areas are changing: iron and concrete structures are filling up spaces that used to be the dwelling-places of people who lived, and then died by the riverside.
Arundhati Roy, here, of all people, would understand this situation best. Every time I crossed the site, I was reminded of her. She is one of the few original thinkers who were vocal against the idea of Narmada river valley, being used for billion-dollar building projects sponsored by foreign donors. She knew that people need water; but dams will drown more people than save. This truth was completely lost on a corrupt caste of politicians and bureaucrats.
For me, there is a parallel- Our kaptai dam was constructed in 1962 at the command of Ayub Khan; there was a huge outcry from the indigenous people protesting against the building. There was serious environmental and demographic fall out. But the dictator would not listen. He had the corporate backing from the west.
For many people negotiating ideological concepts like democracy, progress and religion from locations in the third world, Roy is an important reference point. She speaks for people who are unable to speak for themselves or afraid of doing so. There is integrity in her words when she says that nationalism and development are “unimpeachable twin towers of modern free market democracy.”
As Roy says, “democracy is demon-crazy.” Bad things happen when it goes “demon-crazy”-plundering of national resources, farming of global terrorism, fueling of sectarian religious sentiments, concealing unequal social systems. In the name of humanitarian concerns, the demon destroys everything. That is why I find Roy's writing- fiction and non-fiction, very illuminating on some strategic failures in our context. We need a Roy to speak up against the persecution of our religious minorities; we need a Roy to defend the linguistic autonomy of the people of the hill tracts; we certainly need a Roy rising tall to stop crazy people inflicting ecocide on Sunderbans, our last environmental lifeline.
People who are happy to make a show of reading her books do not understand her. Roy wants her book to be acted on as she takes her stand against the vicious complex of corporatism, political tyranny and doctrinal orthodoxy. She has stories to tell, and if we don't have time to listen to them, we risk misjudging her.
From the marketing point of view, Roy's latest fiction is a global success. One may wonder what Roy, a great critic of modern free market economy, might say about the overwhelming popularity she enjoys worldwide. Honest as ever, Roy tells us what she thinks- celebrity-hood makes “a heck of a noise like a tin can attached to a cat's tail.”
Yasif Ahmad Faysal teaches English at the University of Barisal.