Ms. Arudhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is out. She has produced it after a nearly two decade long break from creative writing. I haven’t read the book yet but am forming an impression of it from its reviews – especially the ones appearing in the foreign media. It seems like the novel is a litany of the infinite woes that haunt our poor, benighted country.
In Ms. Roy’s latest novel, says the Irish Times review, ‘there are beatings and inhuman rape attacks; so much death and abandoned babies.’ As I read the review, I wondered as to why the ‘liberal’ assessment and understanding of India is so ‘orientalist’. Ms. Roy is, after all, the most visible and articulate face of the Indian liberal community.
‘Orientalism’ is the label given to a body of scholarship produced by European scholars, mostly British, German and French, in the nineteenth century. This scholarship is in the form of histories of eastern (‘oriental’) countries or translations of and commentaries upon their classical texts.
The ‘orienatlists’, a prominent example will be Friedrich Max Muller, were responsible for some of the earliest European translations of the classical Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian texts. Often, the ‘orientalists’ depicted the histories and the textual output of the eastern civilizations in unflattering light. The American scholar Edward Said, author of the book Orientalism and a trenchant critic of this scholarship, terms it a set of ‘representations’ of the East. In these ‘representations’, the East is the ignorant, irrational ‘other’ of the enlightened and rational West.
Curiously, the ‘liberal’ view of India is somewhat similar.
On the ‘liberal’ continent, India is a country of perpetual darkness, of cruelty, death and ignorance. Even the venerable Mr. James Mill, an ‘orientalist’ and the author of an infamously condemnatory history of India in the nineteenth century, will struggle to surpass the home born ‘liberal.’
Why are the domestic ‘liberals’ so pessimistic about India? In fact they are more than pessimistic, they are fearful of the country they inhabit. In their eyes it is a downright dangerous place. Why?
Let me present my understanding of the pathology and source of this pessimism. It is partly because of the origins of the typical Indian ‘liberal’ – both social and spatial (relating to space, habitat or geography).
Irrespective of the corner of Bharatvarsha they belong to, east, west, north or south, the typical ‘liberals’ have a personal history of having been raised in very posh neighborhoods – it could be Lake Gardens (Kolkata), Powai (Mumbai), Greater Kailash or Vasant Vihar (New Delhi), or Gopalapuram (Chennai).
The ‘liberal’, after all, is generally upper or upper-middle class. What is common between these neighborhoods is that they are largely sanitized, antiseptic islands in a land known for its dust and chaos. When you are raised in these localities, it is very likely that your country will appear random and ‘dangerous’ to you, because it will be such a contrast to what you are accustomed to.
Greater Kailash or Powai, in other words, can make a native born ‘orientalist’ James Mill out of you. Their spatial origins also explain the militant ‘liberal’ ‘anti-stateism’ (a la Ms. Roy). Living in South Mumbai, or South Delhi, it is easy to forget and bypass the clumsy, lumbering Indian state. As a denizen of South Delhi, you can afford to go to the Fortis when sick, you have the money to. You do not have to line up outside a sarkari health center. But, alas, average folks like you and I need the state. We do not have the money to bypass it.
Ms. Arundhati Roy, by the way, is the daughter of a tea-plantation manager. She spent her early years in Shillong. That is as posh as posh can get.
A second prominent characteristic of the typical ‘liberal’ is his or her lack of a cultural location. The individuals displaying the ‘liberal’ tendency, to quote the British journalist and commentator, David Goodhart, do not posses cultural ‘membership’. This is a first-hand observation I made while earning my PhD in that most sacred bastion of ‘radicalism’ and ‘liberal’ political correctness – JNU.
The more ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ a peer or classmate, the greater was his or her ignorance of Indian languages. The effective first language of these individuals was English; that is what they spoke at home. And, yes, the day scholars among them came from expensive upscale neighborhoods such as Greater Kailash, Mohammadpur, or Vasant Vihar. Look up the videos of Ms. Arundhati Roy on YouTube, in none of them will you find her speaking a ‘heathen’ Indian tongue. I am pretty very much sure that she does not know one.
When our ‘liberals’ (ineptly) use an Indian tongue it is generally to hector or scold a social ‘inferior’ – a cook, a driver. This hectoring is of ‘Ram Singh abhi tak gaadi saaf nahi kiya?’ (Ram Singh you haven’t washed the car yet?) type. That is why, when this lot comments on the political choices made by the ‘unwashed’, socially ‘inferior’ Indian masses, it assumes a preachy, hectoring tone – ‘Ae, tum log phir woh ganda party ko vote dala? Chee, chee! (Hey, you people again voted for that dirty party? What shame!).
Yes, cultural ‘membership’, under certain circumstances (not always), can contribute to political choices. And, no, the alliance of cultural membership and political choices need not necessary occur because of some primeval ‘blood lust’. But since our liberals lack cultural ‘membership’, they are incapable of empathizing with those who possess it and make a genuine attempt of understanding their political choices. They, as a result, mostly do not quite comprehend exactly what is going on around them. This makes them regard this country a dangerous place, makes them pessimistic about it too.
The ‘liberals’’ lack of cultural ‘membership’ is also why they are completely at a loss when confronted with the fact that an overwhelming majority of this country (yes, even a majority of dalits and tribals) have an instinctive revulsion for a certain kind of meat. Why should anyone not want to cut up and consume a mere quadruped? They perpetually wonder aloud.
The answer evades them because they, by dint of lacking cultural ‘membership’, lack an inherited ethical habitas. I come from a village in Tripura. Mine is a Vaishnava household. We own two cows. To my mother and paternal aunt, they are not mere four legged beasts, they are people. In their eyes eating them up will be akin to cannibalism – an act not just horrific but downright demoniac. That is the way it is ‘liberals’. It just can’t be helped. By the way, neither of the two ladies goes about inciting riots.
Finally, I am aware that I might be accused of over generalizing. There are, after all, occasional ‘liberals’ who do not conform to the type described above. How does one explain the middle or lower middle class ‘liberal’? What makes them express ‘orientalist’ assessments of India? If this question is raised, it will be a valid one. So let me try to answer it.
I will be blunt here. My impression is that middle or lower middle class individuals’ ‘liberal’ posturing is aspirational mimicry and an attempt at social climbing. They do this to find acceptance among these upper or upper middle class folks I have described above. I formed this impression at my alma mater, JNU.
But the attempt never really succeeds, to be a true born ‘liberal’ you have to belong to the same class as them, come from the same neighborhoods as well. Unless you meet these requirements, no amount of pessimistic, ‘orientalist’ posturing will help. So, desist aspiring ‘liberals’ and be at peace. ‘Liberals’ are an elite, exclusive tribe.
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.