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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Walking with the Comrades by Arundhati Roy

There's something stirring in India.  A specter, if you will, of a dark time arisen and a dark time to come.  Whether we call it capitalism, corporatism, or new (neo) Imperialism, the fact remains that those most affected by the shifting dynamics of contemporary industrialization will be the disenfranchised and the disinherited.

Arundhati Roy's (The God of Small Things, etc.) Walking with the Comrades waltzes straight into this new Indian world with passion and focus, chronicling her journey into the forests of India where Maoists and the few remaining indigenous people have dug in their heels.  Each new day brings her closer to the heart of the movement that has set India's government on fire, spawning new counter-revolutionary police forces and new regulations and laws to strip people of their land for corporate profit.  In the process, she crafts a disturbing narrative of the new Indian state, one
which will seem suspiciously familiar to Americans who know a little about the United States' history with the Native Americans.
Walking with the Comrades is a quick read, though by no means an easy one.  Roy spends considerable time setting the stage for her walk with the Maoist "revolutionaries" in the forests of India.  She provides cogent analyses of the Indian government's old and new programs for stifling dissent, the language they use, and the results of their activities.  Likewise, she explores the history of communism in India, leading us through suppression, violent acts, revolts, and the mindset of the people on the ground -- the very comrades with which she walks.  Walking with the Comrades, as such, is part of the grand tradition of travel narratives, but it is also an expansion of Roy's long and distinguished career as a novelist and cultural critic.

And it's the travel narrative aspect which is most compelling.  True, Walking with the Comrades is about the political and economic situation in contemporary India, but it also an attempt to put a face on the great "security threat" of India.  It's a clever tactic, because understanding that there are humans behind the mask of terror forces us to think about who we are fighting against, and why they are resisting.  In the case of India, the Maoists are fighting a government that wants communism in all its forms destroyed, and the indigenous people protected by Maoists -- even if only for political gain -- moved off and adapted for industrial society -- at the expense of their traditions, native lands, etc.  To realize who the Maoists are is to make blind faith to India's new cultural projects impossible, if not because we care about the Maoists and their goals -- most of us in the U.S. likely do not because we have a tendency to be ruthlessly anti-communist here -- then at least because we understand why they are doing what they do.  Perhaps it's the optimist in me thinks that maybe reasonable compromise can be found in this cesspool of violence and hatred if only we can see the humanity in everything.

Still, some might be willing to dismiss Roy's work simply because she often provides polemics and doesn't seem altogether genuine when she concedes points to the opposition; in the case of Walking with the Comrades, Roy occasionally tries to suggest that the Indian government might have a solid rationale for some of their actions, yet the overwhelming majority of the book rips India to shreds, thereby weakening the conciliatory gesture.  But to dismiss the book for this reason would be to discount what is clearly a problem that transcends borders and exposes the divisions and strategies utilized by a government bent not on compromises with indigenous people, but the destruction of their way of life.  Even if you shrug Roy off as a wacky liberal, the facts point to a disturbing history which does not paint a pretty image for the Indian state.  And even if you look at the other side, it's hard to ignore the words spoken by the people in charge, the projects set in place, the militarization of the police, and the general sense that things are not as they should be.

It's perhaps for that reason that I come out of Roy's book feeling unable to challenge the anger and disbelief she channels throughout her book, despite wearing my critical thinking cap during the reading process.  Roy doesn't pull many punches when she attacks India's government and the corporations attached to it, but I found myself wondering why she bothered pulling the ones she did.  If her facts are in order -- they are -- then what the Indian government is doing doesn't deserve conciliatory gestures, friendly discussion, or calm reasoning.  Rather, it seems to me that to fight an extremist state, one must attack it with an extreme position. Roy certainly heads in that direction, and the result is an enormously educational reading experience.  When I finished reading, I wondered where we are supposed to go from here.  Maybe Roy will cover that in her next book...

Walking with the Comrades is one of the most compelling non-fiction books I have read this year, and certainly one worth remembering for years to come.  If you're interested in contemporary Indian history or global capitalism, this is a book to add to your collection.

If you want to learn more about the author, check out her Wiki page.  You can also find more information about the book on the publisher's website.  The book should be available pretty much anywhere.

Read With:
Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

(This feature will only be included on reviews of non-fiction books.  It's intended to offer a suggestion or two for SF/F books that might be interesting to read alongside the book being reviewed.)

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  1. I am not at all familiar with Roy's non-fiction work, so the post title had me all excited about there being a new Arundhati Roy novel coming out. :(

  2. James: I'm sorry if I disappointed. Her non-fiction is fascinating stuff, though. Walking with the Comrades has a strong element of travel fiction in it, which might make it a good introduction to her non-fiction.

    Maybe I'll get a shot at one of her novels in the future.

  3. She only has the one novel, released fourteen years ago now. Reportedly, she has been working on a new novel for a few years now, but I have heard no news about it.

    You should read The God of Small Things. Very good.