Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy

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I had expected this book to be bigger, and the title is quite ambitious. Nevertheless, Roy’s language, the way she writes, is so compact and punchy that these 96 pages are dense with impact and power. Especially for me, someone who only knows nominally about the politics of India. I know just about enough about the rise of the right-wing there, but of course, the right is rising everywhere with the current global wave of populism (perhaps the most startling thing I found out was the popularity of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf in India..).

The preface alone is worth reading this. Let me quote a little:

“The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants, he thinks, would make a good business model. Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Mumbai called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford it shouldn’t live in cities.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and quarries. Their homes were occupied by hunger, and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. War had migrated too. From the edges of India, in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, to its heart. So the people returned to the crowded city streets and pavements. They crammed into hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.”

I found the full preface reproduced here and you can have a read as well. Please do!

As the preface suggests, the book is a lacerating punch back against the severe inequality and violent injustice due to the effects of capitalism. And of course just using the word “capitalism” can seem general and vague, but the demands of capitalism as we know entails a great amount of intervention into aspects of social and political spheres in the interest of corporate profit. It’s sinister. And when we look at the human cost.. it’s frankly evil.

She starts off with an image of the biggest house in India, called Antilla, that’s owned by the richest man in India called Mukesh Ambani. It cost US$1 billion & has a staff of 600 to upkeep. It has six floors of parking space, 27 floors in total, three helipads & nine lifts. I went ahead & got a picture, this is what it looks like:

It doesn’t look nice. But of course wealth of this scale makes everything look vulgar. At the same time this building exists, 80% of people living in India subsist on US$0.50 or less.

She reveals the intricate connections between endowed organizations, NGOs, and the effect they have in politics. All of the power being enacted here is done through the exchange of money, and the tacit, soft power approach of deciding what gets to be considered as “acceptable” in the realm of political stance and charity. Foundations like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are some that she talked about. NGOs or groups that are working on more “radical” projects or causes do not get funding, are marginalized, and some eventually are unable to continue. All the while, the limits of conversation or how we think about resistance is being shaped:

“Armed with their billions, NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multi-culturalism, gender, community development—the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights. The transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part. The narrow focus of human rights enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict—say, for example, the Maoists and the Indian government, or the Israeli Army and Hamas—can both be admonished as “human rights violators”. The land-grab by mining corporations in India or the history of the annexation of Palestinian land by the State of Israel then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse. This is not to suggest that human rights don’t matter. They do, but they are not a good enough prism through which to view or remotely understand the great injustices in the world we live in.”

Earlier on I mentioned that the wave of populism is global, but why is that? Her book reveals how India itself fell in line with American corporate values and its insidious form of philanthropy. Their strong grassroots movements, ones that comprise of the poor and lower-caste, have to contend with the importation of western liberal values that disregard them.

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The numbers in this book are staggering and something that struck me hard. I could not believe the human cost of capital. There is also the figure of 250,000 farmer suicides due to the detriment of their livelihoods. Then the tens of thousands of people who commit suicide due to the debt they accumulate due to credit. Adding on to the issue of class is the fact a lot of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are Dalits and Adivasi. But they & the figures related to their lives (or deaths) are inconsequential to the rapid growth of capitalism, the rich, & the government. These are not the numbers they care about. They and the very land they stand on are only valuable if they can provide profit. So we read about things like this:

Having signed over vast tracts of indigenous tribal homelands in central India to multinational mining and infrastructure corporations in a series of secret memorandums of understanding, the government has begun to flood the forests with hundreds of thousands of security forces. All resistance, armed as well as unarmed has been branded “Maoist” (In Kashmir they are all “jihadi elements”).

As the civil war grows deadlier, hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground. Thousands of adivasis have fled as refugees into neighboring states. Hundreds of thousands are living terrified lives hiding in the forests. Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest, making trips to the markets for essential provisions and medicines a nightmare for villagers. Untold numbers of nameless people are in jail, charged with sedition and waging war on the state, with no lawyers to defend them. Very little news comes out of those forests, and there are no body counts.

This was about Kashmir. And the full story can be read here. Please read it as well.

She goes on to talk about corruption as well, and the corruption featured here has a lot to do with the way the government wants more privatisation, something that will not end well for those who are basically not rich. The way geo-politics of India and Pakistan are handled is featured strongly as well — The way evidence is blatantly fabricated to falsely indict an innocent man, and how the courts do not punish police found to have made false evidence; the thousands that have died in undignified ways; civilians killed and then simply called “terrorists” so their murderers can escape unscathed. The border of Kashmir is patrolled by 500,000 soldiers — the most highly militarized place in the world.

I can’t believe how much is said in such a thin book. And of course she knows she can afford to say it due to her position. She’s visible, has international standing, is middle-class, and knows that she can stick her neck out, so she does. In fact she mentioned that there is a law that made it an offence to say anything about the state’s illegal activities that would result in “disaffection,” against the state (and of course a lot of illegal activities by the state is in relation to Kashmir) & she has certainly willingly decided to break this absurd law. She knows very well that she has to speak in part because of her position. I still remember this paragraph near the beginning:

In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund “reforms” middle class –the market – live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

I ended up quoting a lot from this book because honestly I think she explains it best. It is a compact punch, and I recommend it.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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Her first fiction book in 20 years! For some it may feel like a huge gap, a great absence, if one were not familiar with the fact that Roy is a committed activist and has in fact published books in between these 20 years and worked tirelessly in her activism in her home country of India. Knowing this is important, and I do think that my knowing, and my enjoyment of her works in the interim, listening to her interviews, has sharpened my enjoyment of this novel, or at least made it more accessible to me. This book is dense, it is not easy. It can be slow, and it can make you feel lost sometimes with its references to the complicated politics through the decades of India’s contemporary democratic existence.

This book is a whole world. The scope of what she has included, the breadth but also the depth of it, is so staggering and utterly amazing. How did she fit it all? How did she talk about it all with so much tenderness, humanity, and love? At no point did she discount the amount of violence that we have to also think about. I thought that she captured the complexity very well too, especially if she were to talk about the politics without the characters. Some characters are quite obviously stock, in terms of the opinions they have (like the typical of ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ types, and one of course one of them is a journalist! lol) but I guess it is quite necessary especially for people who are not familiar with the politics, just so they can get some sort of approximation of what the different viewpoints are. (Also definitely, while she is nuanced she does have a firm stand which is why the book pisses off so many nationalists). Having watched/read enough Arundhati Roy interviews I could recognise that some parts were based on her own experience too.. I’m glad that her writing this was just so fully human, so full of the blood that made senseless violence feel a bit more human.

Despite some stock characters, she still manages to write about it all with the heartbreaking intimacy that I love about her writing… this quote:

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

When I mention how ambitious it is however, I also have to mention that there were some moments when it felt strained. The book is populated with characters, and you can feel a bit lost sometimes. The chronology can confuse you too. Furthermore, the fact that she has included a kind of ‘parody’ with certain characters means that it will bring about some less-than-serious passages than are a bit of a contrast to her beautiful prose.

This is an incredibly political book. And I think when I see negative reviews of it, it is often incredibly apolitical. They cannot stand how the inclusion of the politics disturbs their experience of reading. At the same time, I guess Arundhati Roy is such a firecracker of an activist it obvious that she can’t help but go off sometimes in the text.. sort of running away from the story for a while when it hits on a certain political hot spot. Basically sometimes it isn’t done with the sort of finesse that is considered ‘literary’ and elegant. The density of the book’s politics also meant that I was acutely aware that there’s a lot I will not fully understand because I am not living in India or fully immersed in their politics, life there, nor experienced the decades that have unfolded.

Reading this goodreads review for example gives us an example of the references that she puts in the book:

There are unflattering depictions of characters based on AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. And, of course, Roy’s favorite Gujarat’s Lalla, who happens to be a very popular PM currently. For these reasons, it won’t be surprising if in the way things are handled these days (in India and in many other parts of the world), there would be widespread criticism of the book (some nutcase might even call for its banning!) by many who haven’t even read it.

Ultimately though, I still do find it an incredibly beautiful, tender book that makes me feel quite awed.

The way she wrote about what Kashmiris feel, go through, were parts where I felt most touched.. nobody really goes into that level of human understanding where you try to understand what violence can do to a community, how they regard each other, how it affects the way they might trust or view each other, their own history or survivability. How that level of violence and trauma affects the deepest level of human affection and relational experience.

Of course on the other side of it all is that it can be so chilling how she writes about the mechanical cruelty of the ‘right’, the way they clean up the street after a massacre-

The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient- perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared.

The way they systematically torture and kill. The way they practice their lies so easily. The way the deaths of people are rewritten in official reports. Think I’ll never forget that part of the book where they made one Kashmiri man try to bring out another severely injured Kashmiri man they were chasing who had hidden in sewage. For one a half hours they had looked at each other until the suspect died there, in sewage, and then he was reported to be a terrorist/militia member the authorities had captured in a supposedly tense face-off. It was these kind of episodes that really revealed the cruelty and inhumanity so much, & it was parts like this where I the aforementioned heartbreaking exposition on Kashmiris really tore through me:

Those eyes that stared at us for one and a half hours – they were forgiving eyes, understanding eyes. We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

I know it’s really unfair to compare to her first novel 20 years ago but I really can’t help it. I didn’t give her a full 5 stars on goodreads because this novel did not grip and move me as much as the God of Small Things, which I found so breathtaking, spellbinding, and just.. god I feel so emotional just thinking about it. Truly one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. But I think in a way there is something to say about the experience of the novel, of fiction, of whether the book allows us to fall into itself. For The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, there was that kind of falling that Arundhati Roy’s writing has the magic to induce, but not as deeply… but I feel like I can’t possibly hold that against her. She is writing around a bloody history. Do we want to experience that as fictional pleasure? Nevertheless.. it is still an enjoyable read.