Tell Me No Lies

Tell Me No Lies

Does Arundhati Roy's suspect facts & hotness quotient distract from the attention she draws to legitimate issues?

By Suresh Venkat

Published on :

Oh Arundhati! How cool are you? I mean really… how incalculably, ineffably, bedraggedly, dishevelledly cool are you? I’ve just finished reading your 15 page essay on the follies and foibles of global capitalism and its crony Indian version. I met you about 17 years ago, when I myself was a bedraggled, left leaning, mildly anarchist student at the National Institute of Design. You and your partner, Pradip Krishen came over at the institute’s invitation to show us your films and to talk about your politics. And what cool films they were! And you, you’re the epitome of the modern Indian woman. A strong mind, a sharp tongue, unafraid to speak your mind, a healthy disrespect for the establishment and all its apparatchiks, you’ve got it all. Not to mention you’re beautiful, dressed in those boho-chic kurtas with those luscious curls, now made even more beautiful by their natural non-L’Oreal greyness. Your passionate espousal of the ordinary people and their extraordinary causes warmed the cockles of my socialist heart.

I was a 20 year old student of design, steeped in both cynicism and idealism. Cynicism about how the military-industrial complex was sure to destroy the earth, and idealism about how people like you were standing up and speaking out for what you thought was right. From films that exploited rape to dams that you so hated to your strident anti-nuclear stance to your threat to finally secede from India, you’ve been on top of all our minds for well over 25 years now. That’s pretty impressive, I have to admit. Then oh, yes, there’s your massive-advance earning book of small things (which, shockingly enough Danny Boyle ignored and made Slumdog instead. Baffling, I tell you!)

As you can well imagine, I was supremely excited when I picked up the latest copy of Outlook to read your latest outing Capitalism – A Ghost Story. I’m normally considered a reasonably smart guy by my friends and family. I read three newspapers daily, about five magazines weekly, a reasonable number of online publications and  I work as a journalist in business news television (there’s a disclaimer needed here, you’ll understand why later, wait till the end of the article). But reading your article I felt like an ignorant buffoon! Really, I did. Admittedly I’m not a historian, statistician, economist or social scientist. I was constantly wiki-ing and googling the eclectic references that you threw upon me, one after the other. From South American politics to American spy craft to Indian constitutional history to nuances of caste and sub-castes in rural India, everything I read makes me wonder how you know so much and I, so little. I’m thinking even if I did somehow find the courage to ask you out on a date, I’ll probably suffer such a massive attack of low self-esteem that I might decide to voluntarily choke myself on the organically-farmed-by-non-displaced-non-microcredit-farmer made hors d’ôuvres.

You’re so cool that you can write articles about Capitalism without getting your facts entirely right. For instance, when you say Reliance bought shares in Infotel, and Infotel is a “TV consortium that owns 27 news and entertainment channels including CNN-IBN, IBN Live, CNBC, IBN Lokmat and ETV”, you’re not even aware that you didn’t do your basic fact checking. Infotel doesn’t own 27 news and entertainment channels. Network 18, the company I work for as a minor minion does own 12 though, including CNN-IBN, CNBC TV18 and IBN Lokmat. (P.S. More specifically, I’m Editor – Technology and Special Projects at CNBC TV18, one of the brands owned by Network 18. P.P.S: That’s also my disclaimer before you alert readers start accusing of me of being a Reliance plant and/or a Capitalist pig. Actually I am a capitalist pig, albeit an independent and proud one). Hence Mr. Ambani doesn’t own CNN-IBN, CNBC TV18, IBN Lokmat or I know that this little nuance is mighty inconvenient and gets in the way of the flow of your article, so it would be better to ignore it and rant away. (Oh, and by the way, the Tatas don’t own Lakme, Hindustan Unilever does. But, again, don’t let these trifles bother you).

However, the facts and historical references that you have dug up on evil American and Indian corporations and the way they used Corporate Social Responsibility and philanthropy as a tool to further their global domination aims are indeed impressive. As is your passionate diatribe on the way land rights are rampantly violated in India. Eye opening stuff that every Indian and indeed every decent citizen of the world should know about. From giving strings-attached endowments to supposed NGOs to sponsoring Think-fests and Blinkered Research Foundations, global multi-national corporations have indeed pervaded and corrupted every aspect of life in India. They must of course be monitored, regulated and in some cases banned outright. As must Indian corporations who see it fit to bribe, charm and crony their way to obscene profits at the cost of the people of India. Charmingly enough, you also have the honesty to admit that you’re a sinner like any of us. Watching Tata Sky, riding in Tata Taxis and drinking Tetley tea. That is actually cool, and I say this in a non-ironic sort of way.

The fact that your article appears in Outlook magazine that pays you (presumably quite well) is strangely missing though. The fact that this magazine is owned by a large corporate house that also has interests in cable distribution, real estate, construction materials and insurance is also missing. But ah, interspersed in your article are advertisements for ITC, IBM, LIC, Roca luxury bathroom fittings, Gilette, Johnson tiles and wait for it… The Gujarat Tourism Board! Your bête noire, Narendra Modi’s pet campaign. How’s that for delicious irony? Also how’s that for some journalistic hypocrisy? Evil capitalist corporations and governments get rich at the cost of the poor, they pervert the course of justice, they rob tribals of their land, and commit every sin that you can think of. But they also advertise in a magazine that gives you carte blanche to speak your mind, distort a few facts here and there and indulge in a spot of recreational obfuscation.

In another incredibly sophisticated manoeuvre, you don’t tell us poor ignorant buffoons that the self same Capitalism that you rile against has also brought down costs of everything from soap to food grains to inter-galactic tourism. You don’t tell us that the much-vilified liberalisation process has created millions of jobs and lifted at least a 100 million Indians out of poverty. That this very military-industrial leviathan that you hate so much, has brought life saving medicines, transportation, clothing, shelter, telephony and yes, luxury yachts too, to us. Yes, it is indeed true that some of the rich have got richer and some of the poor have gotten poorer. None of us Capitalists, Communists or Socialists are proud of the fact that the 100 richest Indians have cornered a quarter of the GDP in assets. Nope, that’s a failing of Capitalism, a failing that must be contemplated upon, regulated and eventually corrected. But you’re so smart and so cool that you can throw the baby out with the bathwater and still receive accolades and of course multi-million dollar advances on your next book. (By the way Aru, when are you going to write the next book of small things? Didn’t think much of the first one, but can’t wait to read the second.)

Capitalism is not a perfect system. Since the days of Adam Smith, it has always been one of the many systems humanity has experimented with in its efforts to organize the production and distribution of goods and services. That much, even I, the uninformed buffoon do know. Communism, Socialism, Controlled Capitalism have all been tried in various parts of the world and have seen their share of failures and ‘successes’. But that’s too much nuance once again, isn’t it? After all you only had 15 pages to tell us about the evils of the system. Also you’d have to use arguments that deflated your own premise, wouldn’t you? That nationalisation of mines can lead to as much corruption and exploitation as privatisation can? That Dalit entrepreneurs might actually favour this current system that gives them a chance to become rich, than one in which they are kept frozen as noble savages? That Muslim women in France might actually favour a ban on the burqa?

Having said all this, my one word critique of your article is this. Unputdownable. Just like you are. The fact that you’re consistently and passionately contrarian makes me proud to be a liberal Indian. The fact that you talk about the poor, the landless, the dispossessed like nobody else does should be enough for India to declare you a national asset. Your voice, your fearless writing, your incisive arguments (and quite frankly, your drop dead gorgeous looks) still make my heart skip a beat!

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