In the early 2000s, historian Ramachandra Guha called Arundhati Roy crazy. For years Roy had been writing scathing essays against globalization and the myth of progress, detailing the human cost of big government’s efforts toward nuclear development and industrial dams. Throughout her career Roy has lambasted the treatment of Kashmiris, Muslims, Naxalites, Dalits and poor villagers; Guha disapproved of her wide range of issues, implying that she lacked seriousness as she “hops from cause to cause.” In an interview with Frontline, Roy responded: “He’s right. I am hysterical. I am screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he is going Shhhh … you’ll wake the neighbors!”
Roy has been trying to wake the neighbors for more than two decades, publishing numerous books of acerbic nonfiction. Her latest essay collection, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (published in September), responds to catastrophes in India and around the world, recently and throughout history. Azadi (Urdu for “freedom”) explores the idea that literature “provides shelter” from these catastrophes — “places off the highway,” “fragile” but “indestructible,” built and rebuilt by readers and writers.
Roy has a long history of activism against fascism. She believes writing offers a unique way of clarifying and processing the world around us, especially a world so full of chaos and corruption. To challenge fascism, Roy argues, one must challenge the “sophisticated set of fake histories” that fascism peddles. Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and Donald Trump’s American exceptionalism mirror each other in these efforts, riling up voters with hatred and false origin stories about what has been taken from them. With fiction, Roy writes, one can explore how “stories intersect below the surface of the grand narrative of class and capital.”
In Roy’s nonfiction, the grand narrative of class and capital is an omnipresent framework for descriptions of injustice. She is explicit about calling out oppressors for what they are. Her journalism and essays portray endless images of the unprecedented atrocities carried out in Kashmir on the pretext of anti-terrorism. In Azadi, she recounts stories of “soldiers entering villagers’ homes and mixing fertilizer and kerosene into their winter food stocks … teenagers, their bodies peppered with shotgun pellets … hundreds of children being whisked away in the dead of night.” Her talent is in exposing these stories of power and abuse — by governments, corporations, religious communities — with horrific detail. Stunningly, Roy has not become desensitized. Her objective is to make sure we don’t, either.
Understandably, then, Roy’s trademark voice is one of urgency, alternatingly pleading and furious, heartbroken and dripping with sarcasm. Anger comes quickly to her, albeit justifiably. Her writing often comprises long lists of “things we must not look away from.” The essays in Azadi are piercingly human.
Roy is particularly unforgiving about our own complicity in atrocities — when we accept them as inevitable — committed by powerful people and institutions. Her fury is directed toward the way fascism takes hold not only in government but in our hearts, how quickly we lose the energy and the spirit for outrage. “For the sake of credibility and good manners, we groom the creature that has sunk its teeth into us — we comb out its hair and wipe its dripping jaw to make it more personable in polite company,” she seethes in Azadi. The outrage Roy inspires is her antidote to this everyday complicity with the project of fascism.
According to Roy, her nonfiction and fiction take on the same task of resistance, but in diametrically opposite ways: The former is “quick, urgent and public,” the latter “slow-cooked.” Both struggle against fascism’s attempts to silence literature. Hope lies in the texts which “keep alive our intricacy, our complexity and our density against the onslaught of the terrifying, sweeping simplifications of fascism,” she writes in Azadi. Fiction, though, is “uniquely positioned” because it has the “capaciousness … to hold out a universe of infinite complexity.” Roy’s writing about fiction praises its ability to treat every human being as a “Russian doll” containing “identities within identities, each of which can be shuffled around.”
Roy’s most recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), is excerpted heavily in the essays in Azadi. At the center of Ministry—amid an increasingly globalized, unequal city and a whirlwind of Maoist and Kashmiri insurgency — is the character Anjum, who builds Jannat (“paradise”) Guest House in a Delhi graveyard as a place explicitly for sheltering the poor, oppressed and marginalized. The novel takes an activist, almost journalistic tone toward injustice and seems to view the world in terms of oppressor and oppressed, victim and enemy. Consequently, the only moral response to fascism is outrage. In a lecture Roy delivered at Trinity College, University of Cambridge in February, printed in Azadi, Roy notes: “My world … is divided very simply into two kinds of people — those whom Anjum will agree to accommodate in her guest house… and those she will not.”
To be so morally sure of one’s role and community — indeed, to be so sure of anything — seems a strange choice for a novelist trying to resist “sweeping simplifications.” Roy’s outrage is necessary for a more just world, but at times it can tip into a depressing determinism. “What does it mean to go to school,” she asks in Azadi, when Kashmiri children return after seven months of lockdown, “while everything around you is slowly throttled?”
Roy doesn’t seem interested in explicitly answering her own question, but Italian novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg—whose stories are often set against the backdrop of fascism — often answers it quite well. Despite the fury of Roy’s writing, she advocates for fiction that is more tender and sensitive to individual human nature than numbers and news reports (in Azadi essay “The Graveyard Talks Back: Fiction in the Time of Fake News,” first presented as a lecture at Trinity College, University of Cambridge). The lesson is an urgent and valuable one — upon which Ginzburg has much to teach.
Several of Ginzburg’s books have been reissued in the past few years, introducing her to a new generation of American readers. Where Roy’s work responds to fascism with high-volume anger, Ginzburg meets tyranny with a quiet watchfulness and poignant mundanities, a radically undramatic narrative voice. “Domestic life, its frustrations and miseries, occupies the foreground,” one reviewer says of Ginzburg’s writing, “the outside world barely discernible at the edges.”
Ginzburg’s storytelling answers Roy’s question neatly: What does it mean to go to school — or carry out any of life’s daily activities — while the world is unraveling? For the young child Natalia Levi, the protagonist of Ginzburg’s autobiographical novel Family Lexicon, life was rich and layered even despite Mussolini’s fascism; it contained what Roy might call a “universe of infinite complexity.” The members of the Levi family are more than simply victims of an authoritarian government; each is a “walking sheaf of identities.”
By contrast, Roy’s descriptions fall short in Ministry, whose characters are too defined by moral absolutes to live up to this complexity. Roy’s pain and anger are invaluable, but unsustainable. Outrage alone is insufficient in the face of fascism. We also need the little joys and unhappinesses of daily life. Natalia Levi’s family shows us these pieces of irrepressible humanity. Around the dinner table, the mezzorado (a yogurt base) is referred to as “the mother.” All overripe fruit is handed immediately to her father, Giuseppe, who laughs and eats them in two bites. During meals, her mother, Lidia, talks endlessly about the cheese, her father endlessly about walnuts; they scold each other for repeating themselves and Giuseppe insists it’s vulgar to talk about food all the time. “Nitwitteries!” he shouts. Giuseppe is a pessimistic, overbearing bully; Lidia sings everywhere she goes, reads Proust and bathes in cold water, joyfully shouting, “I’m freezing!” The family constantly fights about politics, though they are all staunchly antifascist. Being on the right side of history, it would seem, comes in many shades of human.
Mussolini is central to the Levi family — and many of Ginzburg’s other stories — but Mussolini is largely witnessed from this vantage of perfunctory family life. Lidia is always doing new things “to not be bored,” playing piano and learning Russian and making clothes. She plays solitaire, turning cards over and pretending to read the future: “Let’s see if Alberto will become a great doctor. Let’s see if someone will give me a lovely cottage. Let’s see if fascism will last for a while.” When Giuseppe is arrested, Lidia takes him fresh clothes and nuts and oranges in prison. She goes out in the morning to the market with her basket, singing, “I’m going to see if fascism is still on its feet. I am going to see if they’ve toppled Mussolini.”
To answer Roy: Perhaps everyday life goes on, for better and for worse. For many, life carries on even against the backdrop of fascism. Our aspirations, dreams and personal struggles continue to matter in spite of everything. Perhaps, when Lidia is wringing water out of her hair and dancing around the house singing about toppling Mussolini, Mussolini becomes small and insignificant in a way that anger and activism cannot make him. Vittorio Foa, a friend of Ginzburg’s, observes in her writing a strong coexistence between “the continuity of daily life — with its tiny details, its tediousness, its little unhappinesses — and the tragic interruptions.” Foa goes on: “Natalia pays attention to the person and not purely to the political machine.”
In our increasingly undemocratic world, we must make room for Roy’s tireless fury toward the institution as well as Ginzburg’s loving attention to the individual, the mundane, the simple pleasures that remind us why we fight in the first place — because life matters. While Ginzburg’s own granddaughter calls her style “sober and austere,” it may be that Roy’s writing is actually the harsher of the two, more closely attuned to “the political machine”— and Ginzburg’s work may actually be closer to the “Russian doll that contains identities within identities.” Even when the undercurrent of Ginzburg’s stories is tragedy wrought by fascism, her narrative voice takes on a tenderness and a love of people that fascism is incapable of doing. The details of her stories can be shuffled around, infinitely layered and — in brief and remarkable glimpses — be seen as something like joy.
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Apoorva Tadepalli is a freelance writer from Bombay. Her work has appeared in The Point, Guernica, Electric Literature and elsewhere.