Towards the end of Walking With the Comrades, Arundhati Roy makes explicit a dynamic hitherto implicit in her account of Naxalite/Maoist/adivasi resistance to the Indian (corporate) state: the relationship between tactics and contexts.
"People who live in situations like this do not have easy choices," she writes (207). "They certainly do not simply take instructions from a handful of ideologues who appear out of nowhere waving guns. Their decisions on what strategies to employ take into account a whole host of considerations: the history of the struggle, the nature of the repression, the urgency of the situation and, quite crucially, the landscape in which their struggle is taking place."
After all, she adds, for "Gandhian satyagraha" "to be effective, it needs a sympathetic audience, which villagers deep in the forest do not have."
Putting aside the question of violence for the moment, I want to think about the tactics Roy deploys in her representation of adivasi resistance, particularly in the book’s eponymous central narrative, and what the audience is for her intervention. Indeed, in my current seminar on postcolonial ecologies and their representations, we’ve seen three rather different attempts at representing indigenous/autochthonous experience and resistance: Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, the three stories of Mahasweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and now Roy’s text.
I tend to see the first as a principally aesthetic treatment, the second—complicated by various translation issues—as didactic, and the latter as descriptive or journalistic, but these are admittedly contingent categories. Put another way, what are the impacts, or potential impacts, of these authors' interventions given their respective forms?
Of the three, Roy's is specifically non-fictional, of course, in keeping with the bulk of her output since her first (and only) novel The God of Small Things. And yet the stakes of Walking With the Comrades clearly seem to be in pushing back against the overwhelming political imaginary, perpetrated by the corporately controlled state and media and any number of individual functionaries, that the Maoists are terrorists or extremists who need to be put down for the sake of the "public good" (175).
To the contrary, Roy asserts: the so-called public good would be better served by letting people keep their land and by abandoning their "annihilation" and, with it, their "different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as Communism" (214). This imagination—I want to also call it knowledge—is of an ethical practice committed to the land and of people's relationship to it and each other. Roy transmits this ethical practice in concentrated bursts, such as in the quote on the book's cover about the sustainability of the Maoists' encampments.
But the cover, and the choice of this particular quote, so easily reduced to a northern discourse of "sustainability," brings me to the role of the global publishing apparatus, itself deeply capitalist, and its reliance on "star" authors such as Roy, who indeed are seen to "transmit" material realities, whether in the guise of fiction or not. (And Penguin, the book's publisher, has recently been embroiled in a transnational political scandal in which extant copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History were recalled and "pulped"…)
But northern audiences, as ever, are getting only pieces of adivasi material realities in Roy's account, since those realities can probably only genuinely be conveyed in adivasi language and cultural practices. In contrast, my sense is that we get a closer replication of adivasi/indigenous experiences in the Devi and Ghosh, but these authors' respective formal tactics, it would seem, reach different (though perhaps overlapping in some cases) audiences, thus yielding different impacts.
However, though a multiplicity of representational tactics is as important as in any set of oppositional tactics, I find myself wanting to know which representational tactic is most "effective" in yielding the biggest impact: political change. On this question, if we narrow the scale to the Indian elite/bourgeoisie, it seems to me that Walking With the Comrades is/has been more effective than the other texts. It may not have effected political change any more than the Maoists have, but Roy’s account may have indeed won smaller—and no less important—victories on the representational landscape in the way that the Maoists have on both the representational landscape and the material landscape of central India.
"For the 32 page article derives its strength from its lucidity and readability. Roy’s prose and her style, however, conceal the essay’s disdain for acceptable norms of logic. It needs to be deconstructed primarily for this reason. It seduces an unsuspecting reader. It induces one to lowers one’s critical guard. As a result one is apt to be carried away by Roy’s air of righteous indignation. It makes one to suspend disbelief…"
That seductive readability might indeed carry away more than a few readers to "suspend disbelief" and embrace the ecological-ethico practice of adivasi communities, against the violence (material, discursive, imaginative) of both the state and the Maoists. But is that the case with the Ghosh or Devi too?
Certainly I've learned from the work of all three authors, and the foregoing is mere speculation (though preparatory for a fuller examination of form and praxis centered on these particular texts). But in resisting capitalism and the state's—whether the Indian state's or the U.S. state's—machinations on behalf of it, I wonder anew whether a descriptive representation of resistance is more impactful than an aesthetic, or aestheticized, one. If capital has saturated media, the perhaps a mediatized account such as Walking With the Comrades is most able to intervene in that discursive field.
I've been pondering what seems to be the heterotopic claim for fiction Roy makes in a Paris Review interview about the book:
[Interviewer] You’ve said before that it is a struggle to find the time and space to write fiction and that you feel you need to invent a language to bridge your political and creative concerns.
[Roy] Yes, what is most difficult for me is that just as certain and as real as these battles are right now, writing fiction is proportionately uncertain. Fiction is such an amorphous thing, you can’t be sure that you’re doing something important or wonderful until you’ve done it. So, because of the position I am in now, to work on fiction I have to create some sort of steel barriers around it. Fiction is something that involves so much gentleness, so much tenderness, that it keeps getting crushed under the weight of everything else! I still haven’t figured it out entirely—but I will, I will. [Emphasis hers.]
Is this "I will" a moment after change—after revolution? I note her use of "steel," one of the industrial products national and transnational corporations would like to make from the mineral resources embedded in adivasi land. If steel is what's needed to write fiction, it's a measure of how much those of us who write, let alone write fiction, for a living depend on capitalist economic privilege to do so. What is the resistance to this material reality?