The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy (Book)

The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy
Flamingo, London, 2004, pp 145.
by Dr Mazeni Alwi

This slim volume is a collection of Arundhati Roy’s essays and speeches, focusing on the events that cascaded from September 11 to the US led invasion of Iraq. Most people by now would have known that Arundhati Roy shot to literary fame through her first novel, “the God of small things” which won the Booker prize.

Ms. Roy puts her fame and talent in the service of things dear to her heart : poverty, the widening gap between the rich and poor, state terrorism in Kashmir and religious fanaticism, gaining celebrity status internationally when a New Delhi court convicted her of contempt of court for her part in defending villagers who lost their land in the mega dam projects in the Narmada valley. Of late, her concerns have extended beyond India. Thankfully she has put her eloquence, wit and good looks into the service of global justice and democracy, speaking for the poor and voiceless of the world against rapacious corporate globalization and the menace of imperialism by the present US administration piloted by President Bush and his cabal of neoconservatives.

Ms. Roy’s critique of corporate globalization and the imperialist tendencies of US foreign policy, articulated through her eloquent wit, clarity and gift for language adds a fresh voice to a genre of writing, which until the event of September 11, remained the province of a small group of ageing leftist american intellectuals, viz. Noam Chomsky, Edward Said (died last year), Howard Zinn… In one of the pieces in this book , she paid a tribute to Chomsky’s untiring effort in deconstructing the lies, greed and power of the US establishment, big business and the corporate media.

The book is a collection of essays and speeches published or delivered in the west (except the introductory piece, “Ahimsa”, published in Hindustan Times 2002, and “confronting empire”, an address given to the World Social Forum, Porto Allegre, Brazil 2003, the anti-globalization movement’s equivalent of the World Economic Forum, Davos).

Being a collection of essays and speeches delivered or published at different places that deal with intense issues that built up from the September 11 attacks, it cant be helped that some of the themes are repetitive, but her witty style makes this an enjoyable read. Even if by now many an educated middle class asian/muslim who previously had not the slightest interest in world affairs and global justice have become wary of George Bush’s arrogant unilateralism and taken some kind of a position, these essays will surely add depth to one’s knowledge on the subject. Beneath the relaxed and witty charm of her prose, Ms. Roy has actually done quite a lot of research to buttress her arguments, making this a compelling read even to those already familiar with the issues of corporate globalization’s pernicious victimization of the world’s poor hand in hand with the neoconservatives’ dream of US global hegemony, and the lies constructed by George Bush for going to war in Iraq (the ordinary person’s guide to empire and instant mix imperial democracy are two illustrative essays).

To illustrate the depth of her research on the subject, in “Come September”, an address given at Santa Fe, New Mexico in September 2002, she quoted sinister events in recent history that took place on September 11. On 11 September 1973, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA backed coup. On 11 September 1990, George Bush Sr made a speech to Congress announcing his government’s decision to go to war against Iraq. On September 11 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, thus planting the seeds of the intractable Palestine – Israeli conflict and the destruction of Palestinian society that we see today.

My favourite piece is her last essay, “when the Saints go marching out – the strange fate of Martin, Mohandas and Mandela”, broadcast by the BBC in August 2003 on Radio 4. she wrote, “Its interesting how icons when their time has passed, are commodified and appropriated to promote the prejudice, bigotry and inequity they battled against. But then in an age when everything’s up for sale, why not icons?”. To illustrate such irony, she wrote of how Narendra Modi, widely accused of having orchestrated the anti muslim riots was voted back to office as Chief Minister of Gujarat. This same Mr. Modi invited Nelson Mandela to Gujarat to be the Chief Guest at the celebration of Ghandi’s birth anniversary. And of Mandela’s South Africa, otherwise known as “the small miracle”, “the Rainbow Nation of God”, within 2 years of taking office the ANC capitulated to the Market God, privatizing basic services, worsening the poverty and landlessness of blacks. The same government US court to rule against forcing companies to pay reparations for the role they played during apartheid (reparations i.e. justice will discourage foreign investments). Ms. Roy then examined what happened to the black american struggle for civil rights led by Martin Luther King. Among the many quotes by King was one delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my one government”. King denounced the american invasion of Vietnam, linking the war to racism and economic exploitation, seeing that the number of blacks in the US army and those who died were disproportionately higher than in the general population.

Ms. Roy asked wether Martin Luther King would say today that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are in any way morally different from the US government’s invasion of Vietnam. Who have inherited the mantle of Martin Luther King, Malcom X, James Baldwin and Muhammd Ali, asked Ms. Roy. Colin Powell and Condoleeze Rice, she wrote, are the exact opposite of role models. “They appear to be the embodiment of Black People’s dreams of material success, but in actual fact they represent the Great Betrayal. They’re the liveried doormen guarding the portals of the glittering ballroom against the press and swirl of the darker races”.

I would recommend this book even if many of us have now become familiar with the themes of Ms. Roy’s concerns. At least here is an eminently readable and witty response by a credible spokesperson from the third world to speak on the issues of economic exploitation and global injustice on the world’s poor. She is sensible enough to offer no easy solutions to “confronting empire”, but the first step is to look it in the eye, strip it bare of its pretensions. We have to “lay siege to empire”, “to shame it”.

In her critique of the US administration, she is also careful not to confuse the american people with their government’s policies. This is essentially the mistake of the less informed and the less literate. However legitimate are their grouses against the injustice, violence and devastation that america has unleashed wittingly or otherwise, blanket hatred and indiscriminate reciprocal violence will only undermine one’s moral cause. This is the biggest mistake made by those who use terrorism as a weapon.