Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy
2nd Nov 2015
India’s the kind of country that can barely make the news these days without a trigger warning. Perhaps Arundhati Roy’s new book Capitalism: A Ghost Story should come with one too.
Roy’s novel The God of Small Things won the Booker in 1997 and became the biggest-selling book by an Indian author who still lives in India, making her one of the most trustworthy writers that the Western publishing world could wish for when it comes to writing about contemporary Indian politics. She has been an outspoken activist for years and after speaking out on these issues – particularly independence for Kashmir – she’s been harassed by the public, and by the police.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story is a bit of a whistle-stop tour of a handful of social justice issues: urbanisation, slum clearances, nationalist politics, brand dominance, free speech at literary festivals and a cracked justice system.
One of the big issues – although one she only explicitly deals with once during the course of the book – is women’s rights. Her target? ‘Official’ feminism in India.
In the first chapter Roy calls out feminists’ silence over landgrabs, destruction of homes and livelihoods, and the murder and violence metered out in the worst cases.
‘Why is it that the dispossession and eviction of millions of women from land that they owned and worked is not seen as a feminist problem?,’ she asks.
'The NGO-ization of the women’s movement has also made Western liberal feminism (by virtue of its being the most funded brand) the standard-bearer of what constitutes feminism.'For her, identity politics risks sidelining the rights that women so badly need. In a storming section, Roy blazes: ‘The NGO-ization of the women’s movement has also made Western liberal feminism (by virtue of its being the most funded brand) the standard-bearer of what constitutes feminism. The battles, as usual, have been played out on women’s bodies… When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burka rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. Coercing a woman out of her burka is as bad as coercing her into one. It’s not about the burka. It’s about the coercion. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political, and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes.”
It’s an argument that feminists might now be familiar with, but it’s inclusivity preached like you’ve never heard it before.
There’s a novelist’s sense of beauty and justice running like a golden thread through the fabric of Capitalism: A Ghost Story. My favourite was a particularly beautiful story at the end of chapter five, when Roy is visiting an activist who lost his wife Nilofar after speaking out. Roy then gets a phonecall with a warning that the police want to arrest her. She doesn’t want to leave, as Nilofar’s father was also travelling to meet her, tell her his story and give her gifts from his land. He hasn’t arrived yet. But darkness begins to fall and she and her friends agree to drive home before it gets dark on the quiet country roads, especially if the police are looking for her.
She recounts: “As we picked up speed on the highway, we were overtaken by a car full of men waving us down. Two men on a motorcycle asked our driver to pull over. I steeled myself for what was coming. A man appeared at the car window. He had slanting emerald eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard that went halfway down his chest. He introduced himself as Abdul Hai, father of the murdered Nilofar. ‘How could I let you go without your apples?’ he said. The bikers started loading two crates of apples into the back of our car.
“Then Abdul Hai reached into a pocket of his worn brown cloak and brought out an egg. He placed it in my palm and folded my fingers over it. And then he placed another in my other hand. The eggs were still warm. ‘God bless and keep you,’ he said, and walked away into the dark. What greater reward could a writer want?
After she recalls the story, she concludes: ‘Indian nationalists and the government seem to believe that they can fortify their idea of a resurgent India with a combination of bullying and Boeing airplanes. But they don’t understand the subversive strength of warm boiled eggs’.
It’s a tough read and I’d imagine that you’d get more out of the book if you came to it with more than a basic knowledge of the last 100 years of Indian history; but Capitalism: A Ghost Story has a seductive brilliance. A fiction-lover’s non-fiction book, and a passionate account of India’s ongoing struggle for freedom.