The Goddess of Small Things

Posted on January 31, 2009. Filed under: Public Square |

Modern democracies are funny things. They are the product of centuries of trial-and-error, as people strove to find the right mix of governing that worked for them, until they settled on this present form of representative government that has become the standard the world over.

In getting there, though, bits and pieces have been added from other experiments. Your modern democracy, such as  India,  has undoubtedly taken some inspiration from the  bicamaral  English system, the French call for Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the ousting of the tsars and the American cry for individualism.

Mixed right into this mish-mash of ingredients taken from across the globe exists the peculiar phenomenon of the public intellectual. Here is that special place in society where your sole contribution to the country is criticism, or, as Stephen Mack puts it, to “keep the pot boiling.”

The public intellectual function[‘s] is criticism. And if intellectuals are in a better position to perform that function it’s not because they are uniquely blessed with wisdom—and it’s certainly not because they are uniquely equipped to wield social or political power. It is only because learning the processes of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment. It’s what we do at our day jobs.

The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.

(emphasis mine)

There can be no doubt, then, that a sprawling, diverse union like India, comprising of one-sixth of humanity, would need individuals like Arun Shourie, Ramchandra Guha and, in his own way, Shashi Tharoor. Whether you agree with what they say or not, the fact is they are much more succesful at bringing the more delicate issues to the public conversation than the ubiquitous TV and press pundits.

Take Arundhati Roy. Booker Prize winner for The God of Small Things turned activist, Roy is essentially India’s Noam Chomsky. Not in the sense of Chomsky’s linguistic contribution, but in the social significance of his political views.

Ever since Roy got into activism, she has regularly fallen afoul of many others in the media and the blogosphere, whether it was advocating independence for Kashmir or claiming that the Mumbai attacks were rooted in, (as Rohit Chopra summarises)

everything from US policy, Partition, Kashmir, 9/11, Bush, capitalism, poverty, Godhra, and so on.

That diatribe from Roy even earned her a rebuke from Salman Rushdie, but the fact of the matter is, what she’s bringing up are things ‘worth talking about.’ Whenever Roy publishes an essay or makes a speech, people are going to be listening, and making their judgments.

Even if they are essentially flawed opinions and occasionally narrow views of the world, the level of public discourse is elevated by a debate over her ideas, especially when intellectuals like Rushdie enter the conversation and when bloggers and pundits everywhere get a better idea of the issue at stake.

And that, ultimately, seems to be the point of the ‘pot-boiling.’ Public intellectuals are there to ensure that we are having a carefully considered (well, not always ‘carefully’ in the blogosphere) dialogue over these important aspects of our democracies, and so keep the entire ball rolling.


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One Response to “The Goddess of Small Things”

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Suzanna Arundhati Roy has been an amazing voice for many causes in India and abroad. I commend her for her signing of a letter in September 2006, where she joined a group of 100 literary elite in calling for the repeal of Indian Penal code section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. Her voice along with the 99 other elite minds of the Subcontinent (including Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and former attorney general/ powerful Hindu priest, Swami Agnivesh).
Reading your post along with her activism in the LGBT community makes me think I may need to learn more about this woman.

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