Arundhati Roy's india is a place where humanity's worst is on display. In her new book of essays, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy (which for some reason has its title and subtitle reversed in the U.S.), the country isn't merely sundered into the worlds of the rich and the poor. It is a lawless dystopia, plagued by rapacity and violence: "In eastern India, bauxite and iron-ore mining is destroying whole ecosystems, turning fertile land into desert," she writes in the introduction. And in an essay, about the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat: "Women were stripped, gang-raped; parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children." The writing is extremely provocative corporations are marauders, politicians are fascists who commit genocide and yet it is always gorgeously wrought. Her pitch-perfect prose is the one thing that fans of her famous novel, The God of Small Things, will find familiar in her third volume of nonfiction.
Listening to Grasshoppers is powered by a thorough critique of Indian democracy. Free elections, she writes, have failed to challenge the rich and powerful. "The hoary institutions of Indian democracy the judiciary, the police, the 'free' press and, of course, elections far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite." But there is more passion than reasoned argument here. Urbanization, for example, may be destroying rural communities, but it also liberates people from the appalling restrictions of village life. Roy couldn't care a whit for such subtleties yet to fault her for that is to miss the point of a polemic. She demands an emotive response to the horrible injustices that go largely unnoticed in a world distracted by images of cricket gods, Bollywood glamour and Nano cars. In language of terrible beauty, she takes India's everyday tragedies and reminds us to be outraged all over again.