When we open ourselves up to the world, travel to other regions and countries, see and live in different geographies, experience other cultures, climates and biomes, we have the opportunity to be intimate with and understand world’s very different than our own. The world is vast and its peoples and organisms, though astoundingly diverse, are closely related. Even if we could travel ‘everywhere’, having a meaningful experience with all of it is simply not possible. It is dangerously presumptuous to assume that anyone of us might understand all of this. Such travel, should we want to, isn’t possible for the large majority of us, which does not mean that there is therefore no point in traveling to where we can. If our goal is deeper than simply ticking off places and experiences, if we are seeking to understand, to ‘grow’ ourselves, our limited travels can still serve us. For the rest of us it is through reading and the sharing of stories that we can gain such insight, as long as the authors, our guides, are themselves astute observers who are engaged in the places and peoples of which they write. There are many such writers…I can think of none better than Arundhati Roy who writes so beautifully, imaginatively and painfully of her beloved home India.
My first reading of Roy, was of her novel, “The God of Small Things”, published in 2008, a personal look into the India of her youth, its confusing history of a place populated by diverse peoples, languages and cultures, bound together by two centuries of British occupation and rule. She has over the years become a passionate essayist, in her words, a writer/activist, writing of the injuries and struggles of her country which historically never existed prior to their occupation by the British, of violence perpetrated by one group upon another to gain and retain advantage…at the expense of the many. India today is driven by politicians of its ruling party, the BJP, right leaning, it has been moving toward authoritarianism as it forwards its embracement of Hinduism. Modi and the BJP have been imposing a reformed version of the Brahmin caste system which locks individuals and families into heritable classes, denying those assigned to the lower rungs, depriving them of not just dignity, but the right to ‘dream’ or, often, even exist. Muslims in particular had been separated out. More than a few of their ‘leaders’ have openly admired the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini. India, today, is dominated by divisions which have never been so destructive and its influence spills over into Pakistan, Bangladesh and the several ‘states’ that exist at the whim of the Indian governors, particularly Muslim dominated Kashmir and Jammu where land ownership has been ‘legally’ ripped away from their Muslim residents, who have been denied citizenship, the ‘right to have rights’, their land opened up to be possessed and exploited by Hindu Indians. Such changes are backed by their courts and enforced by the military while Muslims within India itself are often subject to attacks by mobs, without consequence. Sadly, the mob violence, is sometimes reciprocated in reverse, with retribution following often manyfold. The killing and depredations go on endlessly, serving only those in power. Established, government supported, divisions are harsh, relegating Muslims, Dalits (outcasts and untouchables), the region’s many millions of poor to the bottom. Complaints, calls for reform and protests against this condition, are recognized as terrorist actions by the government and its media, and are commonly met by police, military and mob violence. In India existence assures nothing. No rights are ‘inalienable’. Anything and everything can be denied and taken away. Women and children, exist in a class below their husbands, fathers and brothers, in a country which has long embraced misogyny. Violence against women is commonly justified as deserved, the results of their own ‘faults’….Does any of this sound familiar?
In India their government has shifted far to the ‘right’, taking on many of the characteristics of authoritarian governments around the world and much of what has become common place there has frightening echos here within the US. In denying these millions of people the protections of full citizenship, India denies them the rights to existence….The world is not populated by several billions of individuals, each independent and ‘free’ to do as we please. We are rather all tied up together in relationships with one another, relationships in which our own involvement is so closely enmeshed that we cannot always see it…especially when one isn’t looking. Never has it been more important that we understand this. We in America are making our way toward a decision that cannot be easily undone, one that we and the entirety of the world’s population will be saddled with at great cost. Those who claim that politics don’t matter, or that all politicians are the same, have surrendered their future to those who know all to well that it may be the most important issue we face today, because it will shape exactly how and, in fact whether, we seriously address the problems that confront us, problems which are of our own making. We need writers like Roy. We need to understand the world as they see it. What happens is neither fate nor accident. It is a choice, a choice which either seizes on to a limited and destructive ideology denying the value of others, or one that recognizes the value in all things and people.
When we stare only into a mirror at ourselves, we cannot fully understand what we’re looking at. This is what’s happening in India as millions of their people are dropped out of citizen status and, in so doing, are stripped of even the right to existence by their country and former countrymen. Meanwhile, the ‘favored’ celebrate, a nationalist fervor sweeping away, denying all doubt and the lives of so many with it.
In “Azadi: Freedom. Fascism, Fiction.”, published in 2020, Arundhati Roy’ offers us a compilation of recent essays and talks in which she looks critically about her India, language and the writer’s role in a world beset by wrongs, institutional wrongs, perpetrated and promoted by its ‘rulers’ and the destructive nature of a political strategy that utilizes division to seize and retain power. While history and conditions are very different in India, than they are here in the US, there are many parallels which we would be foolish to ignore.
This is a ‘difficult’ read. In some ways it is a speed course on the daily and special atrocities of modern day India. The scale of these crimes is mind numbing. Roy’s other novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, published in 2018, immerses the reader in a story of the dead, dying and rejected as a ‘lens’ with which to examine the everyday world of modern day India, its conflicts, richness and humanity. Just as an individual’s life is not so simple, neither are the histories of the communities and countries within which we live. In India, a diverse and complicated collection of people, government has put in place a biased, discriminatory system which picks favorites and condemns all others. People are seen as possessing more or less utility and are used as long as the powerful find them useful, and the people scramble to assure others that they are among the select, before they too are discarded, and then, these newly ‘wasted’, are thrown in with the rest to scrape and battle for what they can. One group is set against another. India is a country of some 700 different languages and dialects, the precise number is debatable, languages which have been wielded as political weapons,; of principalities in historical conflict; with religions more often used to divide than join people; with a class/caste system that locks many millions into endless cycles of poverty while rewarding others with wealth and power simply because they were born to it. There are many lines across which ‘fractures’ can be forced. For me this is the kind of future that America’s far right and many of our would be oligarchs would choose for us. To imagine this is not much of a stretch.
In a world of diminishing resources, climate change and international threats, this is the future that these leaders see for India…it is a ‘lifeboat ethic’ writ large…and in it, it’s every man for himself. The morality which would say, ‘women and children first!’, which would put anyone or thing ahead of these powerful, ‘fittest’, is being scrapped for a moral model that sees clear lines between the ‘fittest’ and the rest. Their fitness is limited, a product of power and the willingness to wield it. We are creating a global triage system that awards value based on class, on minority status, and sacrifices those designated by them as ‘inferior’, while doing nothing to address the source of our problems. It is a scramble for power in a declining world, a decline which the powerful are largely responsible for, resistant to responding to, a government, which Roy sees, as having lost its imagination, its compassion and even willingness to understand. It is a world in which anyone of us may suddenly find ourselves on the ‘outside’. When one reads of the problems plaguing India today, one sees striking parallels with what is happening here, the racism, white nationalism, bigotry, misogyny and demands for an end to any regulation of business, many businesses which would sacrifice anything for profit…the corruption of mammon.
We are being pushed into a world of ever deeper division, of exclusion, a hierarchy of citizens, in which membership may be denied, subject to bias, whim and expedience, each tier, each declining level, having fewer rights, all of which may be revoked to meet the demands of the few at the top. It is the result of an unopposed vision that brooks no exception, which is in fact intolerant of other views, that sees and awards position and status, disproportionately to the ‘loyal’ few. ‘Truth’ and fake news are its weapons used to sow discord, to widen the divisions. divisions which should serve as signals to the rest of us.
In nature were such a minority of organisms to divide up and sacrifice entire sectors of its community, it would be understood to be drastically out of balance, unhealthy. Of course it doesn’t happen because when one population is locally decimated, consumed by others, those which preyed on them, are themselves ‘checked’, suffer a population ‘collapse’ of their own, and, in doing so, provide the opportunity for recovery, for ‘balance’ regained. Generally, this cycling of populations is not catastrophic as populations are linked intimately and directly, an example of one of nature’s negative feedback loops which works to maintain balance. But in human politics, due largely to our technologies and infrastructure, the connection is less intimate, less direct, and ‘collapses’ can be ‘pushed’ much further. People, entire populations can serve as kinds of buffers which can be sacrificed. A politics which celebrates its superiority, also grossly under values that of non-members, minorities, non-citizens and is often too willing to sacrifice them with little thought, except as to how ‘best’ go about it. Such a politics fails to see the essence of healthy functioning systems, from the cell to the organism, to the community/pack, local populations and the global whole. Any system subject to such division is poised for decline, whatever its leaders may proclaim. They may even embrace it, magically thinking that they will be spared, the rabble and unnecessary once gone, somehow simplifying the world, making it easier to control–absolutely ignorant and in denial of how organisms and living communities live, how they are connected in mutually supportive relationships. From life comes life. What they see as an unnecessary redundancy, a non-contributing factor, or even a ‘drag’, may be essential, a safeguard which assures the health and vitality, the adaptability of the whole. A careless reduction, or an unchecked increase, can cause a wide collapse, creating an effective genetic reshuffling, changing drastically the course of the future and the existence of entire species….Life is the result of a several billion years long process, ‘advancing’ through time while generating countless complex and diverse forms, each playing a role for a limited period, either ‘successful’ or ‘failures’, everyone eventually dying.
Which is more important, the cow whose milk we consume, the bacteria which enables the cow to digest and utilize the nutrients in the grass it eats, the grass itself, or the particular conditions on the Earth driven by the power of the sun necessary for the grass to grow? The farmer who cares for the cows? Where does he/she fit in? The infrastructure which allows for the milk to be collected, processed and delivered to the person who drinks it? The schools who educated the inventors, operators and maintainers of the technology that makes it all possible? The people who directly facilitate this? Those who provide necessary support to those people? The beauty of the natural world which provides so many of them with their motivating power? That gives them opportunities to ‘re-create’ themselves when the world wears them down? What is necessary? What is a life that is restricted to only that which a powerful few view as ‘necessary’.?
Health must be defined by wholeness and depends upon the vitality of its parts and their endless and complex relationships. Every individual, every community must be fully integrated, in ‘communication’, in relationship with everything in and around it. The roles of every individual are not identical, are not directly interchangeable. When healthy each one is allowed to flourish and must do so for the ‘whole’ to maintain itself in an optimum state, to evolve to its next level. Division and mass death, the loss of entire populations, genocide and the indifferent sacrifice of species, reduces the whole, compromising its capacity to adapt. Those few mass extinction events which have occurred in the distant past had far reaching consequences, this would be the first entered into ‘willingly’ by a species, sacrificing the ‘expendable’ in the unfounded belief that it will assure its own success. This is not how biology works. This is not the result of an informed and ‘conscious’ decision. It is in fact a failure, a rigid belief in a blind and selfish ideology. It is true that our lives are dependent upon the consumption of other organisms, but all are threatened if each is not recognized, supported, even ‘celebrated’ as essential to the whole. The quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, as well as the vitality of the overall ‘system’, play major roles in the course of disease and pestilence. To live out of balance is to compromise one’s own life despite their beliefs and desires, for those count for naught. All play a role. Our choice is whether we will embrace it or selfishly reject it. None are ‘truly’ superior if all are necessary. Who are we to decide.
When we examine the behavior of any individual, of any species, we can learn much of value, but it can never address the value of the whole. While an individual will have particular abilities and tendencies, their overall behavior will fall within a range of patterns which are shared by other members of their species, and to some degree, between species. While an individual, in our estimation, may appear to possess nothing of value to us, this is more of a reflection of our own limited experience, or of an ideology we have accepted and perhaps failed to revisit when we have found the world to operate outside of it. We are not magically independent beings. We are necessarily and even intimately linked. As truly independent individuals, our futures would be very limited as each one of us would be completely on our own, self reliant, existing due entirely to our singular abilities to provide all things for ourselves, without the aid of others. No human families, no communities, no businesses or trading organizations, no public infrastructure of any kind. There would be no domesticated animals as such a thing depends on an intentional effort over a period of multiple human generations to effect a positive change, no technology because it is dependent on a pattern of cooperation, shared intent and the ability to teach and pass on the ideas that make it possible. We would be alone, without language and the ability to communicate with one another. Communication is perhaps the single most important aspect of relationship. Anyone who spends any time studying animal and plant communities understands that every single organism exists in relationship with those around it for its sustenance and success. Even our ability to regulate our own bodies is dependent upon our cells and organs being able to ‘read’ their surroundings, chemically adjusting their internal state, relative to those outside, in order to maintain the complex dynamic of life. Organisms, at every level, share this dynamic relationship. Just as organisms are effectively cooperative, composites, ‘social bodies’, be they families, packs, flocks or diverse biological communities sharing a landscape, they all exhibit this same kind of essential ‘cooperation’. They must. To behave too far outside of this relationship is to put the self and whole at risk. Relationships can be examined by looking into the roles individuals play, but the individual can never be sufficient for existence. Although an individual is functional on its own at its scale, its continuation is completely dependent upon the ongoing support of that which it is a part. These necessary and diverse roles go to defining the community, the whole. Each serves necessary functions, but is not individually necessary in the strictest sense. Organisms and their communities, their social structures, gain much of their vigor, strength and stability from redundancy. The loss of any one part is felt, but not critical to the whole. If it is, failure/death follows. There is a dynamic tension between life and death. It is not the individual, the species or even the particular function one provides that is necessary, it is the health of the whole and if that can be maintained alternatively, the ‘community’, organism, system, can both continue and evolve.
In a very real sense life is a numbers game, reduce them and the chances for ‘success’ are diminished. It is dependent upon complexity and the interlocking functions and roles that each member contributes, large and small. All elements are flexible and dynamic to a point. Humans have an over inflated notion of their own value to the world. Call it arrogance, ignorance or hubris, it is a failure of our imagination, a selfish refusal to consider what is really happening, that it is the whole, not particular individuals, which we should be concerned with. When we create narrow, specialized subsystems which meet particular and narrow human requirements, we may threaten the health of the whole. Such choices are outside of those nature would ‘choose’ for itself…or even could. Our ‘criteria’ are different. Our exclusively human priority operates as a threat to the health of the whole. What becomes evident as one looks more closely into the entire issue of what constitutes life, because that is what we at least should be doing when we make our decisions, is that we, each and every organism, is not so much a ‘thing’, a living object or individual, but a process, an ‘event’, a dynamic, energized moment along the leading edge of an unfolding and evolving life or whole, a whole that changes continuously, moving from the past to an indeterminate future, evolving into greater diversity and complexity, and in terms of energy, ever more efficient in its channeling. Any living organism, including ourselves, our living cells and tissues, are not those we were born with. Proteins degrade, individual cells ‘die’, and are replaced, continuously, as are our tissues. The molecules which compose our bodies are in continuous flux and, in this way, we resemble communities and societies, each continuing on over a limited lifespan. Of course there are hiccups along the way. What we need to understand is that the reductive politics so many have chosen to follow, is one of many possible choices and we need to decide whether we wish to be a momentary hiccup, or an effective, positive, part in the ongoing unfolding of life here.
We humans have created, and sustain, a myth which has been serviceable over the short term, allowing us to pursue the narrow goals of a human population that has seen fit to set itself above the whole organic system of this world. We have taken Darwins’s idea of natural selection and the concept of the survival of the fittest and used it, reducing our lives to the singularly competitive game in which every human seeks and takes advantage of every person, and opportunity, to gain their own short term goals at the expense of others. That, ‘social Darwinist’s claim, is what nature does…but they couldn’t be more wrong. One of our current most ‘successful’ instruments in society’s ‘tool kit’ is the historically unique invention of the capitalist economy, (other economic systems have been perverted in a similar manner, contorted from its purpose of providing for the many, to that of serving the few) an economy which today places all of its actions ‘above’ those of the living world. We do so to pursue our ability to maximize our benefit, outside of the organic cycles and systems essential for the life and health of the whole. We have separated out a very particular function, the process whereby we as a society have agreed to follow this particular economic pathway to meet our individual needs, creating an abstract and new definition of ‘value’ and meaning in the process, and then come to see it as viable and essential, separated, from a healthy functioning organic, living, system. For some reason we have come to see this abstraction as plausible on its own, functioning outside of, above, the whole, one that can continue on indefinitely as can nature (what?), failing to understand that this economic abstraction/human creation, like any such fragment we might concoct, is actually in conflict with the whole. It disregards most all of the relationships between living things in a functioning system. In our present economy, resources are valued only in terms of their direct and immediate utility. Can it be converted into profit? Does a resource, species or people have utility? If they don’t they are dismissed and devalued, their sacrifice or loss, barely noticed, by an economy and world operating under an ethical structure that changes with the situation, rejecting nature. We continue doing this at our own peril, our actions compromising the health and stability of every biological community it comes in contact with, including our own. Human relationships, and the constructs we have implemented, have a direct, and potently negative, biological impact on the living world…we just choose to deny it. Every human institution from the family to corporate organizations puts this stubborn insistence to the lie that it is. Nothing of any value is accomplished in a society without communication and cooperation. Operating outside of nature’s established relationships will always undermine and weaken it. Compromising life, time and again, has become ‘reasonable’ and prudent. When we pick and choose outside of the system, we put all at risk. The only question the advocates of this system consider, unless forced by law to do otherwise, is to which individuals, which population, do we extend the opportunity to participate and to which ones do we deny it. Who receives economic benefit? Who is left only with the cost?
We need to understand that politics and economics are social institutions, constructs, agreements, through which by default or active choice, we act as participants. Over time via shared and accrued action, we act, with a collective ‘voice’ and force, on the world we inhabit. We individuals are the players and we do so in an ‘orchestrated’ and impactful way. Ours is a substantial and potent collective ‘voice’, a powerful actor in the world. What we may define in social, political or economic terms, has direct and real world effects on the biological world…they are not separable. In fact no single human action can be truly defined as separate, operating only within its defined ‘sphere’. Our actions are an extension of our physical bodies with real world effects at every level. Just as we are not separable as individuals from the living world within which we live, neither are our actions. Many of us seek a pass from our responsibilities in the state of the world, falling back on the idea that we as individuals are not at fault, that it is ‘them’, always ‘them’, never understanding that there is no ‘them’, there is only now, and ever will be, ‘we’.
Biology does not choose a single lineage, species or individual, when it selects for fitness. There is no bias or intent, no preferred outcome or generation…only those that ‘best’ fill their roles. It is not a ‘fixed’ state. Nor can fitness be limited to a single individual, ‘class’ or species. What humans tend to think of as dominance is not the same as fitness. Dominance, in this limited ‘human’ sense, is a ‘momentary’ expression within a far longer dynamic process. It is the exercise of a strategy to limit and control the outcome. Today’s ‘winners’, may not be tomorrow’s. Dominance by one group, can result in their decline over successive generations, before, conditions can once again support the previously dominant behavior, if it ever can. Dominance is a selfish attempt to leave a mark, a legacy, for oneself, in a system that has ‘other plans’. Fitness is a ‘product’ of the short and long term, single and multiple generations of a lineage, a result of performing one’s role well. Survival success is a result of the greater biological system as a whole, life’s collection of sun powered organisms bound together in relationship. Certainly life is dependent on an individual’s success at reproducing, a line is extinguished if one fails this, but it also includes how well it fulfills its other roles in service to the larger community and system. Ultimately, life is assessed at the level of the whole not of its component parts, important as they may be. Which forms, in which relationships, exhibit such ‘success’? Which are the most effective in utilizing, conserving and passing on the available energy which ‘drives’ the entire system? If such an organic living system has a priority, it is that which best assures its continuation, which is most ‘fit’. This is not a simple linear and direct process. As with many physical phenomenon there will be an endless back-and-forth of adaptation, response, win, loss and overshoot, as if ‘orbiting’ around an ideal–indefinable– because it is itself ever changing and evolving. Life is an ‘event’, not a ‘thing’. Dynamic, not fixed. There is and never will be an ultimate species. No pinnacle to be achieved…or defended. Not when anyone individual of a species is dependent upon all of its relationships with all other species… not to mention the cycles and vagaries of physical conditions. Life will always be a dynamic, ongoing process. It will, over the long term, measured in multiple generations, never settle on one particular model, composed of a hierarchical and fixed set of species, in set relationships. Death should suggest this. Death is itself neither cruel nor biased…all things die and in death serve life. Yes, like birth, death is simply a fact of life and it’s larger long-term process. It must be understood then that the ultimate good, is that which is in service to life in all of its ongoing and unfolding processes.
Biological wholeness and democracy, are the best expression of, that most compatible with, the processes of life. They can serve as indicators of its vitality and the probability that it shall continue to serve. Both are centered on relationship, assure the greatest opportunities to respond and adapt. In each we can see their essential nature, their ‘social’ organization. In seeking the fulfillment of the greater good, the whole can then serve the individual. Don’t expect the ‘whole’ to sacrifice its integrity for the benefit of individuals. Democracy allows for the fullest development of all human social relationships…not a select few. Just as humans respond positively to a supportive environment, so too does the panoply of life. Any individual, of any species, can only do so, in its best ‘form’, its most vital expression, when appropriately supported. This does not mean that certain individuals must be favored and others sacrificed…all have a role. While nature and evolution are not goal driven, nature does tend toward its fullest expression from moment to moment. Arguably it is this energetic ‘drive’ which propels the process of evolution over time. This ‘drive’, in physics is identified as the thermodynamic nature of energy, its effect on matter and organisms, its tendency to bring about ‘order’ from chaos, and in so doing, animate life when appropriately ‘applied’, before it degrades and is ultimately lost to space…continuously. Nature is a process which assesses every individual, every relationship, at every moment, ‘deciding’ what’s best for the whole in its evolving expression. Birth, growth, death represent its ‘accounting’. With none favored it continues. Man is a part of this process–we have serious choices to make.
One path leads us to a dynamic, healthy, world of abundance, mutual respect and empathy; the other to one of consumption, unfair competition, decline and increasingly, corruption, as the compromised systems of the whole are forced further out of balance and lose the capacity to remain there. Health is thus sacrificed when our goal relies upon extracting monetary value, above all else. But, if we were to choose to follow the path consistent with deep and complex relationships, which respects and honors wholeness and life, we would be following a path to a mutually imagined future where the idea of enough is celebrated and individual lives find fulfillment. The other is the path of denial, in which each and all things of value are hoarded, distributed only to the limited set of recognized powerful players… all the rest left on their own. Politics does matter because it shapes the world and our place in it. The ability of humans to ‘reflect’ on their behavior, to reconsider previous decisions and amend our ways, is uniquely human. Dominating a system for selfish short term benefit assures nothing other than greater future losses. This is not a simple choice between the modern world and its technologies and a return to the cave. It is an opportunity to rediscover our innate creativity and find a new life in this world which is in harmony with it rather than in opposition and because this is a path we truly know little about, it requires that we tap the vast reservoir of our courage and honor both ourselves and this place upon which our lives are intimately connected and dependent.
I found the following tribute to Arundahti Roy as a writer very insightful in terms of what it has to say about the state of the world and Roy’s value as a writer.