A Language of Dissent

“Don’t you feel proud of your country?” Arundhati Roy has been asked.

India is considered to be a rising star by the growth rate. India’s cities are booming. Money is being made.

The University of Westminster hosted a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India in June of last year, where Arundhati Roy had a conversation with Dibyesh Anand about the notion of democracy.

Roy considers the darker side of the question: She says that although India has been presented as a huge success story, 800 million people live on less than 30 cents a day. It is a country were the numbers of displaced people– displaced to slums and the underbelly of big cities– are larger than the populations of European countries. But it not just that. The poor people of India don’t have voices. As Roy puts it, “You are not allowed to feel  about your river or valley or your people because somewhere, someone has drawn a mark that tells you who you are and who you are not.”

Aravind Adiga was faced with the same question in his 2008 Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger. Is it the duty of a writer to voice the opinions of the poor and those who can’t speak for themselves? Is Adiga’s voice the voice of someone actually in this position or is it something else? How can we, as readers, consider the context of this plot without creating an exotic India that has never existed?

Adiga, in an interview with The Guardian, answers some of these questions. Adiga points out that if the people of India were to write into the social constraints they were born into then only 5% of India would be represented.

A poor man in India has no place to voice his opinion. Balram explains: a man who tries to vote is killed. He writes,

“‘What are you doing here?’

‘Voting,’ he shouted back. “isn’t it the election today?”

I cannot confirm what happened next, even though I was only a few feet behind him… I never saw what they did to that brave, mad man” (85). Only a few paragraphs down Balram explains that he learned that the man was beaten brutally.

Who will speak for a man like this?

A writer should speak in the language that creates change in the world if the writer has the skills to do so– that is the writer’s most treasured power. If writers never strove to make a difference with their words, the novel wouldn’t make the kind of impact that it does– we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. The danger in this is that the voice presented may create a caricature of the voice it intended to bring to light. But how does anyone know, when the voice being represented can’t speak for itself? This is a dangerous road to walk along, and it’s something that Adiga does admirably. For example, his main character in The White Tiger speaks plainly of the problems of politics in India. There have been critics, an example of which this blog post discusses, who have made the point that Balram speaks in a voice that is unrealistic for a taxi driver. Adiga himself notes that in his travels around India he was amazed at the intelligence of the working class and poor. Perhaps they are simply pushed into a role– a big belly versus a smaller belly that is eaten– and not allowed to voice their opinion.

But how can the cycle change? Only when writers use ever means available to them to give those people a voice. Give them room to speak, and the world will start listening. This is what writers do. This is why writers must keep creating. Even if we as readers don’t understand the whole picture yet– even if we see an image that isn’t true to reality– at least we can get in the conversation.

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