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An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire

By Arundhati Roy
South End Press, 156 pp., $12 (cloth)

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Except as a destination for outsourced U.S. jobs, the world's second most populous country and largest democracy is a place we hear relatively little about. But while India is celebrated as home to an economic boom, there is another, bigger picture -- one in which millions of Indians face poverty, malnutrition and state-sponsored repression, both from police brutality and the criminalization of dissent under that nation's own version of the Patriot Act.

 

To learn even this much from An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, by essayist and novelist Arundhati Roy, is useful. But Roy is about nothing if not a picture that's bigger still. With fierce intelligence and slashing style, the New Dehli resident's new collection of six recent talks and essays illuminates the web of injustice, spun by state-sponsored capitalism and its media helpers, that envelops the globe: "In the era of corporate globalization, poverty is a crime, and protesting against further impoverishment is terrorism."

 

In "Peace Is War: The Collateral Damage of Breaking News," Roy excoriates the corporate media for turning humanitarian crises into consumer items. The title essay, written in the teeth of the first days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recaps the U.N.'s role with one of her bitterly apt metaphors: "[T]hat old U.N. girl -- it turns out she just ain't what she was cracked up to be. Now she's the world's janitor. She's the Filipina cleaning lady, the Indian Jamadarni, the mail-order bride from Thailand, the Mexican household help, the Jamaican au pair. She's employed to clean other people's shit. She's used and abused at will."

 

Though occasionally marred by easy sarcasm, Roy's commentaries are better noted for her mercurial transitions from idea to idea, from cutting witticism to linguistic insight, all bound in a thirst for economic and social justice. "Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?" draws a darkly funny parallel between America's annual presidential "turkey pardon" and the new global face of genocide and racism.

 

Perhaps Roy's most scathing critique, though, comes in "How Deep Shall We Dig?" There she explains, with earth-moving logic, why real change can't come through electoral politics, and why civil disobedience on a grand, Ghandiesque scale is the only viable alternative. In Roy's bigger picture, hope is not impossible, but true reform is a long road.

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