Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Friday, 27 January 2012

Book review: Arundhati Roy's Walking With The Comrades

This review appeared in the Sunday Post of the South China Morning Post, 22 January 2012.

Walking with the Comrades
by Arundhati Roy
Penguin Books
3 stars
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

In the blockbuster science fiction film Avatar humans have destroyed earth because of their unbridled capitalism. The over-populated and resource-depleted planet is besieged by natural cataclysms and man-made disasters, in the wake of which humans are scouring outer space for resources. In Pandora, an earth-like moon, they discover unobtanium, a precious source of energy supply that they seek. Here’s the rub. Pandora is the home of a humanoid species called Na’vi who live in a giant tree that sits on a vast store of unobtanium. To mine this resource humans will have to battle the Na’vi, destroy their way of life and upset the ecological balance on Pandora. Unless stopped, they’ll end up wrecking Pandora just as they have done the earth.

The enormous success of Avatar can be partially explained by our ambivalence about climate change and global warming: is our modern lifestyle wrecking the earth and leading us to doomsday? Are we fated to live in an urban ghetto, heavily militarized and devoid of flora and fauna – a “dying world”, as a character in Avatar says, where humans have “killed their mother”?

In Walking with the Comrades Arundhati Roy tackles the question head on. She spends time with the Maoist guerillas in the forests where they are battling Indian security forces, documents their armed resistance and raises the question: will global capitalism tolerate any societies existing outside of its realm of control?

In a globalising world one question has been raised with increasing frequency: is capitalism compatible with sustainable development? A one-line summary of the movie Avatar, it is a debate of considerable significance as our world population approaches 7 billion – can our environment take the strain of an ever-expanding economy and people? 

Walking with the Comrades is a collection of three essays published over time in the Indian news weekly Outlook. In the first, Mr. Chidambram’s War, Roy takes us to south Orissa, a state locked in battle between tribals called Kondh and the Indian government. P. Chidambram is India’s home minister and “CEO of the war”. In a scene that seems lifted from Avatar the Kondhs worship the low flat-topped hills of their home as living deities. The same hills, however, contain vast deposits of bauxite, which one of the biggest mining corporations in the world want to mine. Financial value of the bauxite deposits of Orissa is 2.27 trillion dollars (twice India’s gross domestic product, at 2004 prices). 

“Thirteen tones of rock and stone yield one tonne of bauxite. The ‘Red Mud’ in these stilling ponds is the toxic residue produced by the refining process in which bauxite is turned to aluminium.” Roy documents the devastation that mining would bring to south Orissa. “If the flat-topped hills are destroyed, the forests that clothe them will be destroyed too. So will the rivers and streams that flow out of them and irrigate the plains below. So will the Kondh.” The tribals believe that if they do not fight for their land, they’ll be annihilated. They have taken up arms and the Indian Government has announced Operation Green Hunt, a war against the ‘Maoist’ rebels headquartered in the jungles of central India.

So, who are the Maoists really? Roy answers this question in the second essay, Walking with the Comrades, which gives the book its title as well. Through a secret rendezvous in Dantewada, Chattisgarh, Roy is led into an area controlled by the Maoists. “It’s the epicenter of a war. It’s an upside-down, inside-out town. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. The police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms”. 

The Maoists are members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), one of the several descendents of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which led the 1969 Naxalite uprising in the Indian state of West Bengal. The Maoists adhere to violence believing it to be the only way to redress the innate structural inequality of India. In their current avatar, the Maoist insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of central India, which are “homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world”.

In Dantewada Roy learns first hand of the war being fought between a government paramilitary force and “ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organized, hugely motivated Maoist guerilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion”. 

Over several days of trudging through the forest during day and sleeping in makeshift beds at night, Roy meets several members of the guerilla group. Lal Salaam Kaamrid is the universal greeting: Red Salute Comrade. The comrades show her a deserted school building constructed like three octagons attached to each other like a honeycomb, to enable the police to fire in all directions. She learns the history of the resistance movement, how uniting the people has improved their bargaining power with corporates that operate out of the region, beedi makers, paper mills, the Forest Department. They are governed by an elaborate structure of Janatana Sarkars (people’s governments) and “the organizing principles come from the Chinese revolution and the national liberation struggle in Vietnam”.

Trickledown Revolution, the third essay takes a swipe at trickledown economics that propounds that economic benefits provided by government to businesses and the wealthy will benefit poorer members of society by improving the economy as a whole. Capitalists advocate that better technology and efficiency would lead to use of fewer resources even while increasing economic output. However, that central tenet of capitalism has come under fire in the face of rising inequality, dwindling social mobility and a denuding environment. In India it has resulted in a growth in armed uprising. “In Orissa, for instance, there are a number of diverse struggles being waged by unarmed resistance movements that often have sharp differences with each other. And yet, between them all, they have managed to temporarily stop some major corporations from being able to proceed with their projects”.

India’s experiment with capitalism is two decades old and its concomitant track record with sustainable development has been unreliable. During the construction of one of its biggest dams, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, every single thing that was protested against has happened. Displaced people have not been rehabilitated, canals have not been built, and most of the water is being guzzled by cities and big industry. 

The insurrection in the Indian tribal heartland poses a challenge to the government as it questions what constitutes progress and development. An award-winning writer, Roy has taken up the cause of the militant tribals with passion. Her publisher, Penguin, in a display of aggrandizement, describes her work as “full of earth-shattering revelations”. 

Several publications in India have been documenting this story. Roy's voice is an important addition to this debate. It would help if she could tone down the shrillness, avoid hyperbole and repetition, and use the considerable power of her pen to get both sides to the table.

Avatar might have ended with an all-out war that ended with a Na'vi victory, but that was on Pandora. We are on Earth, and need to find the right balance to survive.


  1. thanks for the review...I was planning to read this as my next one... :)