Imagine buying a book, bringing it home and, after reading a few pages, discovering that its nothing but an essay published in a magazine (Outlook) last year now available in book form. I had the same experience with Arundhati Roy’s Walking with Comrades. Comrades is an essay on the day-to-day lives and struggle of tribals living in Maoism-affected areas and Maoists, who as per Roy, are their benefactors. Roy has detailed the typical life in a jungle under the fear of security forces and with the constant trepidation of receiving death news of fellow comrades shot by security forces.
In her usual caustic way, Roy launches scathing attack on courts, governments and corporations, holding them and their nexus responsible for the misery of tribals and shows Maoists as fighting a just fight on their behalf.
Though Roy’s propensity to justify violence by Maoists calling it revenge and the last resort against an uncaring State is sometimes off-putting, her effective documenting of their lives and voice will leave you with a heavy heart, thinking how a part of the country’s population is being denied normal lives. Through simple occurrences, like a group joke or humor, Roy conveys their sense of isolation and anger. On one occasion, while watching Mother India ( a famous Hindi film) on video with a group of Maoists, Roy asks a female Maoist if she likes films and she replies, “No, only ambush videos (Maoist attacks on Indian security forces)“.
There are sardonic moments as well. While Roy is on her way to meet Maoists to live with them and document their lives, a police constable tells her there is no apparent solution to this tribal problem except if you put a TV set in each of their homes, suggesting how TV, largely an urban middle class thing, has blinded the middle class to the larger world making ‘zombies’ out of them, one among many allegations Roy has leveled at the middle class in her various writings.
There is very little doubt that Roy’s views are lopsided but if you are familiar with her activist writing you hardly look for balance; what you look for is to hear the voice of a people who, if not for the likes of Roy, would probably go completely unheard.