Azadi, a word of Persion origin, resounds throughout Asia as a cry for liberation. Declared in Hindi, Urdu, Armenian, Azeri, Kashmiri, and other languages, the word means “freedom,” and it’s the title of a timely new collection of essays by Arundhati Roy, which warns of the disappearance of freedom in the Indian subcontinent. Written between 2018 and 2020, the nine essays in Azadi (some of which were first delivered as lectures) confront many of the issues Roy has written about for over twenty years: the rise of Hindu nationalism, the conflict in Kashmir, the threat of nuclear war. It also features meditations on the power of language and the importance of literature for a society in decay.
Azadi comes just fourteen months after the publication of My Seditious Heart, a thousand-page volume that gathered twenty years’ worth of Roy’s nonfiction. But a lot has happened in the short period since she wrote the most recent essay in My Seditious Heart: India reelected a chauvinist Hindu government, annexed the most militarized part of the world, and enacted a law that bars Muslims from seeking citizenship. Students and teachers peacefully protesting at Jawaharlal Nehru University were assaulted by “armed Hindu vigilante mobs,” who also brutally attacked Muslims in working-class neighborhoods around the time of Donald Trump’s visit to India. And of course, there’s the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s neglect of millions of vulnerable migrant workers, its paltry financial support for the unemployed, and its weak health infrastructure have been nothing short of catastrophic. As of mid-October, there were over 7.4 million recorded cases of COVID-19 in India, but, because of insufficient testing, the real number was likely much higher.
Yet to those who have been watching closely—and few have watched as closely as Roy—none of this is particularly surprising. Rather, it’s the natural trajectory for a country that has been deeply troubled since its inception. It’s here that Roy begins Azadi, outlining some of the difficulties of defining what India really is. She approaches an answer in the collection’s strongest essay, “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?”—words borrowed from Pablo Neruda. India, after all, has more than seven hundred languages, but only twenty-two are formally recognized by its constitution. This sheer heterogeneity makes a true democracy nearly impossible. “Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe,” Roy writes. English has imperfectly sutured India’s many linguistic gaps. For Roy, who is of Syrian Christian heritage, writing and speaking in English are not homages to the British Empire so much as the “practical solution to the circumstances created by it.”