The beloved author of The God of Small Things addresses the growth of India, U.S. imperialism, the problems of global capitalism, and other subjects she dissects in nearly 1,000 pages of previously published essays.
Despite the stately presentation and the fact that some of the essays first appeared 20 years ago, these studies are trenchant, still relevant and frequently alarming. Roy reveals some hard truths about modern India and makes powerful analytical forays into American and British foreign policy, aid, imperialism and attitudes ... These essays are much denser than her prose fiction, although not rebarbatively so. Rather, they are thick with intelligence and firmly bolstered with fact. To Roy’s exacting eye, everything in the world is complicated, contradictory, contingent—even resistance and freedom-fighting ... their impact comes from their precision, research and damningly clear reportage.
When Roy’s essays appeared individually, in magazines or newspapers, they functioned as little jabs of electricity, shocking us into reaction. Collectively, in My Seditious Heart, they remind us that many of the flaws in her nonfiction recur and persist. Her instinct to condemn becomes wearisome, and she gives us only the vaguest prescriptions for the systems she wishes would replace market-driven democracy, or dams, or globalization. She is prone to romanticizing the pre-modern, prompting us to wonder if she speaks too glibly for others ... When the dial isn’t tuned to high fulmination, Roy is easier and more moving to read. To form her opinions, or perhaps to confirm them, she travels widely across India. Her narrations of her encounters with people are tender, and her prose becomes marked by rare stillness ... Her fury is suited to these horrible and therefore simpler times; it’s more tuned to the reality on the ground than restraint and statistics ... Reading My Seditious Heart, you feel as if Roy has been hollering as extravagantly as possible for years, trying to grab our attention, and we’ve kept motoring on toward the edge of the cliff.
Roy herself is very attentive to the voices and backgrounds of her real-life characters, especially those in a position of power who can make their voices heard through their speeches, policies, or indeed, their books ... Some of these essays are focused on national issues and others on larger structural ones, but the local and the global are in constant contact, working in parallel, producing and reinforcing one another in a mad feedback mechanism, an accelerated cycle of chicken and egg ... The best part of Roy’s analysis is her own use of language: she has a snarky, accessible voice, and she is brilliant at narrative, putting events in order and drawing a line with lucidity through what seems to be an overwhelming chaos. Few people are able to do this well ... Roy’s work is an important part of a current academic and social interrogation of Indian politics in which Ambedkar is undergoing a renaissance and being analyzed with urgency, to explore what alternative paths the Constitution could have taken ... The weakest points are notably when Roy falls into oversized, broad language. Perhaps the essays that feel most dated are those on the war in Iraq and US politics, in which she writes in the Chomsky-Zinn-Berger tradition ... I was surprised by the delicacy of tone, the steel fist in a glove of velvet. In this case the length does Roy a favor: a single piece that might feel too strongly worded can moderate itself, self-correct, find its place within the overall critique ... Roy balances her data points with her gift for tracing a narrative line ... These are big questions, but few people write as Roy does, in a soft lilting voice that persuades us to walk with her, and to plot our approaches together.