Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy, both galactic-level celebrities in the world of letters, have released slim essay collections that reflect, in part, on this season of plague. Most of Roy’s essays in the pointedly titled Azadi predate the pandemic, written over the last two years “that in India”, as she writes in the ‘Introduction’, “have felt like two hundred”. Smith’s essays are entirely of the moment, bagatelles that cumulatively are of a density and substance that the brevity and airy elegance of each individual component belies.
For both, at the heart of the writerly enterprise is control, the demiurgical ability to impose your will on chaos, to shape the world contained within covers. For Roy, “endlessly complicated” freedom offered by the novel “is not the same as being loose, baggy, or random”. In ‘Peonies’, which opens Smith’s equally pointedly titled Intimations, she writes that “submission to nature was to be my realm, but I wanted no part of that”. She is writing about the lot of women, to always be subject to their bodies, to not be allowed, unlike men, to transcend the elemental. Her resistance to being dictated to by nature, “at the hot core of it”, she recognises, “was an obsession with control, common among my people (writers)”.
Writers, Smith observes, take the “shapeless bewilderment” of experience and wrest order from it. “Writing,” she notes, “is all resistance.” In Smith’s case, this resistance is most evident in her refusal to concede the middle ground she so eloquently occupies to any interloper from the extremities. In ‘Intimations’, the final entry in Smith’s list, a device that even in her able hands is grating, she gives thanks for her good fortune, the running together of historical and personal circumstances that account for her admirably ecumenical intelligence. But her cultivated ponderousness can seem like so much rearranging of the deckchairs as the Titanic hurtles towards icy oblivion. Her showy even-handedness makes the reader long for some evidence of dishevelment, for even fleeting discontent to ruffle her immaculate calm.
Roy, on the other hand, is never above the fray. It is her most enduring and admirable trait. In ‘Intimations of an Ending’, she writes that there “was a time when dissent was India’s best export”. But now “a shadow world is creeping up on us in broad daylight”. As is her wont, Roy uses a broadsword rather than a scalpel to lay waste to her enemies, here, the RSS and Narendra Modi. “We can only hope that, someday soon,” Roy writes, “the streets in India will throng with people who realise that unless they make their move, the end is close.” The streets were thronged, until the pandemic gave the world’s governments the excuse to clear the streets, to forbid, even ban, assembly. Roy’s ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’, written in April, offers us the possibility of a future without “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice… behind us”. But there may be no vaccine for hate. Smith writes that she once imagined racism might be defeated by knowledge if spread widely enough, “that we might finally reach some kind of herd immunity.” But, she admits, “I don’t think that anymore.”
It is a rare doleful note that Smith strikes. What, Roy asks, “is this thing that has happened to us?” For all the howls of protest (sadly, mostly from Roy’s own compatriots), it is to Roy that many of us will continue to look for answers. Or, rather, the right questions.