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[whitespace] Trading Places

Novelist Arundhati Roy turns essayist with 'Power Politics'

By Patrick Sullivan

REMEMBER GLOBALIZATION? It was big, big news for a brief moment not so long ago. Then along came Sept. 11, and the stormy debate over the hows and whys and what-ifs of the integration of the planet's economies and societies got smacked right off the front page. Which seems a little odd. After all, the horrendous events that so distracted the world were authored by a rich Saudi nutjob living in Afghanistan who used international banking networks to finance a suicide mission by a multinational crew of religious fanatics out to destroy the World Trade Center. And the nutjob apparently has buddies in Singapore, Germany, the Philippines, England and God knows where else.

Globalization? You're soaking in it.

Not that anyone on either side of the trade debate was predicting anything like Sept. 11 on Sept. 10. But the unintended consequences and the strange contradictions of globalization were (and are) among the biggest concerns of its chief detractors.

Those are certainly the main themes of Power Politics (South End Press, $12), a new collection of essays by Arundhati Roy, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things. Roy wrote the essays in Power Politics before most Americans could find Kabul on a map. But the issues she discusses--from the rising tide of religious fanaticism to the house-of-cards financial improprieties of Enron--are far from dated.

Roy's thesis is both simple and familiar: globalization's cheerleaders, from the World Trade Organization to U.S. political leaders, make big promises to countries like India. But for the world's poor majority, the promised progress never arrives.

"It's as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions," Roy writes. "The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears."

We've heard many of the basic ideas in Power Politics before--but we've never seen them written about like this. All the qualities that distinguish Roy's fiction also appear in these essays: her vivid descriptions, the power and passion of her prose, and her wicked and whimsical sense of humor.

Roy starts out with a few basic questions: "What is globalization?" she writes. "Who is it for? What is it going to do to a country like India, in which social inequality has been institutionalized in the caste system for centuries?"

The answers aren't pretty. One by one, Roy reveals how the trade liberalization and the development schemes pushed by huge multinationals that are supposed to modernize India have led instead to more poverty, massive displacement and enormous profits for those in the driver's seat.

One of the most infuriating (and topical) stories concerns Enron's escapades in the Indian state of Maharastra. The Houston-based energy company is all over the headlines now that its Byzantine financial schemes have utterly collapsed. But back in the '90s, Enron was still going strong, and one of the business deals closest to its heart was a contract with Maharastra for a massive new power plant to provide energy that the impoverished state didn't need and couldn't use.

In a backroom deal, Enron somehow convinced a newly elected state government to sign the sweetest sort of sweetheart deal: a massive contract guaranteeing Enron more than $10 billion in profits. "There is, of course, no record of what mathematical formula was used to 're-educate' the new government," Roy writes. "Nor any trace of how much trickled up or down or sideways and to whom." When the plant began operating, the power proved to be so expensive that local industrialists wouldn't buy it.

There's much more here: Roy explores Hindu fundamentalism, the massive displacement of the rural poor caused by big dams, the rise of nuclear politics between India and Pakistan, and the tenacious popular organizations that are fighting for the rights of India's poor. Whatever the subject, the author manages to make it relevant and interesting to a reader living half a world away.

Early in the book, Roy tries to explain why a successful novelist would suddenly start writing about politics. But given the extraordinary power of these pieces, many will simply wonder why she didn't start sooner.

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From the January 30-February 6, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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