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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's November/December 2003
Let's Talk book selection
The Cost of Living
by Arundhati Roy

Discussion questions

If you ran the world, what would you do about the Narmada dam situation? Would it be fairer to all concerned than the Indian government's response? Why?

In discussing the Narmada dams, Roy says, "What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its rivers? Its forests? Its fish?" How is the nature of democracy reflected in the United States by how we manage resources such as land, rivers, forests, fish?

Roy talks about two paradigms for Indian development: Nehru's "paternal, protective morality of the Soviet-style centralized State" and Gandhi's "nurturing, maternal morality of romanticized village republics." Why does she reject both these visions for India? How would you describe the U.S. approach to development? What would be a better vision for India? For the United States?

Roy takes personal responsibility for the government's missteps, saying, "Of course we make it easy for them, we its beneficiaries." Why does she call herself a "beneficiary"? How is she making it easy?

Roy points out that the Indian government has good data on a multitude of subjects. It can, for instance, tell you how many graduates India produces and how many men have had vasectomies in any given year. But it doesn't know how many people have been displaced by the Narmada dams. "How can you measure progress if you don't know what it costs and who has paid for it?" Roy asks. Do U.S. decisionmakers tend to ignore the costs of the projects they want to promote? What are some examples?

Roy says that India has exhausted its supply of big heroes like Nehru and Gandhi, and therefore needs to support its small heroes. "Of these we have many. Many," she says. Does the United States still have big heroes? Does it have many small ones? Who? Can "small heroes" make big changes in a society? If so, how?

Why is Roy concerned about the nationalistic response in her country to the nuclear bomb? Compare that response to America's reaction to the September 11 attacks or the war in Iraq.

If you ran the Indian government, would you want an atomic bomb? Why or why not? What do you think about the United States' weapons policies?

"Listen then, to the story of the Narmada valley," Roy says. "Understand it. And, if you wish, enlist. Who knows, it may lead to magic." What kind of "magic" do you think Roy is envisioning? Is her hope realistic? To what extent can a book or article change the world?

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