LONDON - She entered the stage of the Southbank Centre from the far left of centre, similar to her beliefs, stepping up to the podium to speak about "dark talks", of failed promises and diabolical designs in the name of democracy. She ended the evening, the faded pink anchal of her sari draped on the armchair, with the audience applauding and listening to her chosen ghazal by Farida Khanum:
If there is no hope, there must be dreams
If there is no love, there must be yearnings...
Arundhati Roy, writer, activist (a term she dislikes) kicked off the London Literature Festival-2009 with a public interview conducted by an exuberant Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (a British pressure group) and Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University. The last time Roy had been at the Centre was to pick up the 1997 Booker Prize for her The God of Small Things. Her political journey over the last decade has produced four more books, all increasingly focused on issues like the "language heist" by so-called democracies who use coded terms to mask their real political and social intent ('Operation Enduring Freedom' in Iraq, Operation Restore Hope' in Somalia, 'Operation Uphold Democracy' in Haiti, etc.). Roy has been an outspoken activist on issues such as Indian policy on Kashmir, its nuclearization, Sri Lanka's attack on Tamils, and most famously, on water-dam issues.
Hers was an Indian voice, with sub-continental thali samples floating in the accent, thin but unbreakable, like a fishing line strong enough to reel in a twenty-pound carp of dogma and land it on the writer's beach to be expertly gutted of its insides. Shami's cross-cultural modulated mate'ism acted on the audience with morning chat show familiarity, while Roy's remained the voice of principle, embellished with flashes of poetic metaphors that illuminated the socio-economic issues that burn in her. At times there would be lapses, as if she was thought-lagged, but never veering from the topic, attempting to convey her position with facts while leaving the conclusions self-evident to the jam-packed audience in the Purcell Room.
Her range and grasp of topics is impressive or expressive, perhaps, of a remarkable genetic mix and activist upbringing: Born in Shillong, to Keralite Syrian Christian women's rights leader Mary Roy, and a Bengali tea planter father. As all the world seems to know by now, Arundhati earlier had dabbled with architecture, screenplays, films, even running aerobic classes until her voice began to draw attention, beginning with her blistering critique of Shekhar Kapur's internationally applauded Indian film 'Bandit Queen' (1994), based on the life of Phoolan Devi. Her film review, 'The Great Indian Rape Trick' questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission," and charged Kapur with exploiting Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning. Thereafter the topics changed but the defiance of popular perceptions and the relentless exposure of hypocrisy grew, as did Roy's exploration of injustice and its global dimensions.
Roy's first nonfiction book appeared to mark the beginning of the end for her as a novelist, as she continued to indefatigably question, probe and campaign on national and international issues, as a spokesperson of the anti-globalization movement and a vehement critic of the United States' foreign policies, especially the post 9/11 agenda of carnage and conquest. She has spared few, repeatedly criticizing with razor-sharp words both the USA and the Taliban, and India's adoption of a neo-liberal industrialization and development agenda - physically embodied in the obscene Sardar Sarovar Project, with its dam across the Narmada river.
She was ambivalent about her Booker, stating that it gave her money, fame and the instant recognition with which she could explore her subsequent social passions, but insistent that writing was "about bridging the gap between thinking and language." Since "all writing has to have a political dimension," reaching her inner self was more necessary and by doing so touching the lives of others thus writing was activism, but not the other way round.
Roy detailed the workings of the American military-industrial complex and the emerging one in India, where the tribal poor were being evicted from their land to feed the demand for bauxite, to be exported to Western armaments factories that fed the wars in these developing democracies. She answered questions about the Indian Supreme Court gone 'Demon Crazy' - they often referred to her as the "other woman" for her insolence and defiance of the Court - wryly commenting that she was the "Hooker who won the Booker."
She ranged over other crimes, when "democratic outcomes did not suit their designers" such as the Hamas in Gaza now, and Chile in 1970 where Salvador Allende was assassinated by a CIA-aided army coup. She spoke about a media aligned with the military in this ever-changing, short-sighted exploitation of the world, its people and their eroding inheritance. Shami waved her pen and mike, and the audience responded by asking questions, such as about the Obama phenomenon, to which Roy's brief answer was that "he has been elected for them, by them, not for us." Another question was about "the fact that liberal, educated people are the ones who can listen and appreciate your arguments and books and not the poor." Roy's touchiness showed as she replied that, "strangely in India, the hierarchy of education and status has, like you, resulted in more narrow thoughts at the top rather then amongst the poor."
The night ended with Roy again reading from her next book Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy and the piece of music she had chosen to end the night. As my son and I walked along the bank of the Thames I reflected on her words, and thought that my ideal would be power closer to the people, where the ruthless efficiency of capitalism could be rewarded on the basis of sustainability rather then balance sheets alone. That Arundhati is dedicated to peeling the gnarled, poisoned bark of business and bureaucracy, to scything an ill crop so that someone, somewhere, can plant fresh shoots and sow fresh crops.
S I Ahmed is an occasional contributor for The Daily Star literature page from London.