The last line of Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel, The God of Small Things holds the entire world in a word: tomorrow. When we overhear it said to Velutha, all his tomorrows have been stolen for transgressing caste lines. Over 20 years later, this violence is very far from fictional. And Roy is wondering what sort of tomorrow is on the cusp of arriving.
On May 12, Arundhati Roy delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom To Write Lecture at the 15th PEN World Voices Festival in New York. The international literary festival celebrates and defends freedom of expression. The lecture has previously been given by figures like Roxane Gay, Wole Soyinka and Hillary Clinton.
The ironies are not lost here, living as we do in a world where all our ‘faves are problematic’. The United States demolishes countries through its foreign policy. Roy herself was called out for politics of appropriation by several Dalit activists in 2014.
Her PEN address is worth reading then, not to cement ‘messiah’ status, but because it adds to the chorus of voices against the violence of censure and intentional world-burning. Additionally, the fact of a South Asian woman writer addressing an international stage is significant in our present moment. Right now, India is the fifth most dangerous place to be a journalist, the climate crisis has led to a mainstream Netflix show (because what else will get our attention?), and a few elite men and women are legislating away women’s autonomy in the US.
So, if you’re already busy composting maniacally or agitating to stop investments in coal, then thank you and carry on. If you have some time at hand, Roy continues to be an exceptionally talented writer and her speech is worth a read. She attempts to tackle everything wrong with the world today – from surveillance capitalism to our homegrown government-endorsed saffron terror. And of course, she talks about what counts as literature in a time like this. Read on for a few excerpts.
One part polemic against Western neo-imperialism, her speech pulls no punches in calling out the US’s complicity in creating radicalism and the refugee crisis.
“Seventeen years after invading Afghanistan, after bombing it into the ‘stone age’ with the sole aim of toppling the Taliban, the US government is back in talks with the very same Taliban. In the interim it has destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to war and sanctions, a whole region has descended into chaos, ancient cities—pounded into dust. Amidst the desolation and the rubble, a monstrosity called Daesh (Isis) has been spawned. It has spread across the world, indiscriminately murdering ordinary people who had absolutely nothing to do with America’s wars. Over these last few years, given the wars it has waged, and the international treaties it has arbitrarily reneged on, the US government perfectly fits its own definition of a rogue state. And now, resorting to the same old scare tactics, the same tired falsehoods and the same old fake news about nuclear weapons, it is gearing up to bomb Iran.”
Hypocrisy is an old familiar to our Indian government too. Roy writes about the forever “anti-national” Adivasis opposing corporate mining projects on their land, students and activists jailed for protesting. Whether it is the UPA’s Operation Green Hunt or the BJP’s arrest of the Koregaon 9 for their ‘plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’, the song remains the same.
On the matter of plot, she has some craft-advice:
“The plot is so ludicrous that a six-year old could have improved on it. The fascists need to take some good fiction-writing courses.”
Roy is frighteningly prescient in places. Talking about the growing consensus on the seriousness of climate change, she says:
“Increasingly the vocabulary around it is being militarised. And no doubt very soon its victims will become the ‘enemies’ in the new war without end. Calls for a climate ‘emergency’, although well meaning, could hasten the process that has already begun. The pressure is already on to move the debate from the UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to the United Nations Security Council, in other words, to exclude most of the world and place decision making straight back into the den of the same old suspects. Once again, the Global North, the creators of the problem, will see to it that they profit from the solution that they propose. A solution whose genius will, no doubt, lie deep in the heart of the ‘Market’ and involve more selling and buying, more consuming, and more profiteering by fewer and fewer people. In other words, more capitalism.”
Just this Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren, top contender for the US 2020 presidency and widely considered progressive, tweeted about introducing a Defence Climate Act and the need to “harden the US military against the threat posed by climate change”.
On the subject of the benign face of evil, Roy invokes M.K. Gandhi’s casteist behaviour. She also mentions former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, loudly mourned (like another Mr Parrikar) upon his passing, and fondly reminisced about for his sophistication.
“In May 1998, less than a year after the publication of The God of Small Things, for the first time in India’s history, a BJP-led coalition formed the government at the centre. The prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a member of the RSS. Within weeks of taking office, he fulfilled a longstanding dream of the RSS by conducting a series of nuclear tests. Pakistan responded immediately with tests of its own. The nuclear tests were the beginning of the journey toward the crazed rhetoric of nationalism that has become a normal form of public speech in India today. I was taken aback by the orgy of celebration that greeted the nuclear tests — including from the most unexpected quarters. That was when I wrote my first essay, The End of Imagination, condemning the tests.”
After 20 years of writing which has provoked several court summons and much venom, she’s still at it. On the craft of writing compelling non-fiction she says:
“For each essay, I searched for a form, for language, for structure and narrative. Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? About the salinisation of soil? About drainage? Dams? Crops? About structural adjustment and privatisation? About the per unit cost of electricity? About things that affect ordinary peoples’ lives? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody — including for people who couldn’t read and write, but who had taught me how to think, and could be read to?”
Of course she comes to Kashmir – India’s Bollywood song, Agha Shahid Ali’s country without a post office, and the subject of her return to fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
“One of the first things I began to do when I began to travel in Kashmir is to collate what appears in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as “The Kashmiri-English Alphabet,” starting with the letter A.
A: Azadi/army/Allah/America/Attack/AK-47/Ammunition/Ambush/Aatankwadi/Armed Forces Special Powers Act/Area Domination/Al Badr/Al Mansoorian/Al Jehad/Afghan/Amarnath Yatra.”
Even in these overtly brute times, Roy has no doubt about the politics of fiction, and our need for its softness and shelter.
“The place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.”
The speech in its entirety makes for compelling reading and is available in full on the Guardian.