Photo of “Arundhati Roy W” by Augustus Binu/ facebook – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
I could hardly contain my excitement when I learned that Arundhati Roy was the keynote speaker at the 2009 Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (Berlin International Literature Festival).
I was immensely moved by ‘God of Small Things’, her devastating novel of lives torn by discrimination. And while I knew Roy had become a political activist, I thought that, as the special guest speaker at a Literaturfestival, she would say something about literature.
It was not to be.
The 1,000-seat auditorium was packed. On the stage were some of the festival’s poets and writers. Expectation was high. But unusually for a German event, the programme began late. Was Roy the reason?
When she entered the hall, she was greeted with a wave of clapping. It wasn’t even her turn to speak yet. She acknowledged the welcome with a wave and a gentle smile. When she did go up to the podium to talk, the applause was thunderous, and she seemed bemused by it.
She began by lauding how wonderful it was that literature still served its purpose amongst the many forms of noisy entertainment that the world now had at its disposal.
Then she said, “I asked myself this morning what on earth I was doing opening a literature festival in Germany that celebrated Arab poets [the festival’s special theme that year]?
“The answer, I suppose, is that I am anti-national, as my critics call me.”
And she was off, beginning with a comment on how the organisers’ disallowing of questions at the end of her talk, demonstrated “the fading light of democracy” – the topic of her discourse.
Hard-hitting, unrelenting and cynical, she outlined the horrors of ‘democratic’ India, where the pursuit of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ by the Indian government and big business, was displacing people and desolating the environment on a monumental scale.
Was India on the brink of genocide, she wondered, drawing parallels with Lebensraum and the Holocaust as well as atrocities committed by Germany in its former African colonies.
I cringed. It was my first time being in a German audience where Germans were told to their face they had committed genocide. I had not been in Berlin even a year at that point and was just beginning to grapple with how Germans were dealing with their Nazi and Cold War past.
It would take years before I gained some understanding of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung (working through the past).
Moreover, I come from a country which does not know how to deal with its far less traumatic history. And like the India Roy revealed, it had adopted ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘development’ to insidious and devastating consequences of various degrees, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Germans loved Roy. Many heads nodded enthusiastically all through her talk. When she finished, someone behind me repeated a quote with which she had ended.
I too, lapped up her turns of phrase. Here, the language so wondrously deployed in ‘God of Small Things’, sharply targeted capitalism and bad governance.
For example, she said, “What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?”
“’Freedom’,” she also said, “.. has less to do with the human spirit than it does with different brands of deodorant.”
And on Kashmir, she railed against not just India but the world. “(C)aught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies, [Kashmir is a flashpoint] for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is cold for some and hot for others).”
But unrelenting, cold fury punctuated by sarcasm is a little exhausting. Still, how else does one take on India, The World, Democracy and Capitalism?
When Roy came down from the stage, I went forward with some vague idea of shaking her hand. I didn’t think she would take kindly to the whole autograph thing.
But I quickly left. A small crowd had surrounded her diminutive frame. No one was talking to her, only admiring her respectfully as if she were a museum exhibit. Lit by camera flashes, she smiled and smiled and smiled… ω