Arundhati Roy, like her protagonist Anjum, has multiple identities. She took the literary world by surprise with her Booker-winning novel The God of Small Things. Then she explored the realm of nonfiction, writing political essays, becoming India’s most remarkable political voice. The activist, writer, architect, actor and production manager has witnessed how the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people were ruined overnight due to the Narmada Valley Project; she has even visited the Maoist rebels-held territory to understand their points of view. She has been fearless in challenging the establishment for the rights of the marginalized, wherever in India they may be. Just like Anjum declares, “I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering” in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Anjum’s creator Arundhati Roy—never settling, never compromising and never afraid—is the voice of many in one.
March 5 was Dhaka’s day of patience, and ultimately, luck. Fans waited with bated breath as news after news of scheduling, rescheduling and cancelation of Roy’s session with Shahidul Alam kept surfacing on social media. Ultimately, Chobi Mela X’s most anticipated session, moderated by Chobi Mela Director Shahidul Alam himself, was held at a different location. At the fully packed tenth floor of Midas Center, Dhanmondi, Roy spoke to an audience still mesmerized after more than two decades of the release of her debut novel. When asked what had brought her to Bangladesh, and why this year’s Chobi Mela, she said, gesturing first toward Shahidul Alam and then toward the audience, “Because of you, and all of you!”
Roy further explained her stance regarding events sponsored by corporate organizations, where the atmosphere is usually “insidious”. The same companies who provide millions for big-budget literary-cultural events are the same corporations that are responsible for the death, displacement, killing and financial ruin of thousands of marginalized people. Truly, the author said, “The seeds of fascism lie in the foundation of big dams, and so does nationalism.”
Why don’t the writers, artistes and intellectuals speak up today against these injustices? Shahidul Alam asked this vital question after alluding to the crucial role that the Bangladeshi intelligentsia played in all major historical events in the country. To this, Roy’s answer was: “Artistes have been made to believe that their place is in the market. Artistes have been made less dangerous; they have been ruthlessly commercialized and are being made to produce incognizant art.” If one’s art does not speak of the world around them, it does not mean much to the author. Roy is spearheading the “Nafrat ke khilaaf”, a combined movement of artistes and writers against the politics of hatred in India, on which a short film was shown while the session was going on. The film urges writers and artistes to band together because, “If we don’t unite, we won’t be able to argue, push the limit, ask the big questions.”
The audience were in for a real treat as the author read excerpts out of her several acclaimed works of both fiction and nonfiction throughout the enchanted evening. The illuminating discussion ranged from the author’s childhood memories to her dangerous days at the Maoist base to her fiction writing. When the discussion turned to her childhood memories, Shahidul Alam mentioned, “I hate Miss Mitten and I think her knickers are torn.” The five-year-old Roy’s hatred for her governess in her childhood home, Ooti, laid the foundation of the rebellious spirit in her. As a writer, Roy is a lover of her solitude and low profile. When she had completed The God of Small Things, for example, the humble author had actually thought that only a handful people would read it. Though Arundhati had said, “It is our job to stand alone as writers…” she had received unprecedented success, bagging the Booker in an incredible feat. Alluding to her immense popularity, Shahidul Alam joked, “Well, looks like you’ve done an excellent job at being alone!” followed by the laughter of the amused crowd.
Why did the widely revered author choose to turn her back on stardom, which she could have achieved through writing more fiction? To the internationally acclaimed photographer’s question, the author replied that she had been given a very different idea of failure by one of her uncles, hence she felt that she did not have to continue to prosper as a fiction writer. Moreover, just after her Booker win, the then BJP government started running some nuclear tests. At the time, she could hardly say anything in the open, as she had become the face of what the author dubs, “the national pride parade”. The author redeemed herself through her political writing. In nonfiction and essays, Arundhati has discovered a new public language of protest. The results were remarkable essays such as “The End of Imagination” and her famous Narmada dam essay, “The Greater Common Good”. Who can forget Bhaiji Bhai, the media’s choice as a lone representative of indigenous suffering, who had to repeat his story of loss over and over again?
“The idea of (possessing) nuclear weapons colonizes your imagination,” she read from her essay, “The End of Imagination”. The author urges for a blurring of national boundaries and believes that we should use the terms “India”, “Pakistan” and “Bangladesh” with care. In her essay, the author declares herself a “mobile republic”, with no mental passport, no borders to confine her.
The enlightening session ended with a reading from her latest work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Like Anjum, little Miss Jebeen also conquered everyone’s heart. Her final moments during one of the many unrests in Kashmir brought tears to the eyes of many. An evening to remember it was, and a jab at the audience’s conscience.