30 Jun, 2017

“fiction is an offering, a prayer, a universe…”

30 Jun, 2017

Arundhati Roy read a passage from her new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; image of rock star Patti Smith in the background

“Happiness is an act of resistance,” Arundhati Roy stated in response to a question about how she remained positive, despite threats that she faced. “They want us to hunch our shoulders, be afraid, not laugh, act a certain way. It’s important for us to insist on our entire bandwidth.”

At a reading and talk organized by Scripps College and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at Los Angeles’ Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Arundhati captured a packed house. When conversing with journalist Héctor Tobar, Arundhati Roy said that the inspiration for her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, had been germinating within her for the past twenty years, during which time characters in the novel “visited her until they eventually moved in.”

The nerve center of the book is in an old Delhi neighborhood, where Arundhati often wanders, she explained. Though she didn’t remember the details of the occasion in Jantar Mantar, she says that she might have been giving a talk to students after which she invited them to join her for tea in Jantar Mantar. There, they found an abandoned baby, and no one—none of the intellectuals or thinkers—knew how to respond. The encounter led to the birth of Anjum,a hijra, one of her novel’s protagonists.

The second half of the The Ministry of Utmost Happiness delves into Kashmir, where “the world’s largest military occupation is occurring,” stated Arundhati. “We’re supposed to applaud at what’s happening in Kashmir…When you go there, you’re astonished by the false news you’re fed.”

Arundhati talked about the power of fiction, which she said is “an offering, a prayer, a universe… “ When talking about Kashmir, she added that the only way to convey the reality of events unfolding in Kashmir is through the power of fiction, so readers could ask questions such as whether it’s acceptable for nation-states to conduct the kind of violence that the Indian government has launched in Kashmir.

During the question and answer segment of the evening, the focus remained on Kashmir; strikingly, only women lined up at the microphones. One woman announced, “Actually, I am Kashmiri…I have seen that in real life when 50 women were raped. I was six years old, and I had seen those women come from hospital with the blood.”

Arundhati nodded. “You’re talking about Kunan Poshpora.” Both women were referring to 1991 when Indian soldiers gang-raped more than 23 women.

A podcast of Arundhati’s reading and conversation can be found on the Los Angeles library website.

September 2002, Words for Peace: Image of Arundhati Roy on screen while her recording of “Come September” is played via speaker; photo by Paul Hester

Listening to Arundhati brought up memories of how, 15 years ago, my journalist sister Beena Sarwar introduced me to Arundhati, and how through Anthony Arnove’s help, Arundhati participated in my Houston-based arts organization’s first Words for Peace production, a series that we created in response to 9/11. More than 400 audience members showed up at DiverseWorks, an artspace that donated space to Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB).

A year before Skype was launched, we used a simple speaker telephone, which we connected to a microphone, and projected images on the screen as writers Ahmed Rashid (Lahore), Irena Klepfisz (New York), Naomi Shihab Nye (San Antonio) and Arundhati Roy (Delhi) shared work from where they were based. Houston-based notable writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa and Farnoosh Moshiri read work alongside high school students, while dancer Rathna Kumar opened the evening with a performance. Many peace and justice organizations set up tables to create resistance.

That week, Arundhati was on her way to New Mexico to accept the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Prize, and was unavailable to read live from Delhi as we had scheduled. Instead, I recorded her at Houston’s Pacifica Station, KPFT 90.1 FM, the same spot where I later interviewed rock star Patti Smith several times.

Last night, Patti’s image was projected behind Arundhati, and I was struck by how both women continue to speak out and offer resistance—and remain integral parts of my artist-activist journey.

To view more images from VBB’s Words for Peace, please click here.

30 Jun 2017 · 12:11:24 AM