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

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

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chand raat in little bangladesh…

My friend’s daughter getting her hand decorated with mehndi/henna on Chand Raat

On Chand Raat, I team up with my friend Shaista, and we drive our daughters to Virgil Middle School in Los Angeles’ Little Bangladesh in east Hollywood. Though we arrive after 9:30 pm, the courtyard is packed with a crowd. On one side of the courtyard, snacks and tea are served, while on another, saris and shalwar kurtas are on display for women to purchase. In the center is a stage, and the microphone moves between an announcer, a DJ or a singer. Everyone on the mic—and all around us—speaks Bengali.

While Shaista, her daughter and I take a break to sip tea and eat pani-puri, we send Minal on a mission to find mehndi/henna.

She returns with information. “There’s a long line, but women are doing mehndi there!” She points to a section of the courtyard where we haven’t ventured as yet.

We finish our snack and head toward the mehndi area, but the line is long. Shaista’s daughter sights an enterprising woman sitting on the side, who has set up her own mehndi table. Shaista and I wander off to look at saris, but Minal and Shaista’s daughter wait to talk to the mehndi-woman. When we return, the girls’ hands are almost done, but because the woman is running low on her mehndi cones, she only decorates the backs of the girls’ hands, and not the palms also.

Still, the girls are satisfied, and we walk away as the celebration is about to close.

Minal’s hand

Crowd thronging in Virgil Middle’s School’s sport’s courtyard

24 Jun 2017 · 10:09:42 PM

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reconnecting circles in a backyard...

November 2009: Audience members in my Houston backyard at a production I created, Honoring Dissent/Descent, to honor my father Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, and living activist Daniel Bustamante; photo by Eric Hester

A decade ago, I met Lauren Eggert-Crowe in Atlanta at the Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, where I was part of a panel entitled “The Imagination of Displacement“—a subject that I continue to explore through my writings and visual art. At the time, Lauren was producing a zine, Galatea’s Pants, which she generated as a hand-produced publication, resisting the ease of computers. That year, she conducted a phone interview with me, which she published in her zine.

Lauren went on to complete the MFA program at the University of Arizona, while I directed my energy toward motherhood and developing new productions through Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). Busy with our lives, we dropped out of touch.

But six months ago, shortly after my family’s move to southern California, I attended LitCrawl to support Pat Alderete and liz gonzález, my friends from the Macondo Writers Workshop. That night, I ran into Lauren—who was also performing—and learned that she had moved to LA a few years ago. Since our fall 2016 encounter, I’ve seen Lauren many times at Women Who Submit, a support group for women writers, which she co-administers.

One of the first things that Lauren said to me was: “I’d love to invite you for a reading in my backyard.”

I was moved by her invitation, especially since I have a long history of experiencing and creating art in residential homes. While growing up in Karachi, my parents often opened out our living room and garden for poetry readings, music, and dance performances. And in my more recent “home,” Houston, I created art installations and collaborated with artists to transform residential homes into performance and interactive art spaces.

Lauren is organizing a backyard reading (something she does often), and on Saturday, June 24, I will read my work alongside three women writers—Iris De Anda, Melissa Chadburn, and Myriam Gurba—in her backyard. If you’re in LA and available to attend, please message me so I can share the address!


November 2009: Audience members viewing my installation Listening from Within at a production Honoring Dissent/Descent, that I created to honor my father Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, and living activist Daniel Bustamante; photo by Eric Hester

22 Jun 2017 · 03:44:31 PM

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cricket in pasadena, california...

Each Saturday, I walk past soccer and baseball fields to reach the nearby farmer’s market. This morning, as I cross the main road and enter the park, I stop in my tracks. In the field where children usually practice baseball, I see a sight that I haven’t encountered in the US: two wickets, a man holding a cricket bat, and a bowler getting ready to spin the ball. South Asian men scatter around the field, preparing to catch the ball.

While growing up in Karachi, I used to skip school to watch test matches in Karachi Stadium, but it’s been a long time since I’ve paid attention to the game. However, even I know that tomorrow will be an electrifying day in the cricket world: Pakistan will face off against India in the International Cricket Council’s finals at UK’s Oval. The Pakistani team is a surprise entrant into the final—the team is ranked eighth out of eight. Of course, a final contains high stakes, on top of which any time India and Pakistan play each other, rivalry is bound to arise, especially since over the past decade, the teams have played few matches against each other. During my childhood, Pakistani and Indian teams regularly crossed the border to play against each other, but since the 2007 Mumbai bombing in which Pakistan-based terrorists were implicated, and the 2009 Lahore bombing in which six Sri Lankan players were injured, Pakistan has been declared unsafe to host international games and the team has struggled to improve its ranking and morale.

Watching the cricket players in Victory Park, I realize that they set up wickets in anticipation of tomorrow’s game, which is bound to evoke national hysteria on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Later today all around the globe, people will turn on televisions at different parts of the night so they can watch each minute of a match that could be boring, or just as easily, a gripping experience.

17 Jun 2017 · 10:21:21 PM

6/19/17 Update: In a dramatic upset, Pakistan raced to victory by a lead of 180 runs; click here to read writer Kamila Shamsie’s story about the game.

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