Arundhati Roy - The Artist, The Activist
She stepped on to the stage with an unassuming response to the thunderous applause that filled the Howard Gilman Opera house. I observed her with an unobstructed view from the balcony as she cupped her lips with her thin fingers to express disbelief at this deluge of cheer. She could not find a response to the auditory compliments of the audience so, she read.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is dedicated to the unconsoled which is all of us.”
Sitting in the C row of the steep balcony, I had to use the book reading angle to see Arundhati. To me, it felt like I was reading the author read. I tried to hang on to every word she uttered in a fruity tone as it was packed with messages of enormous complexity. She spoke about ‘NGOisation’ of gender, health, caste and feminist issues to explain the strict frame within which each exists, and divergence cannot be accommodated. Adherence to the vision and mission of the organisations is mandatory. Visually, I think the causes must look like a series of colourful parallel lines running very close to each other because intersecting is galling.
Arundhati speaks with intensity about the characters notably about Anjum and Tilo and their different perspectives of motherhood. She breaks into a sprightly “Yes!” when someone from the audience asks her to talk about what is her response to being called hysterical, exaggerated and self-absorbed. She retorts to the audience and asks, “Which woman has not been called hysterical?” Hysteria is a long-term package deal that comes with being a woman. While the audience claps, my mind reverts to my BA Feminism class and the discussion of Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre to Wide Sargasso sea to Mad Woman in the Attic and the pertinent question in literature - ‘Why was Bretha Mason mad?’
The host, Eve Ensler asks her about the graveyard where much of the book happens. Arundhati explains the predicament of the poor and to lighten the air of intensity says, “Like I say people in India are so poor that even the sewage system does not belong to them. They have to shit on top of it.” For me, the graveyard was a symbolic oxymoron where the characters came to live their lives where other came after death.
The audience breaks into laughter when she is asked about the use of multiple languages in her book and she sophisticatedly reads
Mar gayee bulbul qafas mein
Keh gayee sayyaad se
Apni sunehri gaand mein
Tu thoons le fasl-e-bahar
'Chirkeen' and Urdu shayari, Sanskrit shlokas, folklore and poems, contemporary lingo, traditional 'gaalis', and Hindi film songs, Roy has effortlessly assimilated all of them and presented the story to us in languages true to the setting.
Arundhati talks about the intentionally created complex narrative and says how an issue so complex like Kashmir can only be presented through fiction. I agree. The plausible nature of literature allows a fiction writer to create a believable story versus presenting a gory reality that life sometimes is for many. It allows the reader to have relationships with the characters and smile and/or suffer with them. To fiction applies an economy of words that means every character is vital to the story. Nobody is just a statistic.
I recollect these thoughts as I wait in a long winding queue to get my book sighed by Arundhati Roy. In the background, I hear two people arguing about a recent controversial statement made by Paresh Rawal about her in their freshly cultivated Indian American accents.