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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Arundhati Roy, Alice Walker, and India 101

I attended the City Arts & Lectures event at the Nourse theater on Hayes Street in San Francisco on June 28th. Arundhati Roy read from her new book “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (read my review here), and conversed with Alice Walker.

Roy was, as expected, intelligent, articulate and poised. And as always, easy on the eyes. She was dressed in a long black skirt with a matching long black top over a radiant white top. Her diamond nose stud flashed occasionally. The event began with Roy reading at the podium. She started with a passage about weevils: a weevil-philosopher-professor, weevils and various other creatures in a classroom. I didn't find any of this appealing on the page (Chapter 8, "The Tenant") when I read the book. It wasn’t appealing to the ear either. It became more interesting when she read on about Miss Jebeen, the baby who was “the beginning of something.” After reading, Roy walked towards the two orange chairs set up with a small table in between. On it were tulips in a vase and two clear glasses with water. Alice Walker walked in to applause and appreciative shouts from the audience. The two women embraced, then sat down. They clearly have a warm relationship. At one point, Walker mentioned having visited Roy and her mother in India.

Walker commented that she read “The God of Small Things” two times, and the second time she "got it." This book too, she felt, she would need to read a second time. She commented there's a lot about India, words in many Indian languages that can be hard to understand for many. Surprising, as almost every Indian word has a translation either in the text or as a footnote. To this cringe-inducing comment, Roy very gently remarked that we in India, after all, have managed to make the effort to read various Western writers. The elicited a round of applause from the audience.

The God of Small Things shone a spotlight on caste and class differences. The Ministry tackles how religion divides people, not so much caste. Walker, interestingly, continued to dwell on caste at this event. She spent quite some time engaging Roy on her essay “The Doctor and the Saint". The essay, available here, is on BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi, their attitudes to caste, and in Roy’s view the reconstructed ways in which they are remembered. “The Doctor and the Saint" is even the focus of the write-up on Alice Walker's website about this event. During the Q&A session, one member of the audience asked Walker to comment on the experience of Dalits in India versus the African-American experience. This would have been the perfect opportunity to draw some important parallels. Walker's began by describing her involvement in the civil rights movement. But again, oddly, she seemed more affected by caste-based inequalities than slavery. Mentioning the descriptions in GOST of untouchables who were made to sweep their footprints away so the landlords would have to step on them, she asked, "What kind of person does that? Who are these people? I mean that's pathetic, people who need to put others down humiliate them to feel good about themselves. That's pathetic." I think I expected something more thoughtful than “pathetic.” One questioner commented on the stories within stories particularly as they related to Miss Jebeen, and said they were reminiscent of the Mahabharata. (I can’t say I see that parallel.) Roy’s response was telling: “Or the Bible.” Which got me thinking that in all the discussion about Hinduism, Dalits, Muslims, Hindutva, etc., Christianity is not spoken about very much. This is the religion with which Roy was raised. The hope which Miss Jebeen brings, the naming of that chapter “The Nativity” (Roy pointed that out), makes a connection with the nativity of Baby Jesus. Christ came to save the world, and so, it seems, has Miss Jebeen. The could-be-Messiah here, interestingly, is a little girl: tiny, whose “skin was blue-black, sleek as a baby seal’s.”

Another questioner commented on her early days of screenplay writing, and asked why she had stopped. Roy commented that she had learned how to write dialog in that period, and that was important. However, working on a film was difficult for her as it involved so many people—she is more of a loner and writing is more conducive to that. She added that she did not want GOST to be made into film, and elicited some laughter when she went on to say that she put some effort into writing The Ministry in a way that could not be filmed, “seven pages on vultures…” etc. (Is that an apology for the first 146 pages? I wondered.)

Towards the end, Walker, seemed a little befuddled, staring out into the audience. Perhaps she was tired. Roy took matters into her own hand, and said “Shall I read now?” and proceeded to do so. She read from the beginning of Chapter 3, "The Nativity", about Miss Jebeen the Second's sudden appearance in Jantar Mantar. "She appeared quite suddenly, a little after midnight." The reading continued into a lovely description of Delhi and its ancient-modern paradox, ending with the provocative “It was the summer Grandma became a whore.” Roy's wonderful readings and some of the sharper questions from the audience made the event worthwhile, despite my frustrations at some of the discussion. While the warmth between Walker and Roy was, well, heart-warming, I wondered if another author or litterateur could have lifted the event beyond “India 101.” Michael Krasny? Not sure…. Another South Asian or Southeast Asian? Perhaps. I imagined what fun it would be to listen to a conversation between Roy and Rushdie. Who, by the way, will be at City Arts & Lectures on September 11, in conversation with Michael Chabon.

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