Brenda Cooper

Arundhati Roy: The Woman of True Words

Arundhati Roy came to Seattle last night and spoke to a sold-out crowd at Town Hall.  The rest of my family stayed home in an odd resonance:  the family teenager was putting the finishing touches on a school project about Gandhi.  If they don’t yet, schoolchildren will be studying Arundhati.  For those who don’t yet know her name, she is a the Booker Prize winning author of “The God of Small Things,” an international bestselling novel.  Instead of using her new fame and her gift with words  to create another literary novel, Arundhati has tirelessly worked on crafting a better world.

Now, let me set this.  Town Hall is a beautiful, old building that began its life as a Christian Science church and has become a community treasure used for concerts and lectures and readings.  The floor is a sort of red and pink fleur-de-lis pattern and the stage is a battered olive green wooden monstrosity with the paint chipping and electrical cords run across the bottom like colorful snakes.  In a way, the stage looks upside down, like leaves on top of flowers.  On the stage, a truly tiny woman with a bright smile stands behind a single large lectern and reads to us.  She speaks with both her voice and her hands, her hands nearly as expressing as a hula dancers hands.  In a fairly soft and deeply accented voice, she speaks of the dangers of the democracy, of the greed or corporations, and of the fate of the poor.

Many activists poke fun at the United States.  While Arundhati does this well, she also reminds us that the abuse of power is not a problem owned by the United States.  It is a problem of ours, and of India’s, and of China’s; of humanity.   Last night, one of the things she read to us what the beginning of an essay about the Indian Government making war on its own indigenous people for access to natural resources.  This is essentially what we did a hundred years ago.  She talked to us about Indian farmers committing suicide by drinking pesticides.  She spoke at length about the dangers inherent in the privatization of water.  She read to us from the introduction to her new book, titled “Field Notes on Democracy.”  In this, she is wrestling with a question that I also have:  what happens next?  Our current political systems are not working.  What will work in an overpopulated, warming, and also educated and connected world?  What must we create to survive?

During the question and answer session, she spoke well on any topic.  I have one image clearly left from this moment – a large American man with Middle Eastern roots asking this diminutive Indian woman what she thinks of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that was in the news today.  It is not her answer that I remember the most (it boiled down to all nations should shed all nuclear arms) but the image of this tall and studious looking man from a culture not known for honoring women  earnestly asking this tiny woman about a world-sized problem.

Another theme in the questioning was Arundhati’s own safety.  She told us that to be afraid is to cripple yourself.

For a small taste of her voice and her fierce intellect and heart, you might watch this video of her last talk at Town Hall. The talk was in 2006, but is no less interesting.

I did get to speak with her briefly and to shake her hand at reception after the talk, and I found myself tongue tied, able to only really get out a thank you.  It felt like being in the company of someone who truly knows how to turn her words into a powerful plea for our future – all of us.  She makes me want to be as brave with my own words.