"Literature provides shelter. That's why we need it"


Novelist and fiery political-activist-writer Arundhati Roy (b. 1960) was invited by PEN America to deliver the 2019 Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on 12 May 2019. That surely is a great honour. (PEN International is a worldwide association of writers, founded in London in 1921, to promote literature and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere).

A further honour is that she is one of only two South Asian writers who have won the prestigious Man Booker Prize; she in 1997 for The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga in 2008 for his novel The White Tiger. Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai are South Asian by birth but Canadian, British and American by migration. Ondaatje co-won the Booker in 1992 for his English Patient and the greater kudos of winning the Golden Booker for the best book in two decades. Rushdie from Mumbai was the winner in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, and Desai in 2006 for her Inheritance of Loss.

Being a staunch admirer of Arundhati Roy I wish to quote from a very long article in The Guardian of Monday May 13 reporting on her PEN address. I focus on two points: her contention that was her title of her lecture and my article title too: ‘Literature provides shelter. That's why we need it’; and her writing. She started her address thus: "What better time than this to think together about a place for literature, at this moment when an era that we think we understand – at least vaguely, if not well – is coming to a close."

Shelter, solace and


Roy said: "I mention this because it taught me that the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds."

True or exaggerated? Acceptable or unacceptable to us both writers and readers or to any person? Mulling over the statement we are bound to agree with her. Perhaps, we were more familiar with the idea of literature providing an escape – a respite from personal and national problems and crises. Many’s the time when emotions overpowered me and I took a book, novel mostly, and got so absorbed in it that the mental turmoil subsided and at the end I wondered what had bothered me in the first place. The conflict within or with another, mostly the husband then, was cut down to size and insignificance.

Danger to writers,

particularly journalists

in our part of the world

Commenting on the dangers writers face, Roy said: "Reporters Without Borders say that India is the fifth most dangerous place for journalists in the world, ranked just above Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Mexico. Here I must pause to thank PEN for the work it does to protect writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, prosecuted, censored and worse. From one day to the next, it could be any one of us that is in the line of fire. To know that there is an organization looking out for us is a consolation." Googling, I got this in Writers Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Norway is the most free while Sri Lanka is ranked 126 of 180 countries listed, with North Korea 179. Need we go any further to realize the depth of Sri Lanka’s lack of safety for journalists when the murder of Lasantha W and so called disappearance of Ekneligoda are as yet unsolved?

Fiction vs non-fiction

It would not be incorrect to say that Arundhati Roy burst into the international literary scene with her first novel which won her the most prestigious literary prize – the Man Booker. Then she got a bit lazy, we suspect, and moved to protesting against this and that issue, starting perhaps with a mass protest against the construction of the Damodar Dam displacing thousands of poor villagers. This was of the Damodar Valley Project and the dam built in Jharkhand below Gaya to the west of Kolkata. From there she moved to other contentious issues, speaking in public, publishing articles and pamphlets until she got fired up in protest over the Kashmir problem and what toll it was taking on the poor Hindus and Muslims in the Indian and Pakistani sections of the Valley.

"I have never felt that my fiction and nonfiction were warring factions battling for suzerainty. They aren’t the same certainly, but trying to pin down the difference between them is actually harder than I imagined. Fact and fiction are not converse. One is not necessarily truer than the other, more factual than the other, or more real than the other. Or even, in my case, more widely read than the other. All I can say is that I feel the difference in my body when I’m writing. I received from John Berger a beautiful handwritten letter; from a writer who had been my hero for years: ‘Your fiction and nonfiction—they walk you around the world like your two legs.’ That settled it for me."

She was warned about her writing being considered incendiary; that she would get it! But she retorts in her talk at PEN. "Whatever the case that was being built against me was, it didn’t – or at least hasn’t yet – come to fruition. I’m still here, standing on my two writing legs, speaking to you. India’s prisons are packed tight with political prisoners—most of them accused of being either Maoist or Islamist terrorists … or anyone who disagrees with government policy. In the latest batch of pre-election arrests, teachers, lawyers, activists, and writers have been jailed, charged with plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. The plot is so ludicrous that a six-year-old could have improved on it. The fascists need to take some good fiction-writing courses."

"The End of Imagination" was the first of what would turn out to be 20 years of writing nonfiction essays. They were years during which India was changing at lightning speed. For each essay, I searched for a form, for language, for structure and narrative. Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? About the salinization of soil? About drainage? Dams? Crops? About structural adjustment and privatization? About the unit cost of electricity? About things that affect ordinary peoples’ lives? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody—including for people who couldn’t read and write, but who had taught me how to think, and could be read to?

"Almost every essay got me into enough trouble to make me promise myself that I wouldn’t write another. But inevitably, situations arose in which the effort of keeping quiet set up such a noise in my head, such an ache in my blood, that I succumbed, and wrote. Last year when my publishers suggested they be collected into a single volume, I was shocked to see that the collection, My Seditious Heart, is a thousand pages long."

Roy’s two novels

I give here excerpts of what she spoke on her two novels to the PEN audience:

"The God of Small Things, (1997) was the result of a search for a language and a form to describe the world I had grown up in, to myself and to people I loved, some of whom were entirely unfamiliar with Kerala. I had studied architecture, written screenplays, and now I wanted to write a novel. The setting of the book—the old house on the hill in Ayemenem, my grandmother’s pickle factory that I grew up in, the Meenachal river—all of it gritty reality to me, was exotic and magical to many western critics.

"Back home in Kerala, the reception was pretty unmagical. The Communist party of India (Marxist), which had ruled Kerala on and off since 1959, was upset with what it considered a critique of the party. I was quickly labeled anti-communist, a crying-talking-sleeping-walking Imperialist Plot. I had been critical, it is true. The transgressive relationship in the novel between Ammu (a Syrian Christian woman) and Velutha (a Dalit man) was viewed with consternation. The consternation had as much to do with the novel’s politics of caste as it did with gender."

Roy even hints at an incestuous relationship at the very end between brother and sister.

Then after twenty years of writing non-fiction and traveling into the heart of rebellions, fiction returned to her. She said: "It became clear that only a novel would be able to contain the universe that was building in me, spinning up from the landscapes I had wandered through, and composing itself into a story-universe. I knew it would be unapologetically complicated, unapologetically political, and unapologetically intimate. I knew that if The God of Small Things was about home, about a family with a broken heart in its midst, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness would begin after the roof had blown off the home, and the broken heart had shattered and distributed its shards in war-torn valleys and city streets. It would be a novel, but the story-universe would refuse all forms of domestication and conventions about what a novel could and could not be. A little frightened, a little intimidated, plenty excited. It would be a novel that would say what cannot otherwise be said. Particularly about Kashmir, where only fiction can be true because the truth cannot be told. In India, it is not possible to speak of Kashmir with any degree of honesty without risking bodily harm…. For a writer, Kashmir holds great lessons about the human substance. About power, powerlessness, treachery, loyalty, love, humor, faith… What happens to people who live under a military occupation for decades? What are the negotiations that take place when the very air is seeded with terror? What happens to language?"

She ended her talk, heartily applauded we are certain as she speaks well and is very attractive to look at, with another truism: "Novels can bring their authors to the brink of madness. Novels can shelter their authors, too."

Yes, we who write agree with her but the solace and comfort and feeling of achievement are much greater and lasting than the temporary ‘madness’ we feel when actually creating literature.

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