Reading Arundhati Roy: An Homage

Also see: John Cusack and Arundhati Roy | Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

It’s not too long ago that I came across Arundhati Roy for the first time. I feel guilty revealing this and scold myself frequently for not having known before. I tell her with a sharp and wagging forefinger that she should have known before. But it is what it is. I cannot travel back in time to the ignorant child I was and apply strict measures of education, which today I see she clearly needed – offer guidance, perhaps most of all. I can only build upon what lies in an inaccessible past. And for that I feel guilty sometimes. But the person I am today was not there to guide and educate. And whenever I can gather the courage to go back, and it takes a lot of courage, I wonder who that person was anyways, just a person absorbed by all that stuff she thought was necessary to survive growing up in a world where we define ourselves over meaningless junk in order for others to recognize us, for ourselves to recognize ourselves. Or is not a rose still a rose even if there is no one there to call it that?

When we met, I was an English student attending a class on Anglophone literature at a German university. First semester Master Comparative Studies. The God of Small Things was one of four novels discussed in this class. And I deliberately call it a mutual encounter cause, for me, it felt so intimate that I have no doubt she must have felt it, too.

Thousands of kilometers away from Kerala, a region unknown to me at the time – it could have easily been a fictitious place from a different planet – I knew only little about the Indias that echo through Roy’s fiction. In my mind India was a strange conglomeration of different cultures and religions, of wild colors and tastes I only dared to stray to excitedly when no one was looking, of injustice and poverty and strict social hierarchies, of Hollywood’s seemingly irrelevant little sister. I had never been. Had never genuinely cared about it, either. In a way, I simply forgot about India. It was too far away form where I was. And this stereotypical image I describe is mostly based on a pre-internet-obsessed-era, where television still primarily shaped the perception of the youth. And German television was dominated by American sitcoms.

Arundhati Roy made me care about it so much that I read The God of Small Things a second and third and fourth and maybe even fifth time. So much that I attended more classes on that same fictional narrative eager to hear different opinions, more opinions and talk about it endlessly. So much that I wrote papers and held presentations on it and specialized in Anglophone literature. So much that I delved into her non-fiction, books and articles, speeches, interviews, whatever I could find. So much that I began to educate myself about the history and culture of all the Indias. And she’s right: there are so many.

I’m not the most sophisticated and bold person with a pen. I know that. Some of us practice their entire lives, and yet it always sounds clumsy in a way, as if trying too hard, forever condemned to being a first draft. And for that also I look up to her. English is not my first language. But it’s the language of my choice because the two I was handed early on are still engaged in a never-ending battle for domiciliary rights, frantically waving their flags at each other, unable to see that they could have also always coexisted peacefully. Instead, I chose the language of the Empire, of colonialism and imperialism and hegemony, of global economy and money. A poor choice looking at it from this angle. But it’s also a language of resistance, of the call for freedom and justice, of people like Arundhati Roy, who voice their fears and angers, the grievances of those who have no voice themselves, in the language of those who are most proud and most willing to wipe out planet earth for power, or money or simply as a matter of principle, disregarding that after the final, all-concluding fight, there will be no power, or money or principle any longer.

I could have read it in German as well. But I don’t trust translations. And I don’t trust the German language. Growing up in Germany, the language has always been like an uncomfortable second skin I was forced into and obliged to wear for most of the time. I read into the Croatian copy that I got for my mom online. Or was it Serbian? I never know which is which. It wasn’t too bad, the beginning at least. Melodic. A bit like the original, but then, not quite.

So I stuck to English. And it didn’t bother me that I had to snuggle up to a dictionary while reading it for the first and second time, put the book aside whenever I stumbled over to me unknown vocabulary, loads of unknown words. I still felt safe in an odd way, convinced I had finally found one of the things I was looking for.

My copy is littered with notes and scribbles, translations, dog-ears and yellow marked phrases. The edges are battered, some even ripped off. I was drawn in from the very beginning, but once I got to the lower half of the first page, to this specific sentence that caught my eye and projected an undeniable image in my mind, I was completely hooked. It reads: “The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat.” I couldn’t stop envisioning the house alive in the present time of Rahel and Estha, rotting away carelessly and haunted by all the ghosts that, once humans, used to inhabit its four corners. An old house trying to conceal its face, to hide from reproachful stares, from itself perhaps, or from what it had witnessed.

I understand that for somebody else, it’s just a sentence about a house, technically a personification, or just some silly metaphor as people would conclude. But for me, it was something else. Her words sparked a flame inside that seemed familiar, not distant like the India I had put away on a shelf a while ago without actually knowing it, but close somehow, like an unexpected memory that had been dozing in a disregarded part of my memory compartment and suddenly awoke with a start.

The story of Rahel and Estha is not only a story of twins forever trudging through deep mud, of love found and love lost. It’s a story about an entire country and its people and all the little nation states that exist in one all-regulating and ruthless nation state. It’s about privilege and authorities and about the forsaken ones who are obliged to suffer so that others can prosper. It’s about what remains behind after the storm has subsided and what we make of what is left. It’s about all of us.

I was in awe. I had never been to India, but whenever I read it, I was right there standing in front of the old mansion, crestfallen and worn down. I was in that little hut where Velutha’s brother was lying in the very corner his mother had died in. In the bathroom cubicle awkwardly trying to hold on to an arm or just any piece of fabric so that the person who’s turn it was wouldn’t have to sit on the stained toilet seat. I was just another sweating body jammed in the backseat of the car watching the raging Communists pass by. I was silently walking alongside Estha through the rain.

The images produced are so vivid and real, it felt natural and awkward in a way to return to Ayemenem – almost as if it was my story, my Ayemenem. And maybe that’s the reason I felt so connected because the story seemed incredibly familiar to me, still does, not like a mirror image, more like a distorted reflection on a piece of curved metal, or rippled in the water. But in any case similar – with religion and rebellion and flight and broken promises and a house left behind that had to suffer through it all alone, standing tall and breaking down in shame, deserted in the end with the hat pulled almost to the tip of the nose, with holes in places where homes are not supposed to have holes.

Roy’s theoretical work reminds me of her first and only novel published to this date. It seems to be composed in a different language and for a different audience. A collection of pointed facts and historic occurrences that exist outside this invented shield, out there in the real world – at least for those who regard fiction as entertainment and fleeting pleasure. But in fact, it is written in a similar tone. Without question demanding and informative and encouraging, educated and brave on every level. But for me, from everything Roy writes intellect and knowledge and logic keep pouring out effortlessly always accompanied by a single visible tear – revealing passion and goodwill, eager to speak for who or whatever is denied the right to speak, mourning all the small things we throw away because they don’t matter to us on a global scale, cause they don’t yield profit.

The series of articles on her secret meeting with whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, which was brought to life by actor and writer John Cusack, are no exception. I am close to tears reading through both Cusack’s and her accounts of the meeting and how it came into being. In one of their conversations she loosely cites from Chomsky’s The Backroom Boys, where a US soldier praises the new combination of white phosphorous and napalm as a pleasant advance in warfare, for it “sticks to the gooks like shit to a blanket.” This phrase, Roy reveals, has deeply shuddered her own world. “I can’t forget it. It burned me to the bone,” she says.

It makes me think about the phrase I keep returning to myself, cause it somehow managed to get through to my bones as well. It makes me think about that house again. Yes, of course, that one in Ayemenem. But also the one I am more familiar with, the one I will come to inherit one day. Built from scratch and abandoned, then stripped down to its bare, hole infested walls and over a stretch of the past few years slowly and arduously put together anew, piece by piece, whenever one or the other euro was left at the end of the month. God knows for how long it’s going to stand this time. In any case, I could never return to this place, to this house, knowing that although born in Croatia, for them, I will always only be that Serb undeservedly holding a Croatian passport.

The radical right sentiment that is building up in Europe cautions me that it won’t last this long. The floods of people streaming in from instable regions, from Syria and Africa and the forgotten parts of the Balkans, stir anger and hatred in those who are afraid for their precious personal and cultural belongings. “It sticks to the gooks like shit to a blanket.” It sounds like so many remarks I have been increasingly reading in commentary sections online about the current refugee crisis. The barbaric tone and choice of words is heartbreaking. With a grin on my face I asked trusted German friends to send me the memo on time so I can slip away before Pogromnacht. But in a strange way Germany has become home. So where would I go? And why would I be welcomed there?

Academic writing tends to be arrogant and aloof sometimes. Dry and devoid of human emotions. Mostly stating the facts, trying to prove a thesis. But just like her fiction, Roy’s non-fiction work always also reminds us to be human, or rather, to remember that we are. When John Cusack notes that, “She can disarm you at any time with her friendly hustler’s grin but her eyes see things and love things so fiercely, it’s frightening at times,” I catch myself nodding, as if I had any right to affirm this statement. Having only met her through her written body of work – not all of it, I admit to my own shame – I still feel like I know exactly what he means. She is part of this encounter in Moscow, people like me are most lucky to be allowed to visit even if only through words, and yet in my imagination, she is always somewhere on the side, silently observing, looking right through it all. Uncanny but honest and deeply caring. Because she deeply cares about this world. And that, first of all, is reflected in her writing.

Reading these articles reminded me so much about the profound respect I have for Arundhati Roy and for everything she says and does that I felt the stinging urge to go back and reminisce about the most fierce and daring work of fiction I ever encountered. Read it again. Celebrate today knowing that she is still out there fighting for all of us. Strive to be a bit more like her – myself.