The final featured conversation at the reconference was between Arundhati Roy, award-winning writer of two novels and over fifty works of non-fiction, and filmmaker Shohini Ghosh. Roy’s work focuses on a vast range of social and political issues, from imperialism and capitalism, to labor and environmental justice.
Here are the major takeaways from the session:
- Roy finds the binary understanding of non-fiction as being only to do with facts and fiction as only being about imagination (and removed from the ‘real’ world) untrue. For her, both mediums are forms of storytelling and ways to look at the world. The difference between them, for her, comes in the form of urgency (or lack thereof). With fiction, she is leisurely, completely unconcerned about how long it’ll take to finish it. She wants to live in the world she is creating, and spend time with the people in it. However, her nonfiction is written “when the atmosphere is darkening” – when she wants to blow up the mainstream consensus about a social and political issue. “Almost every single one of my essays is written despite myself,” she said.
- Roy has found herself at the receiving end of much litigation because of what she writes – she has been accused of obscenity and corrupting public morality, as well as sedition. She joked that a group of five male lawyers gets together every year to file a criminal case against her. The very first case against her was for “obscenity” in her first novel. In the middle of the case, she won the Booker prize and much acclaim. Eventually, the case was dropped, but more came in its wake.
- Roy said she thinks of writing a novel as building something, and finds that her training in architecture really helps her with structure – the way the story reveals itself to the reader. “I can’t even imagine studying something else if you want to be a novelist,” she said.
- Roy called her twenty years of writing non-fiction “a very perilous journey”, saying she found it difficult to remove herself from the essays (because who is writing is a political issue and should be addressed) but also insert herself in them, because she started writing non-fiction after she had already become very well-known. Unlike fiction, which is “written absolutely, absolutely alone”, she said her non-fiction writing comes from “great circles of solidarity” and much discussion with activists and thinkers. Speaking about The Greater Common Good, her essay on the fight against big dams in the Narmada Valley, she said “some of my greatest and most profound lessons, I learned on the banks of that river.”
- The military occupation in Kashmir is a huge part of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and some of the non-fiction she has written. She said that progressive Indians who speak about the occupation of Palestine but don’t raise their voices against what is happening in Kashmir “are an embarrassment.” Kashmir will always be part of whatever she writes, she added.
- Speaking about her introduction to the Annihilation of Caste, Roy criticised Gandhi’s politics and the fact that he thwarted and appropriated the work of Dr BR Ambedkar. She said that it was myth that Gandhi was a friend of the poor. “Go to any poor person’s house in India, and you will find a picture of Dr Ambedkar,” she added.