Arundhati Roy's talk in the Bay Area

Arundhati Roy is clearly a crowd puller, especially in the bay area. By the time I got to know about the talk at UC Berkeley on 18, August 2004, the event was already sold out despite the $21 cost per ticket. However, I had the privilege of watching the recording of her talk on Booktv (C-Span II). (I think this was a talk she delivered in San Francisco and not the one at Berkeley). The event lasted about a 100 minutes in all including the speech and the Q&A.

Overall, the content of her speech was interesting and engaging. She read her speech from written text and her responses during the Q&A session were not necessarily as impressive or as insightful as her speech. Her strength clearly lies in writing than in speaking. She is brilliant in word play and has the ability to draw interesting parallels that most people can relate to. Some of the points I recall from the speech (I am writing this from memory and not from notes. Note taking is not my strength, unfortunately!):

  • Terrorisim is the privitization of war! (I thought this was a nice way to present the idea)
  • Extending her view that George Bush and John Kerry are not very different she drew an interesting parallel about two soaps (ivory coast and one other name I can’t remember) both being products from P&G. “You’ll have Bush without Bush if Kerry were elected”. She said a similar situation exists in India –while she described the BJP as blatantly fascist, she said the Congress party’s policies are not very different on most issues.
  • The people of a country pay the price for the mistakes of their Govt. In Afghanistan, the people suffered because of the US attack instigated by the Taliban; In Iraq the people suffered because the US chose to get rid of Saddam; likewise the US people suffered the 9/11 attack because of the US govts policy in the middle east. The difference she pointed out was that barring the US where we have a democratically elected President (or so to speak as she pointed out tongue-in-cheek) the others are oppressive regimes. In short, people have been forced to suffer for no fault of theirs. The US population on the other hand, needs to feel responsible for its predicament and can’t entirely blame its govt.
  • She described Call Centers as an extension of racism. “Sure they are better off because of these jobs, but requiring people to work odd hours, pretend to be somebody they aren’t (Rosy , Roxanne etc.), and speak with a fake accents, is a form of racism!”.
  • When asked about the US, she said she admires Americans and thinks that because the people here are far more well off than the rest of the world, the Americans can mobilize and make a difference to humanity as a whole by influencing the role of Govt. and the military establishment than people any other part of the world.
  • She talked about the role of Big Media (how Afghanistan no longer gets press, and soon the same will happen to Iraq, The World Social Forum event held in Mumbai in Jan 2004 got no coverage whatsoever in the mainstream media in India despite the huge turnout. btw, if you care to learn more about this vist the Independent Media Center etc.), the questionable motivation behind several NGOs (their source of funds etc.).
  • On Iraq, she thought the US should withdraw and repatriate (and pay in $) the loss. She referred to the “thugerry of Cheney, Rumsfled and Wolfowitz” At one point, prior to saying something controversial she said, “If I have to go to jail, I would rather go to jail in India than here in the US”
  • “Sarkar” (govt in hindi) and “public” (“this is now a hindi word used extensively to refer to the people”) — she referred to these at various points in the speech. She said that it was important that everyone understand that sarkar is the servant of the public and are not kings! She described her moving experience of an entire village in the Narmada destroyed by its own people. Apparently, the people in this village were forcibly relocated by the Govt. to less than acceptable new housing in a different area in return for destroying their existing homes.
  • She dodged a question about more fiction writing by her or simply forgot to respond to it because the “mc” combined too many questions together.

Immediately following Ms. Roy’s speech, one of the folks on the stage innocently said to the camera man, “Can we find out from the camera man if its ok if we did it on the table!” (he was referring to the fact that Ms. Roy was back on the chair after the speech and if it might be ok for her to answer questions while she is seated!” (the guy was embarrassed as soon as the crowd was roaring with laughter at the snafu!).

Overall, I enjoyed the C-Span telecast. Besides, I can’t complain having saved myself a painful drive in traffic, plus the certain frustration of finding parking in Berkeley, and the $21 entry fee.

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