London Literature Festival review: Arundhati Roy – politics and literature

The London Literature Festival 2009 opened on 2 July at the Southbank Centre, with Arundhati Roy, introducing her new book Listening to grasshoppers: field notes on democracy. Introduced by Shami Chakrabarti from civil rights group Liberty, Arundhati spoke to a packed auditorium.

She attacked the idea that India is the ‘biggest democracy’ in the world and explained how the poor are left out of development. The poor have been robbed of the language of fight back, with terms such as ‘progress’, ‘unity’ and ‘democracy’ used by the establishment when attacking rights. She has called this a “language heist”.

The Indian judiciary and the rotten role of non-government organisations did not escape her criticism, making Shami Chakrabarti, who previously worked as a lawyer and now for an NGO, uncomfortable. Someone from the audience accused Chakrabarti of taking the side of the establishment.

Since winning a Booker prize for The god of small things, Arundhati has published a series of political non-fiction books. She wanted to write fiction, but the conditions of the poor in India forced her to concentrate on politics. Her criticisms of the Indian ruling class even led to her being sentenced to prison in 2002.

This was an unconventional start to a ‘literature festival’. The discussion was more about politics than literature. Arundhati spelled out her opposition to capitalism, and the horrific poverty it engenders.

Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney where poverty is on the increase and black youth are robbed of their rights, was in the audience. Such was her eagerness to be associated with Roy that she literally (and embarrassingly) threw herself onto the stage.

However, once there she was only able to ask a question about the connection between literature and politics.

Arundhati Roy is certainly further to the left and cares more about the world around her than the majority of her contemporary writers, and some so-called left MPs.