'I give you my book in memory of Velutha'

Print edition : January 30, 1999

This is the English original of Arundhati Roy's translated Malayalam address to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi at Kozhikode on January 15, 1999:

WHEN Mr. Prabhakaran and Mr. Mukundan came to my home in Delhi to invite me on behalf of the Dalit Sahitya Akademi to Calicut, I was delighted and accepted their invitation at once. I cannot tell you how flattered and honoured I am to be here. Flattered and honoured enough to be making the first speech of my life. I promise you that it will be a very short one.

My book, The God of Small Things, has had a very noisy journey into the world. Like other books, it has been praised and criticised, loved and sometimes hated. Amidst the din of this peculiarly 20th century personality cult around authors, people often remember the writers and forget their books. The reason that I am thrilled to be here is because I'm sure that this will not be the case with you. I know that you share the anger and outrage which lies at the heart of The God of Small Things. It is an anger that the "modern" metropolitan world, the Other India (the one in which I now live), tends to overlook, because for them it is something distant, something unreal, something exotic. But you, better than anyone else, know that there is nothing unreal or exotic about barbarism.

I have come for a very simple reason. I believe that the Dalit struggle for justice and equality in a society wracked by caste prejudice is going to be, and indeed ought to be, the biggest challenge that India will face in the coming century. It cannot be ignored, it cannot be disguised or given another name or re-fashioned to fit some pre-existing theory. It must and will be recognised for what it is. I am fully aware that this particular war will be an immense and complicated one. That it will be waged in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of people, in all sorts of places. I'm here to enlist.

Here we are, poised to enter the twenty-first century, arming ourselves with nuclear bombs and medieval values. It's 1999 and we still read of whole villages where Dalits have been annihilated - shot, or burned to death. It's 1999 and we still have people persecuted, even beheaded, for marrying outside their caste. It's 1999 and we still have words in our vocabulary like 'scheduled tribe' and 'backward caste' and 'untouchable'. We use them with equanimity. Only yesterday someone said to me quite casually: "Actually he's not an untouchable - he's a backward caste man." This is just a piece of your everyday friendly neighourhood bigotry - so easy to ignore or get used to.

Amidst all this current talk of national pride it remains to be asked whether these are the values and traditions we need nuclear bombs to protect and defend. And it remains to be said that no military arsenal, however formidable, will ever be able to shield us from the shame of what we do to one another.

In recent months, because I was among those who protested against nuclear tests in Pokhran, I have been labelled a 'peacenik'. I'm not a peacenik. I merely have strong views about wars and the manner in which they should be waged. Let me make myself clear, I believe in this war, but I do not believe that violence is the way to win it.

For myself, as a writer, the challenge has been to journey through anger and bitterness, to try and mould beauty from rage. To fight by creating instead of destroying. That is what has made it magical for me. That is why I'm here today, speaking - and, more important, being heard. When the journey through rage to beauty remains incomplete, when the traveller opts out and takes a short-cut, then that journey becomes an ordinary journey. The war becomes an ordinary war with ordinary consequences - terror and death and ugliness. I believe that when a war is won by means of violence and destructiveness, the victory will be temporary, and before long the victors will turn into the monsters they thought they had vanquished.

I am not advocating tolerance, or acceptance. There has been more than enough of that. I'm advocating a war of noisy beauty, of voices raised, of stories told, of songs sung loudly in the streets. A war of raucous celebration in which victory will make those of us who fought, truly, deeply and marvellously untouchable. But I haven't come here to preach. I've come to help a dream along. To do what little I can.

In Kerala The God of Small Things has been loved a little, but also vilified. I don't mind. I didn't write it for any particular person's or party's approval. I have been called (among other things) 'anti-Communist': I'm not anti-Communist, I'm far from anti-Communist, but I believe that nothing, and nobody (and that includes myself and my book), is above criticism.

Having said that, if, taking into account all the complex, convoluted politics of the times we live in, I had to choose one constituency whose approval I would cherish the most, it would be this one - the one to which all of you who are gathered here today belong.

The God of Small Things is my book, but in some ways, because it grew out of this place it belongs to you too. The rage and the beauty is yours. I want to share it with you in a real way. In a pragmatic, practical way.

I've thought long and hard about what I can do in a world where all the avenues seem to be blocked. Where the historically privileged own everything - the newspapers, the magazines, the airwaves. The easiest thing for me to do would have been to make a financial donation to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi. But somehow that made me uncomfortable. It would have been the quick, arrogant, patronising thing to do. And neither you nor I believe in aid or charity. What I have decided to do is to entrust to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi a part of the most precious thing that I possess. The God of Small Things.

I would be honoured if you will publish it in Malayalam, if you will. It's yours - along with its strengths, its secrets, its faults and flaws. This is not a gift. It is an invitation to enter into a working contract with me. I hope you will publish it, sell it and use the royalties from the Malayalam book to help Dalit writers to tell their stories to the world. I promise you that I will be as difficult with you as I have been with every one of my other publishers. I will insist on the best possible translation. I will interfere with the design. I give you my book in memory of Velutha.

A letter from the Editor


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