Edinburgh Book Festival review: Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things author describes the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on India as “a series of silent heart attacks”

Arundhati Roy PIC: MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images
Arundhati Roy PIC: MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

If we’ve learned one thing from this year’s online Book Festival, it is about the way it collapses distance. That a writer such as Arundhati Roy can be in her home in New Delhi, and yet be with interviewer Bilal Qureshi in Washington DC, and be with us on our screens, wherever we find ourselves. It mirrors something Roy’s writing does: always specific, always Indian, yet resonating internationally.

Roy’s essay ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ was published in early April and quickly went viral, offering a perspective specific to Indian experience, and yet relevant everywhere. She described how, as the Indian government attempted to lockdown a country of 1.3 billion people with four hours’ notice, she went outside to witnesses many thousands, without homes, money or transport, taking to the streets to walk back to their villages. She realised covid-19 was “an X-Ray which exposed the inequality of the world”.

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Nowhere are the consequences of the virus more devastating than in India, she said, describing them as “a series of silent heart attacks”: the economy decimated, millions unemployed, the elite seeking an apartheid from the “biohazardous” poor in a kind of postmodern caste system.

Roy contends that her fiction is political and her political writing is literary. Her new collection of essays, Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction (which includes ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’), sees her grappling with how to be a writer of both kinds in the present moment. Common to both strands of her work is the importance of stories, complex stories which resist “the simplicity on which facism depends”, and have the potential to imagine a better world.

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