I read Indian author and global activist Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, in the excellent company of our ultra-casual island book club. It stuck with me for her incisive and deceptively simple storytelling but I remember finishing the Booker Prize-winning novel with a sense of accomplishment but also of a faint unease, as if someone had left a door open on an alien and limited reality I was unwilling to accept.
Changing what you can change and finding the serenity to endure what you cannot has its limits for the Western mind, or at least it seemed so 20 years ago.
These days one is uncomfortably aware that it is a murderous reality for whole populations caught in tangled sectarian violence, the oil industry’s century of international greed and bad faith and irrevocable displacements of once mesmerizingly beautiful fragments of civilised evolution across Africa, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East and into Nepal and Afghanistan.
To mark its parent publication’s 200th anniversary, the Guardian Weekly’s front cover and lead story this week is as shocking as it is compelling. Lurid funeral pyres in India, burning night and day, consuming even city trees, are a hellish background to the brutal surge of new strains of Covid.
With her homeland in flames and terror, Arundhati Roy’s first-person narrative of the catastrophic new wave of Covid in India crackled off the lead pages, its crisp, authoritative prose – the excoriatingly political and the desperately personal – almost immediately recognisable. Even the meme I had remembered was there as she quoted escaped slave and 19th century orator Frederick Douglass, who became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York.
Tyrants, he said, are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
To which she added: “How we in India pride ourselves on our capacity to endure. How beautifully we have trained ourselves to meditate, to turn inward, to exorcise our fury as well as justify our inability to be egalitarian.
“How meekly we embrace our humiliation,” she says, a year into Covid and its bonfire of the world’s long-running vanities and specious priorities.
There are parallels with the continuing support for Donald Trump emerging among America’s Republicans in the picture Roy paints of the hard work her country’s purported public intellectuals, the CEOs of its major corporations and the media houses they own have put in to make and keep Narendra Modi the prime minister of the world’s second most populous nation behind China.
It’s clear that Covid and the planet aren’t finished with us yet and just at the moment it seems we will know the worst of humanity before it is. Of the best – since capitalism’s war on democracy is largely undeclared – we might see not so much.
In the thick of all this, boastful, despotic and none-too-bright leaders can seem like the only ones standing, the power structures around them increasingly barbaric; the use of economic and even military control over their citizens a new normal.
Faced with this, and along with various forms of seemingly inextricable fundamentalist violence, the global community is paralysed in the absence of wholesome international leadership. Nor do we have any democratic restraints on the pervasive ideologies of centralisation, either internal or external and mostly to the benefit of commercial exploitation.
It’s hard to see any useful outcome from the United Nations, perpetually vetoed by one or other of the “permanent five” nations, who also happen to be arms dealers. When the flames die down, maybe the World Health Organisation can regrow teeth for the job ahead. Nothing will be a silver bullet but World War II plumbed the depths of fascism and its learnings might be useful in tackling failings in a global civilian crisis.
We could also look again to Douglass as an engineer of the successful abolition of slavery in the 19th century. “Power,” he said, “concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
As we try to break new ground in how to live in intelligent harmony with each other, we can also heed his observation that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
“The world is a millipede that inches forward on millions of real conversations,” the diminutive Arundhati Roy said after a dynamic – and very real – “Un-summit” she had in a Moscow hotel with the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and actor-activist John Cusack. Perhaps, real grassroots conversations may be our best start. • Liz Waters