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VIEW: Eight wisdoms from Arundhati Roy's Vancouver talk

Celebrated author Arundhati Roy's talk last evening at the St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, hosted by Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival, drew mostly on stories and experiences from the place she calls home, India.

While India is seen as an emerging economic powerhouse, millions of people live on less than $2 a day, Roy said. Needless to say, within the free market structure, wealth has far from trickled down. It's a theme that pervades much of her work.

As we face an extreme resource rush here in Canada, from mining to pipelines to mega-dams, Roy's stories, which illuminate power dynamics between corporations and resistance movements, are a remarkable gift.  

While she didn't read from her bestselling book The God of Small Things, she did excerpt her newest publication, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, as well as a number of other essays, to a crowd of 1,000 eager ears. She then spoke in conversation with The Tyee's David Beers and answered questions from the audience.

Here's a list of important takeaways.

1. When she nailed the problem with representative democracy.

When Roy read from her essay, Listening to Grasshoppers, she said the problem with representative democracy is that there is "too much representation and not enough democracy." She talked about how corporations have created structures that increase their decision-making power, leaving the rest of us with hapless, unimportant choices like "Pepsi or Coke?"

Corporations now have power over the decisions that impacts us most, said Roy, such as whether or not an industrial project goes through. It's a reality that's powerfully true in India today.

2. When she challenged misconceptions about nonviolence.

Roy challenged those who criticize the use of military resistance, rather than nonviolence, in struggle with a sobering thought: When people are hungry, poor, and shot at by armed forces -- as thousands in India currently are -- what are they supposed to do? Are they going to go on a hunger strike?

We can draw parallels to this and the struggle of the Mi'kmaq at Elsipogtog. What are the people fighting there supposed to do when RCMP officers point rifles as they blockade to defend their land and waters?

3. When she told us the truth about Gandhi.

Roy also challenged the idealization of Gandhi. She explained that Gandhi actually fought alongside imperial leaders in certain wars, and that, while in prison, criticized Asian people, claiming that Indians needed a separate jail. It was rather heartbreaking to hear, but a good reality check about the mistakes he made and where he went wrong.

4. How she used 'ghosts' to reveal the costs of capitalism.

Perhaps the most harrowing part of Roy's talk was when she spoke about the "ghosts" of capitalism. The ghosts moving around us: lost lives, millions of people living in poverty, the corporate power that sucks our blood...

5. When she criticized 'Mining for Happiness.'

Roy described how the arts has become one of the insidious ways the free market system wins control. Since it's tough to find funding for shows and such, artists end up planning slightly more moderate events in order to secure corporate sponsors.

Reading from Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Roy elaborated how this has happened in the context of India: "Of late, the main mining conglomerates have embraced the arts -- film, art installations, and the rush of literary festivals that have replaced the 1990's obsession with beauty contests. Vedanta, currently mining the heart of our homelands of the ancient Dongria Kondh tribe for bauxite, is sponsoring a 'Creating Happiness' film competition for young film students, whom it has commissioned to make films on sustainable development. Vedanta's tagline is 'Mining Happiness.'"

6. When she told us not to call her an activist.

Roy doesn't call herself an activist, but a writer. Her writing is political, and she said she struggles to understand how one might write any other way. "Why wouldn't we write about the critical issues our society is facing?" she asked.

7. When she spoke out about dams.

Roy's work focuses on struggles in India, and for many years she was involved with opposition to the Narmada Dam. She ended her talk with a speech about dams and how they work as a symbol of the capitalist system. It reminded me of the consequences of dams in Canada, like the Cree who were displaced from Manitoba Hydro dams, as explained in Indigenous Rights are Not Human Rights.

8. How she used so few words to articulate complex issues.

Never before have I heard the challenge of our time articulated so clearly: "We have gone leaps and bounds in terms of human intelligence, but we have lost connection with our instincts and our survival."

Brigette DePape is a community organizer and writer.

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