Arundhati Roy's Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy

by Gilles d'Aymery

Video Review

November 1, 2004   

Pic: Cover photo of 'Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy' DVD Video, AK Press

Arundhati Roy, Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy and Come September, (two lectures by Roy and conversations with Howard Zinn), AK Press, Oakland, CA, 2004, DVD Video, color, ISBN: 1-902593-93-6, 210 minutes, $29.00.

(Swans - November 1, 2004)   When I received the package from Josh Warren-White of AK Press three weeks ago, I fully expected a book, not a DVD. I'm a technophobe -- can't program a VCR or use the microwave. I don't even know how to operate those remote controls that are supposed to make life so technologically purfect, like a purring cat on your lap. A DVD? What am I to do with this? Dump my 13" TV and replace it with a "home theater," a giant plasma TV and surround speakers, jewel cubes®, hideaway Acoustimass®, and more -- a "whole-home entertainment solution" to enhance my advanced post-post-modern lifestyle, at a $10,000 discounted price tag? No way, Josh!

A friend reminded me though that my computer box had to be mounted with one of those futuristic -- and already obsolete -- drives. He was right of course, but having not been in service for over 4 years, not even once, the tourniquet, tired of yawning, had fallen into a long and deep hibernation from which it refused to awake. For all I know, the software I use for my daily tasks would still run on my old Win 3.11 486 machine, which is sagely parked in the attic just in case. Look, my 1987 Toyota has handles to lower the windows... capitch?

I was in the process of writing to Josh to confess with some embarrassment the extent of my affinity with the Luddites of times past and ask him whether by any chance AK Press had disposable DVD drives like those cameras, shavers, and cell phones that grace our landfills with their score of polluting metals, when my wife called. I cried for help -- what's new? -- and she suggested I try her more contemporary machine. A couple of phone calls later -- I was using the wrong drive! -- a miracle happened.

And what a treat it was, 210 minutes of it -- once you figure out how to browse the CD...

Scroll to the left of the text on the main menu, click on the little yellow sun and, voila, the spectacle commences. No popcorn included, just a wonderful production. Sit, relax, and enjoy.

I'm relatively familiar with Arundhati Roy's work. Like tens of millions, I've read her sempiternal God of Small Things and her compelling essays; I've reviewed War Talk and The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile; I've seen many photographs of her; but, I've never met her; nor have I watched her speak in public (thanks to the success of the main media in burying her voice and persona).

So, again, let me repeat: what a treat!

The presentation consists of two lectures Roy gave: the first one, "Come September," at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on September 18, 2002, when she reminisced on the anniversary of 9/11; the second one, "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy," in the famous Riverside Church (Remember MLK?) in New York, on May 13, 2003. In both occasions, Howard Zinn converses with her in the aftermath of the speeches. As a bonus, AK Press includes excerpts of Roy's appearance at Royce Hall (University of California, Los Angeles) on March 27, 2003, and a fascinating UFPJ Teach-In, "The Day of the Jackals," on May 31, 2003.

To relate what's so appealing in Ms. Roy's offering is a demanding task. She, not unlike Nabokov, writes her speeches, and then delivers them in a low-key manner with utmost humbleness. When the audience applauds, as it does repeatedly, she raises her eyes, slightly confused, smiles with discomfort as though she feels she has not said anything particularly special -- then goes on with the business at hands, which is everything but business as usual.

She looks small and fragile. So small that she almost disappears behind the lectern. It's not like a platform is required for Mr. Bush to rise to the height of Mr. Kerry's 6'2" frame. Roy is not staged. Her speeches are for real. She speaks about life, simple life to which all of us can relate, and the dangerous actions taken by the demagogues that we call "leaders" -- not some make-belief world where "freedom and democracy" is to be spread through blood and tears in god's name.

In "Come September," she introduces herself and her work thus:

"Fiction and non-fiction are only different techniques of storytelling. For reasons that I don't fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning. The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as non-fiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless circular conflict they're engaged in."

She begins by addressing the notion of nationalism -- "[F]lags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains, then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead," she says in a soft, quiet Indian-accented voice. She debunks the accusation of un-Americanism that has been sturdily attached to all dissenters, like with some kind of polyurethane ultimate glue -- highly toxic glue. She details the perils that hide behind the demagogic, but so effective, black and white rhetoric of the "us vs. them," and the "business of grief." She welcomes America to a reality the world has known for decades -- that of mindless killing by states and stateless entities, and reflects on the other 9/11s in history, from Allende in Chile to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Fat Man and Little Boy), the many 9/11s that south Asians had to go through, in "living hell."

Born in India, grown and educated in the Subcontinent, her intimate and innate understanding of colonialism, imperialism, and racism comes to the fore when she takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She passionately defends these people who "did not exist," these "two-legged beasts" or "grasshoppers that can be crushed," as past Israeli prime ministers have labeled the Palestinians for as long as one can remember. And on she goes for 45 minutes.

Eight months later, Arundhati Roy delivers her speech, "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)," at the New York City's Riverside Church. The illegal war against Iraq, the botched and violent occupation of this proud nation, the looting of that "7,000-year old civilization [sliding] into anarchy on live TV," have all come to pass. There's a sense of urgency and resolve in Roy's voice -- a sense of moral, ethical, and political outrage. She now speaks as the activist she's been way back in India long before she became renown in the West. She reviews the march to war, the insinuations, the lies of "George W. Bush, the lesser" and his minions -- lies propagated by, in her words, the "US corporate media, otherwise known as the free press, that hollow pillow on which contemporary American democracy rests . . . . these boardroom bulletins..." Her contempt for religious, god-given democracy, "the modern world's Holy Cow," becomes especially palpable when she shows the South African transition from Apartheid to neo-liberal capitalism and the surging poverty there... "And they call this democracy!" she scornfully remarks in a burst of indignation. ("They have stolen our democracy," says Howard Zinn.)

Then, suddenly, she asks, as Lenin used to, "what is to be done?" Yes, what can be done to oppose such malevolence? Boycott US products, banks and financial institutions, she recommends. Against empire's sanctions, implement people's sanctions; attack the under-belly of the beast, where it is most exposed and stretched, at the periphery...and she pronounces the R word -- a revolution must happen.

"If you join the battle," she tells the audience, "not in your 100 of thousands but in your millions, you will be greeted joyously by the rest of the world; and you will see how beautiful it is to be genteel instead of brutal, safe instead of scared, befriended instead of isolated, loved instead of hated." She concludes, "I hate to disagree with your president...yours [your country] is by no mean a great nation but you could be a great people. History has given you the chance. Seize the time."

In both occasions, Howard Zinn then enters into a short monologue, as though he wants to give Roy a little breather. He begins with a sense of wonderment: What is to say, he muses, "she speaks so beautifully...we are not accustomed to that...and she also speaks the truth...and we are certainly not accustomed to that!" Now, truth is a madly elusive concept but it would be a salutary exercise to watch a couple of Mr. Bush's or Mr. Kerry's speeches, haranguing their flocks with nothingness-filled demagoguery and calls for more blood and tears ("I will kill the 'terrorists,' wherever they are," perorates Kerry) and, concomitantly, Ms. Roy's. Arundhati Roy makes indubitably clear what power obfuscates!

Zinn speaks slowly, using suggestive silences, interspersed with drawling ya' know... y'all know, as in, ah yes, democracy in America...pause...ya' know...pause...y'all know, right?, as though he wants to let the meaning of his suggestion sink in, so that members of the audience can finish the sentence on their own and opine in understanding. The Q & A sessions allow the viewers to learn more about Roy's past and India. Zinn looks at Arundhati with much tenderness and the kind of pride a grandfather would have for his talented protégée. In turn, Roy looks up to him with deference and admiration; but she remains her own and does not hesitate to contradict Zinn's assertions when he derails.

Here's a telling example: Zinn begins a monologue in which he posits that all people are equal, that Americans, if they knew the "truth" about the repeated killings of civilians, of mothers and children, if they had not "been misinformed," would wholeheartedly acknowledge the right of everybody on earth to the pursuit of happiness. As he goes on for a couple of minutes, one can see Roy's face slightly grimacing, her eyes rolling up and down, right and left, as she sits patiently next to him, dressed in an immaculate white sari that contrasts her dark complexion. "But, but, but, the fact is, you know," Roy comments, "when, when Madeleine Albright was asked about the death of 500,000 Iraqi children, she said she thought the price was worth it. . . . . Some people are more equal than others. . . . . The fact is, it is true today, that, you know, if you kill 200,000 Iraqis, or you kill 200,000 Afghans, or you kill 200,000 Indians, or you kill 4 million people in the Congo, it's not the same 'thing' as 200,000 Americans, or 200,000 British people, or 200,000 Europeans -- this is the truth. This is the way it is, right now." Roy is evidently correct. White people have long been more equal than others, a fact that may have been difficult for Howard Zinn to integrate fully, he who for all his long life has believed in the goodness of America...if ever she was not "so misinformed...." The social and cultural acceptation, and acknowledgement, that racism is an integral part of white people psyche, which history has demonstrated time and again, remains obfuscated by our ethnocentricity and the belief in our inherent goodness.

You will not want to miss "The Day of the Jackals." In this segment, Roy is in a natural setting, wearing little make-up, and dressed simply with a black tank top with a red inscription, "Drop Bush, Not Bombs." She faces the camera and unleashes a scathing and eloquent criticism of the war. Not to be missed, indeed (even if she has a few facts incorrect!).

All in all, a superb production!

The Holidays are coming -- here is a gift to share with your friends and family. You can buy it directly from AK Press at 510-208-1700 (www.akpress.org) in the U.S., and 0131-555-5165 (www.akuk.com) in the UK. There's a short presentation of the publishers on the DVD (again, look for the little yellow sun...). They are a collective of seven individuals in Oakland, California, three in Edinburgh, Scotland, and one in West Virginia. Decisions are made collectively, each individual is empowered to make decisions; they are paid the same amount and have similar workloads. They publish between 12 and 15 DVD titles and 8 to 12 books a year. This is an independent publisher that you will want to support.

Arundhati Roy, Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy and Come September, (two lectures by Roy and conversations with Howard Zinn), AK Press, Oakland, CA, 2004, DVD Video, color, ISBN: 1-902593-93-6, 210 minutes, $29.00.

You can order the video directly from AK Press.

It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

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Book Reviews on Swans

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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published November 1, 2004
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