Sunday, March 4, 2012
The God of Small Things
Given to me by my boss at Just Buffalo, Laurie Dean Torrell.
One of the programs I took over at Just Buffalo when I became Artistic Director was a civic reading event called, "If All Of Buffalo Read the Same Book." These kinds of events take place all over the country, usually centering on apolitical, uncontroversial fiction, or on books discussing topics of local interest. When I surveyed the books chosen in most places, my response was almost always to snort or to snore.
When we were trying to select a book for the 2004 edition, I told Laurie that I wanted to choose a book that had a little more heft, one that might challenge readers a bit. One day, while we walked through Talking Leaves Books, she pulled a book off the shelf by Jumpa Lahiri and asked what I thought. I said if we were going to go for an Indian author, why not Arundhati Roy? I think Laurie bought her book on the spot, while I set to work figuring out how to contact her.
I didn't really think it would be possible, given our budget, to even contact her, much less convince her to come to Buffalo for three full days of events. It didn't take very long, actually, to find her agent in New York. It turned out that the biggest obstacle was getting her to the states because she required first class air from New Delhi, which costs a pretty penny. One of our board members stepped up and donated enough frequent flier miles to pay for the whole trip, so she agreed to two major public events, plus a series of book signings and school visits around town.
She traveled to Buffalo with her agent, Anthony Arnove. I picked them up at the airport. I remember she wore jeans and bright red tennis shoes and that she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I dropped them off at the hotel and returned a few hours later to pick them up for the first event, a celebration of The God of Small Things at the Unitarian Church on Elmwood Ave. When I arrived, I found her standing outside the hotel, breathtaking in a white sari.
As they got into the car I said, I feel under-dressed.
You're supposed to, said her agent.
I think abut six hundred people showed up for the event, including Ani Difranco, who sat in the front row. Afterwards, we went out to dinner with Ani and her manager, Scot Fisher. It was kind of surreal. This was the fall of 2004, smack in the middle of the presidential race. As you can imagine, dinner talk was all politics and the two famous women couldn't have been more different.
I would describe Ani as all heart, someone who believes in what she believes and who follows those beliefs instinctively. Arundhati, on the other hand, is a powerhouse intellect who, though equally passionate, backs up her argumentative fire with exhaustive research which she expresses in perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs.
While their politics might have seemed, especially to Ani, copacetic, the differences were actually rather pronounced. Ani was at the time doing a sort of "Rock the Vote" tour in support of John Kerry. Arundhati, on the other hand, was more or less saying that Kerry and Bush were the same and that we should really be working to overthrow the whole system currently in place in the U.S. DiFranco definitely seemed to want to find common ground. I didn't get the same feeling from Roy.
The next day I took her on the Niagara Falls tour and the Buffalo Entropy tour. She told me she loved whitewater rafting. She told me about what it was like to serve on the jury at Cannes. She told me about a friend of hers who climbed to the top of Everest and how when he tried to piss it froze in a golden arch before it hit the ground. She told me how speaking at public events made her nervous because she always had to remember that every word she said would be broadcast around the world.
I took her to the Saigon Cafe for lunch. She asked the waiter to bring a side dish of their hottest chiles, which she ate by the spoonful, complaining that American food had not taste at all.
For the second event, we brought up Amy Goodman from New York to perform a live interview at the First Presbyterian Church. Something like 1100 people showed up. It was up to that time the largest audience we'd ever had for an event. They talked mostly about politics and the presidential election and so on. A few annoying people got up and tried to give speeches at the mic promoting one cause or the other or to attack Roy or Goodman.
Frankly, I enjoyed the literary event more.
Afterwards, I was treated to another celebrity dinner with Arundhati and Amy. We ate at Toro, a pseudo-tapas place on Elmwood Ave. Goodman struck me as someone who works way too hard! At the time, she was broadcasting from different cities every day. During dinner, she fell asleep at the table. At one point, Anthony Arnove asked me to repeat a story I'd read in the paper about Donald Trump coming to speak at UB and charging a fee of $200,000!
As soon as I said this, Goodman perked up, as if the scent of a news story hit her like smelling salts.
"Where did you hear this story?"
"So you think it is probably true."
"So you are telling me that the taxpayer-funded State University of New York at Buffalo is paying Donald Trump $200,000 to speak for one hour."
"That's going to be on the show tomorrow."
And sure enough, the next day, during a live broadcast on Democracy Now, she interviewed Prof. Bruce Jackson of the UB English department and spent a good part of the conversation discussing this absurd situation.
Arundhati was very sweet when we said goodbye at the airport. She asked if it she had done alright. I said I thought the whole city, myself included, was in love. She gave me a hug and stepped into the airport.