Written By Kifah Shah
Dear Arundhati Roy,
I was twelve years old when baba handed me The God of Small Things. He wanted to make sure you and I were introduced. As a young, Muslim, Pakistani immigrant living in a predominantly white city, I will always be grateful for the introduction.
Your love for the Earth, for the people, and for the struggle against injustice is one that has shaped me since I was a little girl. Thank you for guiding me then, and to this day, to be vociferous against any wrong I see, and for teaching me the wisdom to always write it down. Most of all, thank you for reminding me that the fight for justice is always deeply rooted in love.
I will remember you as the momentary “cover girl” of India who refused to be silent about the country’s crimes. Your refusal, and your fiery essay “The End of Imagination,” changed the course of your career. You reminded us all that a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan had ultimately one victim: the Earth. You did not let us forget that it is the rivers that will be poisoned, the land that will be scorched, and the air that will become fire. You told us all—Pakistani and Indian—to take the nuclear threat personally. You urged us to speak out because if the two countries were to detonate their bombs against each other: “The devastation will be indiscriminate. The bomb isn’t in your backyard. It’s in your body. And mine.”
It has felt like an endless war since the creation of Pakistan. I hadn’t seriously considered the nuclear threats the heads of state lobbed across borders. As an indigenous daughter of Sindh I hold a deep connection with the land; you made me realize it was incumbent upon me to defend it. So I did as you said: I took the threat very personally.
I can only imagine what you must have felt, rising to fame and distinction, celebrated around the world—only to be discarded for speaking about facts instead of fiction. I felt your loneliness. After meeting you through your writing, I felt emboldened to correct my U.S. and world history teachers’ lessons. My outspokenness added yet another marginal identity to myself: politically radical. You were unwavering. You could have easily done what so many others do today: cower away and stay quiet about your own state’s atrocious actions, but you did not. You spoke your mind.
You took every chance you got to demonstrate—materially and otherwise—solidarity with the poor and oppressed. I was so inspired by you. I occupied UC Berkeley as a student in solidarity with workers to demand fair contracts and conditions. I learned to honor laborers and organized hospitality workers against corporations like Disney to demand fair contracts. And to this day, I work to protect and defend banned, detained, surveilled and incarcerated communities.
In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, you showed us how porous our lives can be. Wicked borders of caste, gender, religion, and nationalism are imposed upon us. Your writing filled my personal imagination with alternative worlds and possibilities. You led me to believe that I could always imagine better for ourselves and each other. Whether I’m mobilizing new immigrants to vote, or fighting to end surveillance programs against brown, Black, Indigenous, and Muslim communities, I continue to imagine better for us. When I’m working to dismantle policies like the Muslim Ban, I carry that belief with me every day.
Just like you, I do this all out of love. You said it best, “we don’t speak from a position of hate but of absolute love.” When I imagine the fruits of all our fighting, at the end of this world and the beginning of the new, I imagine nothing but love.
Kifah Shah is a Campaign Manager at MPower Change. Her work spans across multiple industries and geographies; she has worked for the Asian Law Caucus, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and Unite HERE! Local 11. Kifah worked abroad in Europe and Pakistan on issues of health, education, and economic empowerment. She is a TED Resident and on the Board of Trustees for the Sabika for Peace Foundation. Kifah holds a Masters in Public Administration (Economic Policy) from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor of Arts in Ethnic Studies from U.C. Berkeley.