Interview: Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy: ‘We are all living in a graveyard of sorts’

Print edition : August 04, 2017

Arundhati Roy presents her book "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" at the Parco della Musica Auditorium in Rome pm June 12. (Giorgio Onorati ANSA via AP) Photo: Giorgio Onorati/ANSA via AP

Interview with Arundhati Roy.

A WORLD wounded by aggression and inexplicable hatred could do with the welcome shade of Arundhati Roy’s works. Men and women, both in love and out of it, could do with the eloquence of her expression. As she says early on in the much-talked-about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which follows 20 years after her Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, “No matter how elaborate its charade, she recognised loneliness when she saw it.” Love, like Need, is “a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty”.

Welcome to the hectic world of Arundhati Roy. Never known to be a writer in an ivory tower, the image, in the past, preceded her. She was supposed to be that fiery orator who would not take any anomalies lying down. She won the Booker for The God of Small Things, but the prize came at a price. While it allowed her to plunge headlong into the socio-economic-political issues that so disturbed her equanimity, and be heard patiently and respectfully, she also evoked extreme reactions.

For some, she was a brave activist (a description she does not agree with), an author who left her Booker on the mantelpiece at home and jumped into the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Medha Patkar, even giving away her prize money to the movement. Hers was a strident voice against globalisation and neo-imperialism, besides the Indian government’s nuclear and economic policies. More recently, she has been a fearless critic of the government’s policies in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, risking the wrath of the state and the right wing alike. She has also been very vocal about the treatment of minority communities and Dalits in recent times—concerns that have found their way into her latest book as well.

Such was her passion for justice and fair play that lovers of literature feared they had lost their best-loved author to the world of firebrand protests and frequent petitions. The most crucial battles of life, it seemed, were fought on the mean streets of crime and subterfuge, not between the pages of an arresting work of literature. Books like We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, or even Arundhati Roy’s own trenchant The Hanging of Afzal Guru and the Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament appeared to be easily forgotten. Not many were concerned that she had also penned the script for a television serial, The Banyan Tree.

For all the enviable success of her first book, Arundhati Roy was in danger of being a prisoner of her own image. To many, she seemed to be capitalising on the privileges and power that came with the thumping success of her first book to talk of issues way beyond the purview of an author—an impression she is quick to refute. She came across as a political and human rights activist who often went against the tide—like arguing in favour of Kashmir’s independence. Or speaking up for former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba. In the first week of July, the Supreme Court stayed criminal contempt proceedings against Arundhati Roy for publishing an article expressing her personal anguish at the prosecution and incarceration of Saibaba, who is a paraplegic and who was sentenced to life imprisonment in March this year for his Maoist links. Undeterred, she refused to tender an apology through her counsel.

Indeed, for over two decades, Arundhati Roy has been hard to ignore or silence. Taking time out from the world of competing voices and conflicting interests, she quietly laid, brick by brick, the structure of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a work so unconventional that it renders all norms obsolete. Though her publishers had alerted readers well in advance, she was still able to surprise doubting Thomases with a novel that claimed to be “at once aching love story and a decisive remonstration”.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transcends the limitations of the medium. It is a novel that asks uncomfortable questions of the canvas of the novel itself; a book that borrows so happily and generously from real life that it seems almost like a sad song. Well, almost. For, like a lover, she marries religions and languages here. Writing about the imminent arrival of a baby in the novel, she combines brevity with profundity: “They had been waiting for their Aftab [sun] for six years.” And a little later, she describes the condition of Jahanara, who had just given birth, thus: “Her seventh reaction was to lie down next to Aftab and rest. Like the God of the Christians did, after he had made Heaven and Earth.” Will the life of Jahanara be a heaven or hell from here on, Arundhati Roy tells us not.

Reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is like watching a flower reach full bloom, petal by petal, sunshine to shade, dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn. Arundhati Roy gives us that uneasy feeling that happiness is no faithful companion. It is like a courtesan forever seeking a new man, a new abode. A welcome visitor, happiness is a fickle ally. Yet Arundhati Roy takes care to paint with her pen—which she also uses as a weapon to demolish many a false argument—to give us a work that, to borrow from the novel’s flap, “is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is what we often wish life to be—a story with a fine beginning, generous middle and no end. It could go on. We wish it could go on.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

Our writers tend to live like an island. You have not only turned the stereotype on its head, but yours has also been the voice of the deprived, the distressed. How does this reality percolate down to your novel?

It’s not the time for writers, or for anyone else, to live like an island. Certainly not in the India of today. It’s easy, of course, for the more privileged among us to do that. I have tried my utmost to make sure that I don’t. However, I do not accept the role of being the “voice of the deprived”. That would be a terrible usurpation on my part. As I have said very often, there’s no such thing as the “voiceless”—there’s only the deliberately silenced. It’s not anybody’s job to speak on their behalf. It’s our task to strive for a society in which everybody has the right to speak for himself/herself. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not written on anybody’s behalf. It’s layered by the life I have led, informed by the journeys I have made, people I have met and thoughts I have thunk. But it is not reportage, it’s not a manifesto. It’s fiction. It’s an attempt to construct a universe… and it’s an invitation to the reader to walk through the alleys and bylanes and blind alleys—to get lost and find their way back—of that intricate and complicated universe.

We live in times of cow terrorists and state blindings in Kashmir. How do you, as an author, arrive at a balance between engagement and disengagement? Where does the activist step back?

None of us should step back on these matters. It doesn’t matter whether you are a writer, a plumber or a chartered accountant or a politician. These are hellish things happening in our midst, and we must do everything we can to prevent this horror that is unfolding before our eyes. There is no “activist” in me. I have never considered myself an activist. I’m a writer. I write about the world I live in. In the old days, that used to be considered normal writerly activity. That’s why, once upon a time, writers used to be considered dangerous people. Not anymore. Today, the definition of a “writer” seems to have shrunk and writers are expected to be entertainers, to pitch their tents somewhere between literature festivals and bestseller lists. So today, with this new, reduced definition, when you are faced with writers who do what writers of yore used to do, you have to hyphenate their job description and add the word “activist”—which, as far as I know, is a pretty new word.

But all this has little to do with the craft of writing novels. There’s no confusion about stepping forward or stepping back. Not even when the story is about the times we live in. Fiction dances to its own tune. It’s not timely. It’s timeless.

In the current sociopolitical climate of frequent lynchings and marginalisation of Muslims and Dalits, where does a writer draw the line? When does he/she go back to the confines of the room to write; when does he/she come out on the streets to protest this injustice? I ask this in the light of the #NotInMyName protests across the country.

Why should there be a line? There’s plenty about the lynching of Muslims as well as Dalits in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If I had to choose which was the more powerful act—my writing about it, or protesting on the street about it—I think it’s a no-brainer. And then there’s always the possibility of doing both.

When do you as a writer let your imagination take over lived reality?

The border is porous. There are constant comings and goings. What is “reality”, really? Is fear reality? Are feelings reality? Is memory, even when it’s fevered, reality?

When the story is based in India (or the Third World), how challenging is it to get across to readers who have never seen persecution or deprivation? Or even youngsters who may not have experienced the Emergency or seen the Babri Masjid being torn down? I ask this because your book is going across the world to people who may not have much of an idea of our struggles.

Don’t we all read Jane Austen and Tolstoy and James Joyce and Shakespeare? Don’t we read Ghalib and Tagore and Premchand and O.V. Vijayan? Don’t we read about eras we haven’t lived in and cultures we have never experienced? Writers gift us these experiences. That is so beautiful. And never underestimate how universal human emotion and the human substance is… we understand each other very well, even across oceans and languages and centuries.

One criticism often made of our English authors is that they engage too much with India, too little with Bharat. Yet “The Ministry” is teeming with our languages: Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam and the rest. How much research did you put in for each language?

Living in India, particularly in a big city like Delhi, some of us move between languages on a daily, perhaps hourly, basis. The very air is full of it. I wanted to reflect these cadences in the way the story was told—but without making it gimmicky. I tried to be the opposite of being gimmicky—to make the language almost transparent so that you could see the shadows of fish that spoke other languages swimming below the surface.

I think the characters’ knowledge of other languages deepens things, deepens the way they communicate with each other. Some of the characters, like Dr Azad Bhartiya or Comrade Revathy for example, translate their own letters and pamphlets, and though you might find fault with their grammar, they actually communicate with such grace, such poignancy….

About the characters of “The Ministry” is it not unavoidable to regard Anjum, the hijra, as a representative of her community?

I don’t think so at all. She is unique and particular to herself. Her “community”, even in the Khwabgah, is so diverse—none of them would agree that the other “represents” them in any way… and then Anjum drops out of that community too. She goes her own way. She wants to be someone else. None of the characters in the story are really stereotypical signifiers… not Tilo, not Saddam Hussain, not Garson Hobart, not Naga… they all have incendiary borders running through them—of gender, of caste, of religious conversion—and in Musa’s case—of geography.

Animals populate the book. Would it be fair to say that at one level “The Ministry” is an animal book? And with such a description is there a risk of taking the attention away from the human violence, the relentless exploitation of our age?

I’m glad you noticed. The animals in the book sometimes wonder why they go unnoticed. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the borders between the living and the dead and between animals and humans are porous too. There are comings and goings. I don’t think they compete with each other. They complement each other. Humans are just one of the many living species that populate this planet of ours. We need to understand that. And soon.

You have chosen a photograph of a tomb for the cover of the book.

Much of the book is set in graveyards. Anjum runs the Jannat Guest House—that shelters and eventually consoles the Unconsoled—from a graveyard. When you look at the pace at which our planet is being destroyed, then you could conclude, perhaps metaphorically, that we are all living in a graveyard of sorts, from whence we must plan our survival. So a tombstone on the cover seemed apposite.

Finally, in the days of right-wing usurpation of personal and public spaces, how does one keep the fire burning—more so when one sees intellectuals with expedient principles?

We’ve got to [keep the fire burning]. Somehow.

Will we have to wait another 20 years for a novel from you?

Who can say? Certainly not I.