Hailed by most ‘liberal lefts’ and hated by most ‘right-wing nationalists’, Arundhati Roy today is a polarising figure in India. An author and political and environmental activist, Roy won the Man Booker Prize for fiction for her first novel The God of Small Things in 1997. She then went on to write about a number of environmental, human rights and land grab issues in India.
She has also often spoken for the people of Kashmir and criticised the Indian government’s stand over it. Her latest book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, comes 20 years after the first. We catch up with her to know more about the book and her ideologies.
From The God of Small Things to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, how would you describe your journey? What has changed and what hasn’t for you and the world around you?
Oh goodness… so much has changed and so much has remained the same. It’s impossible to describe in a few sentences. I think my writing over all those years contains the graph of that journey — both public and private.
Tell us about your characters in the new book. What led you to choose a hermaphrodite character Anjum? Also, what are Musa and Tilo’s idea of Kashmir? How much of them have been inspired by you as a person?
In very real ways, in fiction, it’s characters that choose writers — all the folks in The Ministry... began to visit me, their visits lasted longer and longer, and finally they moved in.
All of them, Anjum, Tilo, Musa, Saddam Hussain and even Biplab Dasgupta who everyone calls Garson Hobart, have borders — incendiary borders — running through them. Anjum has the border of gender, Tilo of caste, Saddam Hussain of religious conversion, Musa has a national border running through him, and Garson Hobart — a sophisticated, intelligent, upper-caste officer of the Intelligence Bureau has one too — half of him is the voice of the State — not this new Hindutva State — but the old, Nehruvian one that ploughed the fields and sowed the crop for this new harvest. Half of Hobart is the cold, calculating voice of that State. The State that can wait, that can bide its time, that doesn’t blink as horror unfolds. The other half is the drunken, thwarted, lover. Full of regret and heightened emotion.
How important fiction is to tell real stories? The way novels are written and perceived — has that changed according to you, in terms of fiction and non-fiction and the line between the two?
Sometimes, real stories can only be told through fiction. For example, the psychotic situation that prevails in Kashmir — it cannot be communicated only in human rights reports and counting the dead, or in TV debates; the story is more than just facts and figures.
Speaking for myself, the non-fiction I have written has been in the form of political essays. Usually they’ve been written with some amount of urgency, when I’ve felt something was closing in on people — they are urgent interventions. Arguments that put forward another way of seeing. When I write fiction I am not looking to be ‘timely’. There’s no urgency whatsoever. Fiction is not an argument. It’s the construction of a universe… an invitation.
Your new book is more about the city. What made you choose a city, and how has the urban-rural divide changed since you wrote The God...?
I’ve lived in Delhi for so many years. I wanted to write about it; it’s a fascinating, secret city. But it isn’t only about Delhi. Much of it is set in Kashmir. About the rural-urban divide — I think the story of the city in The Ministry... tells you about the countryside too, in some ways.
You wrote your first fiction in 1997 and then went on to political/ journalistic writing. You came back to fiction after 20 years. What triggered this back and forth?
After I wrote The God... I had no intention of producing novels at regular intervals as though it was a job, or a duty. I always said I’d write another novel only if and when I had a novel to write. The Ministry... began to build itself in me about 10 years ago. It is, a city in itself, carefully constructed chaos.
How much of your thinking/ writing is a result of your childhood, schooling and your mother’s teachings? And how much of you is an architect?
I think almost everything about the way I am has to do with my childhood. I grew up in Ayemenem, a village in Kerala. It is not an isolated rural area, so my childhood was rural and urban simultaneously. And because of the fact that I was more or less homeschooled in my early years, and also my mother married outside the community and then got divorced, we were sometimes subtly and often very crudely, ostracised. So there was a sort of inside-outside view — fascinating for someone who eventually was to grow up to be a writer.
How much of me is an architect? Studying architecture has been of utmost importance to me as a writer. Experimenting with the structure of a novel is as important as the story I’m trying to tell. In some ways, The Ministry..., in terms of structure and its varied voices, is a trans-novel.
You have travelled through Kashmir. How does the situation affect the psychology of the Kashmiris and the army? Do you think literature can help and love can better things there?
I can’t really say this in a form that is simpler than in the way I have told it in my new book. But literature does not have any utilitarian purpose — in the sense that I haven’t written this book to ‘help’ anybody. As for love stories — love is wonderful, but like literature, if it’s real, then it too can never be ‘used’. It can be many things — dangerous, comforting, exhilarating. But you can’t use it as a policy.
Speaking of art, painters, authors, cartoonists, filmmakers and singers have faced flak for their work in the recent past. And so have you. Sedition! What does it mean to you?
I have a poster in my kitchen that says ‘Sedition protects Democracy’. I believe that it does.
What book are you currently reading? What kind of books do you like reading?
The collected essays of James Baldwin. Of late, re-reading Tolstoy and the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam.
In the times of environmental degradation, indigenous land rights issues, the Kashmir struggle, corruption, and more, do you see hope?
One of my books of collected essays is dedicated to those who have learnt to divorce Hope from Reason. Things can change suddenly, when hope seems lost.