The author of The God Of Small Things talks about political activism – and why she fled India to finish her new book
• Exclusive extract from The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness
Arundhati Roy Decca Aitkenhead
Saturday 27 May 2017
When Arundhati Roy completed her new novel, her first in 20 years, she told her literary agent, “I don’t want all this bidding and vulgarity, you know.” She wanted interested publishers to write her a letter instead, describing “how they understood” her book. She then convened a meeting with them. “OK,” her agent prompted afterwards. “You know what they think. You’ve met them. Now decide.”
“Oh no,” she told him. “Not yet. First I’ll have to consult.” He was puzzled. “You consult me, right?” “No, I have to consult these folks. You know, the folks in my book.” So the author and her agent sat together in silence while she asked the characters in her novel which publisher they liked the best. When Roy announced their choice, her agent pointed out that his bid was half what other publishers were offering. “Yes,” she shrugged. “But they like him.”
Seeing my expression as she relates this, Roy starts to smile. “Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.” They’re always with her? “Oh yes. As soon as I shut the door, it’s, ‘So what did you think of that person? Idiot, right?’” Will she ask them how this interview went after I leave? She looks surprised I’d need to ask. “Yes, of course.”
To many of Roy’s literary admirers, her work over the past 20 years has been something of a puzzle. Is she really a literary figure, or was her first novel a sort of fluke? Roy was 35 when she published her debut, The God Of Small Things, to rapturous acclaim. A semi-autobiographical tale of an Indian family fading into decline, fractured by tragedy and scandal, it won the Booker prize, sold more than 8m copies in 42 languages, and transformed an unknown screenwriter into a global celebrity, tipped as the new literary voice of a generation. In the 20 years since then, Roy has published dozens of essays and non-fiction books, made documentaries, protested against government corruption, Hindu nationalism, environmental degradation and inequality, campaigned for Kashmiri independence, Maoist rebels and indigenous land rights, and featured on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. To her political fans, she is the radical left voice of principled resistance; to her critics, the worst sort of adolescent idealist: unrealistic, self-indulgent. She has faced criminal charges of contempt and sedition, been imprisoned, and fled India briefly last year in fear for her life. She has not, until now, however, published another word of fiction.
In 2011, she hinted at a second novel under way, but as the years passed and none materialised, for some it became increasingly implausible to consider Roy a literary writer at all. Where the voice in The God Of Small Things was subtle and allusive, her non-fiction writing and political activism have often been criticised as strident in tone, and simplistic. I hadn’t been sure which voice to expect when we meet in a London hotel to talk about the new novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.
Roy is swathed in pale pink linen, draped around her upper body like a sari over rolled up jeans, open-toed sandals and bright red nail varnish; she moves with arresting grace, and speaks softly. At 55, she retains an impish air of ingenue about her, and the quiet mischief in her smile suggests a certain pleasure in her own troublesome single-mindedness; she likes to talk in elliptical sentences that often tail away into elegant gestures or playfully knowing expressions. On the question of whether or not she is a literary writer, she says, “To me there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.” I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s gathering all these layers She began her second novel, she thinks, 10 years ago, but isn’t sure (“I don’t really remember; I mean, it’s so esoteric”) and allowed no thought to how long it took to complete. Her literary agent knew her too well, she grins, to waste his time trying to hurry her up. Her essays and articles have been written to deadlines precipitated by events – military action, court judgments and so forth – whereas “the fiction just takes its time. It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around. The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.”
She knew she didn’t want to “write God Of Small Things 2”, but whereas her debut was inspired by the narrative of her family childhood, her second is autobiographical in a different sense, this time capturing the sensibility and habits of her adult life. “I wanted to write where I’m just drifting around, the way I do in Delhi, in mosques and strange places, as I have all my life. Just delighting in all the crazies and the sweethearts, and the joy in the saddest places, and the unexpectedness of things.” No one is too lowly to escape Roy’s interest or company; “I never want to walk past anyone; I want to sit down and have a cigarette and say, ‘Hey man, what’s going on? How is it?’ That is, I think, the book.”
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness is exactly that, the sprawling and colourfully populated tale of a transgender woman, who is known in India as a hijra, who leaves home as a child to live in a community of hijras in the crumbling dilapidation of Delhi’s old city. Diva-ish yet comradely, defiant and vulnerable, the community’s residents are at once outcasts and objects of transgressively glamorous curiosity. But at 46, Anjum gets caught up in a massacre in Gujarat, after which she resolves to quit the hijra community and re-enter the world. Traumatised but single-minded, she sets up home in a graveyard, and bit by bit builds guest rooms on to the graves, until her Jannat Guest House becomes home to a fabulously outlandish medley of the excluded: untouchables, Muslim converts, hijras, addicts, even an abandoned baby, Zainab, whom Anjum adopts.
Running in tandem is another elaborate narrative, set in and about Kashmir. My preference would have been for the Kashmir story to have been a separate novel altogether, but for Roy the different strands are all congruent, because this is a book about borders. “Geographically, Kashmir is riven through with borders, and everybody in the book has a border running through them. So it’s a book about, how do you understand these borders? And how do you then reach out and say to everyone, ‘Come to Jannat Guest House’, you know? Everybody’s welcome!”
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness is a riotous carnival, as wryly funny and irreverent as its author. The endless parade of oddballs and eccentrics can get a little exhausting, rather like a party at which new guests keep arriving, but Roy’s policy of indiscriminate inclusion is not just an editorial choice; it is the literary expression of solidarity, and the fundamental theme both of Roy’s politics and of the book.
“Caste is about dividing people up in ways that preclude every form of solidarity, because even in the lowest castes there are divisions and sub-castes, and everyone’s co-opted into the business of this hierarchical, silo-ised society. This is the politics of making a grid of class, of caste, of ethnicity, of religion. And then making the grid ever more fine is very much part of how you rule the world, saying, ‘You’re a Muslim, you’re a Hindu, you’re a Shia, you’re a Sunni, you’re a Barelvi, you’re a Brahmin, you’re a Saraswat Brahmin, you’re a Dalit, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re trans – and only you can speak for yourself, and there’s no form of solidarity being allowed.’ So what people think of as freedom is really slavery.”
Even in “modernised” contemporary India, she says, fewer than 1% marry outside their caste. “What I love about Anjum is that when she’s caught up [in the massacre in Gujarat], she’s spared because she’s a hijra.” Having been saved by the very identity that used to exclude her “makes her feel solidarity, and want to understand what is going on in the world beyond what she is. And she wants to understand the world when she becomes Zainab’s mother, for Zainab. She doesn’t accept this grid. She breaks it, and comes out.” Roy breaks into a beatific smile. “And that, for me, is so sweet.” *** Roy has lived her entire life outside “the grid”. Born in Meghalaya, India, in 1961, she was the daughter of a faintly scandalous marriage between her upscale Syrian Christian mother and lower status Bengali Hindu father. Just two when it ended, she moved with her mother and brother to Kerala, where her mother set up a school for girls and became known as a human rights activist. Charismatic, indomitable and rather overbearing, “my mother is like a character who escaped from the set of a Fellini film,” Roy has joked in the past. Although she is obviously a role model, Roy has also joked that when her mother is with her, “I feel like we are two nuclear-armed states. We have to be a bit careful.”
She studied architecture in Delhi, and married an independent film-maker, Pradip Krishen, but had no interest in the respectable conventions of wifeliness or motherhood. She has always said she spent so much of her own childhood helping her mother to look after the girls at her school that “by the time I was 16, I never wanted to see another child again”. Her political causes have taken her to live with Indian Maoists in the jungle, visit Edward Snowden in Moscow, campaign against US foreign policy in Afghanistan, protest against India’s nuclear test programme, advocate for the anti-globalisation movement and become the poster girl for Kashmiri independence – all of which set her decidedly at odds with mainstream modernising opinion in her home country.
Today, Roy finds herself more at odds with her government than ever before, under the rule of Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. “People talk about the arrival of Trump in America, then they mention Modi in the same breath. But Modi’s not the same thing, because, you know, Trump is like the effluent of a toxic factory process, but Modi is the product. He’s the product of this institution called the RSS,” a rightwing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation that supports the ruling BJP party.
Because I knew I was so close to finishing, I just bought a ticket and left, came here to London. I felt highly ashamed
Early last year, student protests broke out in universities across India over the hanging of a Kashmiri separatist about whom Roy had written in support. “The police came and [the students] were arrested, and they were jailed, and they were showing up in court. The thugs were going into court, beating up everyone. People were being lynched, beaten up. And suddenly one night on the main news channel, the news anchor goes, ‘Yes, these are students, but who’s the mind behind them? Who’s the person who’s written this, this, this? It’s Arundhati Roy, you know.’ The mobs were overrunning the courts, saying, ‘She’s the one who’s written all this stuff.’ And because I was working on the book, and I knew I was so close to finishing, I just bought a ticket and left, came here to London. I felt highly ashamed of myself.”
Because she’d fled? “Yes. I came here because I had this thing that I had been protecting. I was working on the book, and so close to finishing. So I left. I was here in absolute despair and fear and shame.”
Roy checked into a London hotel. It was the first time she had taken refuge abroad from political violence, but her legal battles in India’s courts have been going on for 20 years, becoming a sort of relentless judicial soundtrack to her life. She references them with an eye-rolling air of exasperation. The God Of Small Things features sexual intercourse between twin siblings, and when it was first published, “five lawyers got together and filed a case saying that I was corrupting public morality, criminal offence and blah, blah, blah”. In 2002, Roy’s campaign against the Narmada dam project in Gujarat led her to be ruled in criminal contempt, and she was jailed for a “symbolic” day. In the past, she has also been charged with sedition, for criticising India’s policy towards Kashmir, and now faces an ongoing charge of contempt for an article she wrote in defence of a professor who uses a wheelchair, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for “anti-national activities”; the case has been working its way through the Indian courts with unending monotony.
“Ah, the contempt case.” She grimaces. “You see, the thing about this case is it’s not the punishment; it’s the process that is the punishment. One of the standard ways of harassing people is they’ll file cases in 100 towns against somebody and then it’s: ‘Appear here, go there, got to have a lawyer, have you filed this affidavit?’ This is their strategy with everyone [whom the state wants to silence]. Everywhere writers are being punished by mobs, by caste groups – so it’s just a very turbulent time in which to put the boat in the water, you know.”
I ask if she’s anxious about the possibility of legal action against her new novel. Given that prime minister Modi might see himself in one of the characters, a lawsuit must be unlikely to come as any great surprise. “Oh, God knows. If one character says something, they’ll say, ‘She said it!’ So it’s like, how can you…?” The sentence falls away into silence. “I don’t really want to talk about this because I don’t want to be self…” Again, she breaks off. “Maybe nothing will happen, you know. Maybe they will leave it.” She pauses, then half-laughs: “There’s the other thing, which is that it might have nothing to do with anything, but people think, ‘If I do something to her, my name will be in the papers.’”
What does she mean? “Well, if some idiot on the street files a case against me, he will become a celebrity.” When she had to visit a town to hear a contempt case against her, “The guys who organised the case came and gave me flowers. They were so happy, as if, you know, ‘Look! Here, we’ve got her!’ And it goes on and on.” Her lawyers won’t accept money from her, “because they love me. But imagine if I was a poor person: how would you do it? How do you go to this town, that town, appear here? You would stop writing. That’s what you do.”
The downsides were serious. I did reach a point where I thought, am I going to really regret having written this book?
From all the political and judicial animosity, I’d formed the impression that Roy must be some sort of persona non grata in India, but she says nothing could be further from the truth. In her daily life, she never meets anyone who regards her as unpatriotic. “No! Absolutely not. It’s the opposite.” This claim is difficult to verify or dispute. Thousands of adoring admirers gather to hear her make speeches all over the world, but when I ask where she feels the greatest sense of like-minded support, without hesitation she replies, “Oh, India. Without a doubt. I’m not some lone person. I function within a huge river and stream and a rising, rushing current of solidarity.”
That said, men have been sent to attack her home. But, she chuckles, “They go and break up the wrong house. Yes, that’s happened a couple of times.” She doesn’t have any sort of formal security, because “I find that more threatening. For me, everybody – the cab drivers, the cigarette sellers, the stray dogs – those are my security. There are many street dogs who sleep on my stairs” – she chuckles again – “who look very fierce, though they’re not.”
Roy had been completely unprepared for the attention the success of her first novel would bring. “The downsides were serious. I did reach a point where I thought, am I going to really regret having written this book? I was never a person who thought, now that I’m famous, I’ll go live in London or New York and live the dream.” She laughs. “I’m a social cripple in a cocktail party. My idea of a nightmare is people standing very elegantly dressed in a room with a drink in their hand. I’m just like, urghh!”
Asked how much money The God Of Small Things made, she becomes vague. “I don’t know. Whatever it sold, it sold, you know. I don’t know those calculations. But the money was a real problem for me at first.” She has been living off the royalties ever since it was first published, but has still given the vast majority of it away. Having never wanted to be a philanthropist, and feeling uncomfortable in the role, she “figured out how to do it” by delegating to others, who take care of the royalties’ distribution. “Yes, because giving it away can be a full-time job, if you’re not doing it just to feel saintly.” She won’t go into details, but says she’s devised a system whereby the money is never even hers in the first place. “I don’t even use the words, ‘Give my money away’, you know. We have a way in which it isn’t even mine any more, and then it’s just done, and it’s done in solidarity.”
I detect nothing inauthentic about her humility or frugality, but that is not to say that Roy is wholly without ego. She tells a faintly humblebrag anecdote about going for a mammogram in Kerala and being shaken to receive a call summoning her to the hospital. “I was like, shit. Then, when I got there, it was only, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ It was like the whole hospital had gathered. It’s so weird.”
And she takes evident pleasure in her self-image as a somewhat ungovernable eccentric. “I have friends who know that when I’m writing, quite a few times my house nearly caught fire because I’m like, ‘I can’t cook, I can’t go out… OK, let me boil an egg’ and then I forget and the whole thing is on fire and the egg is a little black lump. So they’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll just send you some food.’” She beams.
Roy separated from her husband years ago, but the two have never divorced, and she says she considers him and his two daughters, now long grown up, “family”, even though she lives alone in Delhi. The couple had no children, a decision she has never regretted. “I don’t consider myself a wife, but I’m technically married.” She pauses and grins. “But then, even when I was married, I didn’t consider myself a wife. It’s all a bit random.”
When I arrived, my first impression had been of someone so resoundingly literary in disposition that the 20-year hiatus from fiction felt baffling. As she says herself, “I think my brain is only that of a fictional writer.”
By the time I leave, I’ve started to wonder how much, if anything, Roy ever makes up. The cast of The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness may be more extreme than most fictional characters, but Roy’s great gift is less in dreaming them up than in taking the trouble to see them all around her.
“When people say this business of ‘she’s the voice of the voiceless’, it makes me crazy,” Roy snorts. “I say, ‘There’s no voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced, you know, or the purposely unheard.’” Perhaps she has been able to survive without fiction for so long because the life she’s been living has resembled the fantastical richness of a novel. Roy may not be a hijra who lives in a graveyard, but the voice of Anjum is unmistakably hers.
“Yes,” she nods contentedly, “I do live a very unorthodox life.” Are we talking Anjum’s level of unorthodox?
“Well, yes, I mean, I have friends who are from everywhere, you know. Women who think of themselves as men, boys who are gay. A friend overhead a conversation between a young couple on a bus in Delhi one day,” she tells me, beginning to smile. The boy, the friend duly reported back to Roy, was confiding in the girl: “All I want is to be Arundhati Roy’s wife.’” Her face lights up with delight and she laughs. “I just love all this kind of lovely muddle of stuff.”
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