Towards the end of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Penguin), there’s a poem by Tilottama, one of her two protagonists: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”
Indeed, in this new novel, her second after The God of Small Things (1997), Roy, 55, is at once, everything and everyone. She is Anjum, once Aftab, who becomes Delhi’s most famous hijra; she is the mysterious, dark-skinned Tilottama, whom “nobody seemed to be able to place”. She is Musa, a Kashmiri student-turned revolutionary; she is also Garson Hobart, “the upper-caste, upper-class oppressor from every angle”. But, more than that, the universe that Roy’s whimsical cast inhabits is an India, divided; one where “war is peace and peace is war”, where Emergency and Godhra, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and Ayodhya are as real as the battles in Kashmir and in Bastar. Against this backdrop, Roy weaves together a story of broken people and their resilience, that is both fervent with irrational hope and raw with hurt and betrayal. In this interview, Roy speaks of the violence inherent in our social hierarchy, the beauty of hope and why her writing is her best defence.
A novel after 20 years. Now that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is out, do you miss engaging with it?
Well, who can say! All of the 20 years of thinking and involvements is there, but I actually started putting down things about 10 years ago. It was my constant companion. Of course, sometimes, I was doing other work which involved a lot of research, but this was always there. I would always sort of salaam karo it almost every day.
So much of the novel is about contemporary Indian politics that it reminded me of how Balzac said fiction is actually the secret history of nations.
I actually may be a person who never looks at a novel with any theory in my mind. I never think of any immediate or utilitarian task. For me, it’s a prayer or a song, something which I can’t define. It’s above everything else, the story.
But, how differently do you approach fiction from your essays?
Very differently. Even though in the last 20 years I have been writing non-fiction, if you look at each essay and the climate in which it came out, it was when things were closing in. It was urgent, it was trying to blow open a space which was closing down for people. For fiction, my body is different when I am writing. I am completely calm, I am in no hurry. I want it to take a long time, I want to live with it. I want to be sure that I love the people in it, including the evil ones.
There’s also a bit of you and your life in the novel, isn’t there?
I think that has to be true of almost everything, you know. It only depends on how close to the surface or how deep it is. Memory, imagination, fever, all these things are muddled in the book and you can’t really pull strands and say, ‘Oh, this is this and this is that.’ Like in The God of Small Things, too, it would be easy to say that Ammu was my mother or that Mariam Ipe (in The Ministry…) is my mother, but, no. Surely, there are echoes and things, but you don’t even know if it’s memory. For instance, in The God of Small Things, there’s a part where these twins remembered their parents as they fought, and how they became huge, like giants, and they kept pushing the twins from one to the other and they kept saying, ‘I don’t want them. You take them.’ My mother asked me, ‘How do you remember this?’ And I said, ‘I don’t. I just made it up.’ She said, ‘No, you didn’t.’ I think it’s impossible almost even for me to say.
In the book, you write of how our memories of violence keep a people as complex as us from fracturing. In this post-truth world, do you think people are becoming inured to the horrors of violence?
When we talk of fracture, the more important thing in the book is the fact that almost everybody has some kind of a border running through them. Anjum, of gender, Tilo, of caste, Saddam Hussain of conversion and caste, Musa, of course, a national border. Even Garson Hobart speaks with the voice of the establishment and then stumbles into some other space.
I think what counts for violence, what is not violent, these are such easy definitions that we have arrived at. The violence of caste, the subjugation of people in the ways that Indian society has, aren’t those almost more violent than hitting someone or beating someone? I think the real danger in our society is that we have digested and held in our bellies so much violence that it becomes hard to be moral. Because, something outrages you, and yet, you are completely blind to something else and you say, ‘Why are you bringing that up?’ So, I do think we are a society in a lot of trouble, because we have institutionalised so much violence within ourselves. And, by violence, I stress that I don’t just mean physical violence. There’s a violence in the hierarchy of our society and we have all accepted it.
Where did Tilottama come from?
If you look at our society, almost 95 per cent of it, or more, the minute you know someone’s name, it’s like a bar code, a co-ordinate — you know where they are from, you know their caste. Then there are those like her (Tilo), who are off that grid. She has been more or less had it made clear to her that she doesn’t have people. In the book, the other thing is that it’s also about animals. I have tried placing people, even in a mad city like Delhi, as very much part of other living creatures — kites, cats, owls, etc. So, Tilottama is a creature, too, and a sort of border-dweller in some ways.
Are you a border-dweller, too?
Does it have anything to do with how you grew up?
Plenty, I think. You know I grew up in Ayemenem, in the village where The God of Small Things is set. The Syrian Christian community there is very parochial, very entitled, and it was made clear to me, before I even understood things clearly, that I was not part of that. But, I was not part of anything. Let’s say, in that village, if you are in the Dalit community, then it’s a community. If you are a Nair, then that’s a community. But then, there are those who are just off the grid, not because you are poor or battered or anything, but the grid is so strong in our country that if you are not in it, you are not in it. It was pretty clear right from all the years I was growing up, from being told literally, clearly (that I was off the grid). I remember — it was quite recently, actually — my mother calling me from someone’s house. She said, ‘I am just calling you from this house because I have been invited here. The last time I came here, I wasn’t invited, but I didn’t want you to feel that no one ever invites us anywhere, so I just came.’ So, I suppose that sense of being excluded and all the violence that followed was always there. I think, in our country, the violence of being excluded and the violence of being included is on a mass scale of this thing that I am talking about.
How old were you when you moved to Kerala?
When my parents separated? My parents separated when I was about one-and-a-half or something, and then, my mother moved to Ooty. We were there for a few years. I think I must have been about five when we moved to Kerala.
Is that when you started asking ‘why’?
I suppose so. I remember and, of course, there’s a mention of it in The God of Small Things, an Australian missionary who kept telling me that she could see Satan in my eyes. My first coherent sentence being, ‘I hate Miss Mitten and I think her knickers are torn’ — that is probably a kind of questioning.
I was recently listening to an interview of the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, in which she says writers from fractured nations do not have the luxury of isolating themselves from the politics of the land. Can there be any such thing as an apolitical writer?
I am so glad you say this, because usually people ask it the other way round and I am the one who says there’s no such thing. Let’s say, you write a love story here. Let’s say, you write a Bollywood script. Let’s say, you leave out issues of caste, you have two white-skinned people with glossy hair and who look like almost what no Indian looks like. Isn’t that political? It is. So, again, it’s a question of how you want to read what is political. Ignoring of things is as political as the addressing of them.
Did you see actor Paresh Rawal’s tweet about using you as a human shield in Kashmir? How do you deal with hate?
(Nods) You know, when you do the work that I do and when I write the things that I write, I don’t think everybody will stand up and applaud. It’s part of what you do and you have got to just take it in your stride and not whine about it. (But) I am not made of stainless steel. Of course, it bothers me, but when you look at the kind of violence that people are being subjected to, I am so protected. You have to look around at what’s happening to other people. You have to put yourself in perspective.
A recurrent charge against you has been that by speaking up for people who are engaged in a conflict with the state you abuse your freedom of speech.
The minute you start curbing speech — speech that you are uncomfortable with — you start lowering your own IQ, you start lowering the IQ of the society to which you belong, you start dropping out of a brain power that should be on the cutting edge internationally. You will become an extremely stupid country. There are two ways of curbing speech. One, as we know, is legally, formally; the other is outsourcing the violence to the mob and creating a climate in which people start censoring themselves. Either way, we will end up damaging our own IQ.
Do you find it troubling that women, including school girls, have come out and joined the protest in Kashmir and in Chhattisgarh?
I think when we become a society in which school girls have got stones in their hands and women in forests have guns in their hands, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Why’; because it takes a long, long journey to push women into that place. I was inside Chhattisgarh, and I also went in with this easy notion that ‘Oh, violence is very detrimental to women’s well-being and it will ultimately be terrible for them’. But, when I spoke to the women who had taken up arms, it was very interesting. They had taken up arms mostly because they had seen the violence perpetrated on women by the paramilitary and Salwa Judum, but also because of the violence within their own societies against them. Once, I was going with them to have a bath in the river — there were some female guerrillas keeping watch, some were in the river, there was me and then, there were these other adivasi women who were working the land. There were all these different kinds of women and I was thinking, ‘My god, look at this!’ It was an extraordinary moment and I will never forget it.
Do you see hope when you look at these women?
Let’s say, it makes the hair rise on my arms when I think of the women I have encountered, whether it’s in Kashmir, Narmada, or Chhattisgarh — what extraordinary women! Is there hope? Well, hope is something that has not necessarily got to do with reason and analysis. Hope is in your DNA.
You have spoken and written extensively about Kashmir, about India’s nuclear armament, Chhattisgarh, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In India, today, what troubles you the most?
I don’t see these things as separate things, as subjects. I see them as an evolving way of seeing. Each thing is connected to the other thing, if you read into them carefully. But, perhaps, one of my deepest and most profound lessons in politics, in understanding, was happening in the Narmada Valley. Again, it’s not about just human beings, it’s about a species’ problem that seem to be developing where our intelligence is outstripping our instinct for survival.
Is dissent lonely?
Not at all. On the contrary. In TV studios, it might be, but on the streets, it certainly is not. It is an absolute embrace because there is no point in dissent if you are just alone. Maybe, sometimes, there is. But, what I mean is, I am always part of circles of solidarity. I am not just staging my own performance.
Have you ever thought of going back to scriptwriting or to films — things that you have done successfully before (Roy won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1988 for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones)?
A film requires too many people and too much money before the art is ready. Even here, I couldn’t even get myself to sign a contract with the publishers in advance and then work on the book. I needed to be absolutely free to experiment, to work for 10 years and then put it in a drawer because I wasn’t happy. I needed that freedom. I need to be very experimental in that sense.
It’s interesting that you talk about being free from the demands of the market. How important is money to you?
Money has given me independence and I could not have written the way I have without that independence, without needing to ask someone for something or some favour. You had money, you gave whatever you wanted to give away, you paid your taxes, that was it.
You have often, also, been criticised for maintaining that the middle class, of which you are a part, has set back India’s economically impoverished section further.
When one talks about the middle class, one talks about a system that creates something, not about individual people who can’t help belonging to whatever they belong to. But, also, the thing is, what would that criticism mean? That I should support, just because I am a middle-class person, all forms of exploitation that suit the middle class? That isn’t even a kind of logic that you can reply to because it’s funny.
Do you ever feel the need to counter the criticisms against you?
I don’t find it necessary, you know, because much of it is so personal. I mean, my writing is there to be read. What more defence of myself should I have? Partly, it is understandable because it’s absurd how many copies of my book sold — I had nothing to do with that (laughs). I haven’t done anything to earn money for 20 years, but I wrote a book that sold millions and I have been quite happy with that and I have also spread it around a lot. I just think that if you can share it without being sacrificial, worthy and virtuous, it’s great. It’s fine, it’s fun.
How did The God of Small Things change you as a person?
Initially, there were things that happened to me, just things in my personal life, that sometimes made me wish that I hadn’t written it or that I hadn’t become so famous. It’s very difficult when you become that famous because it’s not just you who has to deal with it. Everybody around you, everybody you love, everyone has to deal with it. It was really hard on people in strange ways because it was such a bright light that suddenly shone. And, either you pick up and go on and live with the other famous and beautiful people, but, if you don’t do that, if you sort of want to keep swimming in the same pool, then a lot of people have to deal with it. It wasn’t easy, but now it’s fine. Now, it’s ok.
When you say that the spotlight was too bright, do you mean you wished for more privacy? And, how has it become ok since?
I have all the privacy that I wish for. It’s not like I am a filmstar who gets mobbed or anything like that. I suppose I am not exposed on the internet, I am not on Twitter or Facebook and I am not interested. When I am writing a novel, I don’t want to disperse myself. I want to gather myself. I want to be a secret to myself. I want to think in my book, I don’t want to think on the internet. So, I just stay away from it. I also think that people just let off steam, say whatever they like, sometimes even what they don’t mean, sometimes, to please other people, sometimes, because they are being paid to. So, you don’t have to get jerked around by that all the time. The point is, ultimately, there is only one test. Would you change your position on something? Would you not write this book? Would you not write that essay if people are angry or not angry, if people are clapping or not clapping? No. If I regret something, I will take it back. If I am sorry about something, I will apologise. If I am not, then I won’t. I spend my time thinking about my writing and that’s what I want to do, not think about popularity polls, about who loves me or who hates me or who is indifferent to me, who’s saying what about me.
Shall we never see you at a literary festival in India?
It’s not that. I am not interested in a festival that is funded by a mining company or by TV stations that are asking for my head. There are festivals outside which I will be speaking at, which are funded by cities or by independent bookstores. I mean, I don’t love festivals. I am not a very mingling type of person, so I’d rather do the solo thing. It’s not because of anything but because I don’t mix well. But, I do have a in-principle problem with the sponsors (of certain festivals in India).