Twenty years ago, Arundhati Roy turned her back on fiction for political activism. As her long-awaited second novel makes the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, we revisit her interview By Charlotte Sinclair
Arundhati Roy materialises in the hotel lobby where I’m waiting for her: petite, smiling, beautiful, with high, round cheeks, huge brown eyes and a graduated bob of silvery curls that dance over her forehead and into her eyelashes. She says hello and embraces me and, in surprise, I fumble the moment. (I am a fan, and fandom does funny things to the brain.) Roy is in London to introduce The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first novel since 1997’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things. For ardent admirers, especially the fumbling sort, the appearance of this novel after so many years is not unlike the arrival of spring after a long winter.
and images were so rich you didn’t so much read paragraphs as swim through them. (Some critics loathed it for the very same reason.) The fact that it was semi-autobiographical only added to the author’s mystique. By luck, she was also great-looking, as countless newspaper photographs attested. Readers, meanwhile, formed such a vivid attachment to the book that most can still remember where and when (and who) they were when they first encountered it.
The God of Small Things became one of those books, the ones that seem to speak to readers directly, the ones that, for all their specificity – and you can’t get more specific than the Communists and caste laws of Sixties India – capture human experience in all its violence and poetry. Also, it was funny: hypocrisies were skewered with the sly efficiency of Jane Austen. John Updike credited Roy for inventing her “own language” and dubbed her debut “Tiger Woodsian” for its outsized talent.
Translated into 42 languages, The God of Small Things has sold more than eight million copies worldwide and joined the ranks of the classics. Not bad for a first-timer. And then… no further novels, no short stories, no fiction. Instead, a year after publishing The God of Small Things, and at the height of her popularity, Roy began writing excoriating political essays illuminating the corruption of the Indian government and the human cost of the country’s race to modernity. She spoke out against the flooding of villages to create government dams, the persecution of tribes on land earmarked for mining, rising Hindu nationalism – essay after essay enumerating the ways in which the world’s largest democracy was apparently no such thing. Within a few years, Roy was her homeland’s most prominent critic, furious and infuriating in equal measure. No cow was too sacred – she even took Gandhi to task.
“I was the darling of the Indian middle class,” she tells the crowd at a book reading, in her melodic, accented English, a few days after we meet. “I was on the cover of every magazine, and then suddenly the government did nuclear tests and it was almost…” She gives a tiny shrug. “Keeping quiet was as political as saying something. I was no longer the fairy princess.”
Not that you can imagine a less appropriate appellation for Roy. She may have the diminutive height and frame for it, but from the strength of her politics I was expecting a firebrand, someone austere, perhaps even sniffy; after all, Vogue is hardly the Weekly Worker. But, then, as we sit in an empty lounge of the hotel, I notice each of her toenails is decorated with a little white flower. “Kisses, from my friend who painted them,” she smiles. She wears jeans and a cotton top and a long waistcoat of pretty blue sari material. Her fingers wind through her curls as she speaks and, as if in an ongoing attempt to clarify exactly what she means, she finishes many of her sentences with, “You know?” Her eyes darken when she is serious, but more often flash with mischief, and her laughter – which punctuates almost every sentence – is high and girlish and very appealing. Hers is an impish, maverick charm, but there is steel there, too. There is no one, she assures me, who understands better the inconvenience of her character. “I mean, it’s not as though I don’t sometimes think, ‘Why do you do it? Why can’t you just shut up?’” she laughs. “But this is the only way I have of doing things, and the only way I have of living. It’s not practical to fly in the face of things! It’s not practical not to write anything for 20 years!”
For the past decade, however, Roy was secretly at work on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. “I couldn’t write it any faster or slower. Everything I’ve been doing over the last 20 years, all of it is in there.” The first five years of writing it was a process of “just blowing the smoke rings,” she says. “I would be doing other things, writing these notes, it was like generating smoke, then I began the process of slowly moulding it, shaping it into a story.” In the gaps between her speeches and essays and protest marches, gradually the novel came into focus. “The last couple of years, it’s lucky my house didn’t catch on fire because I was putting things on the cooker and then forgetting about them. I would go to my computer in the morning and suddenly I would look up and it was nighttime.”
The resulting novel is an epic charged with Roy’s politics and written in dense, lyrical, singular prose. The tale moves from Delhi to Kashmir, diverting into separate storylines and vignettes, picking up characters then setting them aside, the strands eventually converging. We begin in Delhi, nexus of India’s “economic miracle”: “Grey flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze,” Roy writes. “Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements, head to toe, head to toe, looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival.”
In one “wrinkle”, Anjum, a Muslim hijra – a transgender woman – enters a haveli called the House of Dreams, a bawdy community of hijras rendered in vivid detail. Anjum’s handsome looks, Roy describes, “combined with her steadfast commitment to an exaggerated, outrageous kind of femininity, made the real, biological women in the neighbourhood – even those who did not wear full burqas – look cloudy and dispersed.” Anjum, Roy says, “is expanded by her ambiguities”, while another character is “reduced by his certainties”. The story follows Anjum’s fortunes as she adopts an orphan and later moves into a city graveyard, opening a guesthouse-cum-funeral parlour, assisted in the endeavour by a blind imam and a boy named Saddam Hussein. All of which doesn’t go even halfway to conveying the depth of observation, humour, Dickensian detail, accumulating tales of city life, both awful and extraordinary – the cows grazing on refuse, a man who lives in a tree – that Roy discharges by the first hundred pages.
Roy is emphatically a writer in and of the world. The stories are field notes, drawn from close study. She even used to teach aerobics. “I still have this gang of weightlifter friends from those days. I had dinner with them recently.” (You couldn’t imagine such a thing of, say, Jonathan Franzen.) “That is the life in Delhi for me,” she says. “I just say hello to people, stop, have a smoke or a coffee, drift around, talk about stuff.” Once, offered a place on a writer’s retreat, she reacted with comic alarm: “Retreat? No! I want to go on an advance!” She lives alone in an apartment in a smart enclave near the Lodhi Gardens. Her friendship circle is wide and idiosyncratic, including the likes of a Hollywood actor, frontline activists and local intelligentsia, as well as the humble characters of Old Delhi whom she encounters on her daily walks through the city – “all these quirky, crazy people. Most people in Delhi like to say they hate Delhi,” she says. “But I love Delhi.”
This need to be among people is to do with Roy’s wit and warmth but also her way of seeing. Her friend the actor and writer John Cusack says, “Arundhati writes along the edge of a kind of uncanny clairvoyance. She’s an all-seeing, mischief-making voodoo priestess.” This ability to perceive life through a refracted lens sets apart her politics as well as her fiction. It’s what gets her invited into the homes of Kashmiri militants and the jungle to meet with Maoist insurgents (the request pushed under her door one night). “It’s my immediate instinct to look at something from someone else’s point of view,” she says. “It’s what drives her,” agrees the writer Eve Ensler, another friend, “a magnificent and iridescent relationship to the truth.”
Roy’s unconventionality has its roots in her childhood. In a country governed by strict rules of caste and class, being born to a Bengali Hindu father and a Syrian Christian mother, she says, “puts you off the grid in a way that’s extraordinary. It immediately opens you up to a range of things. I had a very unprotected childhood.” She started life in Shillong, a hill village in the far north-east of India. Her father was an alcoholic and > when her parents divorced, her mother, Mary, brought Arundhati – then two years old – back to the family home in Kerala with her older brother, Lalit. Even as a girl she was made vividly aware of her outsider status, saying, with a little pride, “I signalled trouble to everybody.”
As she grew up, her relationship with her brilliant but formidable mother deteriorated. Roy says, smiling, “She told me once, ‘Oh, how I tried to abort you!’” A lifetime campaigner for women’s rights and the founder of a prominent school, Mary was, and remains, Roy’s central influence. But, at 16, she found her unendurable and “left home in order to become a little happier”. Enrolled in architecture college in Delhi and living in “a little tin shack” within the city walls, Roy was “very young” and “very alone”. (Mary later said, “I let her go because I thought living the way she wanted was her fundamental right.”)
Cycling around the city, borrowing rent money, living hand to mouth, she found the experience formative. “I think the best university I went to was that moment when I was just experiencing everything from the point of view of immense vulnerability,”
says Roy. (Of her actual studies: “They thought they were teaching me to build, but I thought they were teaching me to write.”) After graduating, she met and married an independent filmmaker, Pradip Krishen. They are still married, and remain friends – and Roy is stepmother to his two daughters – but they have been separated for some years. In the early Nineties, she began writing screenplays, and then The God of Small Things. After that, she no longer had to scrabble to pay her rent.
If that novel had its roots in her life, so too does The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The novel’s Kashmir section, its most compelling, is mainly related by Tilo, who shares many characteristics with her creator, and the story is the direct result of Roy’s years spent travelling there, during which she kept notes of her impressions, unconsciously collecting stories for her novel. “You cannot tell the story of Kashmir except as fiction,” she says emphatically. “Only fiction is truth in Kashmir. You can’t write an evidentiary essay telling anyone the truth of how bizarre it is there.”
To understand why the Kashmir storyline is so powerful – and possibly even personally endangering to its author – a small history lesson is useful. A victim of its geography, it was carved into Indian and Pakistan-occupied territories after Partition. A bloody territorial conflict ensued, and the violence turned the state into the world’s largest militarised zone. In her novel, Roy depicts that violence with jet-black humour, but the level of material detail feels witnessed rather than imagined. Has she ever been inside a torture centre? “Yes,” she says. Is she haunted? She smiles a fraction, her eyes darken. “Sometimes you envy the innocent. I wish I could be that way, I do. But not always, only sometimes.” Later, she’s more strident: “Fiction has to deal with what’s happening, but I didn’t write the novel in order to deal with it – I just didn’t look away from it.”
And yet, fiction can be more damning than truth. More people are likely to read this novel than her essays on the subject, and will undoubtedly sympathise with its depiction of the Kashmiri people and their suffering under Indian rule. To say the least, readers in India may feel otherwise.
“Today, in the era of what they call post-truth, there aren’t any facts,” she says. “Feelings are more true in that way.” She pauses before continuing carefully. “Fiction is a world view, it’s not a manifesto. I’m not the naive fiction writer, I’m a person who’s written 20 years of frontline stuff.” She breaks off. “I don’t know what will happen.” In India, she continues quietly, “it’s become really frightening. There are people who say, ‘She should be shot. She should be jailed.’ I’ve had rocks thrown at my house.” At her book launch, she elaborates, “If I’m supposed to speak somewhere, these gangs of stormtroopers gather, shouting ‘Arundhati Roy, she’s a traitor’, ‘She’s a friend of Pakistan’ – all just stupid stuff. The real danger is not fundamentalism, the real danger is cretinism. Really! You are just defenceless against stupidity.”
John Cusack – with whom she travelled to Moscow to meet whistleblower Edward Snowden (they recounted their trip in a book of essays, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said) – says, “The way she thinks about it, of course she’s brave, but the bastards are going to do what they’re going to do and we’re going to do what we’re going to do. Fuck ’em.”
“Whether you’re fearful or fearless, what happens will happen,” says Roy, a note of resignation creeping into her voice. “It’s idiotic to be fearless, but it’s not worth living in fear.” Anyway, her optimism is “in the DNA”. It’s in the book too. Characters find joy and love and friendship in the most inauspicious circumstances.