August 01, 2020
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"A Novel Is Like A Prayer, A Layered Universe..."

The story-strands in Arundhati Roy's new novel 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness', spin out to encompass and tie up almost all the themes that drove her non-fiction in the 20 years since her first novel, but it's also a vision of dark, comic-fabulist genius.

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Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
"A Novel Is Like A Prayer, A Layered Universe..."

In the charming, anachronistic bustle of Old Delhi, in a café nestled in an alley that winds down from Jama Masjid like a little rebellious story, Arundhati Roy talks about her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Its main locale is here, in this twilight city, but its story-strands spin out to encompass almost all the themes that drove her non-fiction in the 20 years since her first novel The God of Small Things. Excerpts from a conversation with Sunil Menon:

I think we have a marvellous book here. You do get the feeling, though, that the strands may have developed independently at various points in time, and you found a way to graft them together.

No, no…I was writing them simultaneously, laterally, from the beginning. I was not writing one chapter and then another.

So there really was a master plan…an architect’s draught.

Yes. That is, for me, fundamental to fiction writing.

So nothing goes out of hand in the writing, no organic growth?

No, there is, within the architecture. If you look at even the actual architectural thing, like the Shiraz cinema. You first see it…you first hear about it from Garson Hobart, then you see it at Ashfaq Mir’s office, then you see the lobby, then you see the interrogation centre. So it’s like you keep looking at this building through different….

Through different eyes. And at Kashmir, through different voices…. Okay, so your first work of fiction in 20 years is actually a lot of non-fiction, as a lot of people may have suspected anyway.

Wait, what is non-fiction about it…

Well, what’s happening in Kashmir is not fiction, or in Delhi, or anywhere. It’s almost as if you have found a fictive mode to approach….

I think there’s a confusion about what you mean by fiction and what I would mean by fiction….

I don’t necessarily mean anything…

No, no…I think it’s an interesting conversation. Take The God of Small Things. All fiction is, in a sense…see my bag (picks up a royal blue cloth bag, points to the legend emblazoned across one side) What does it say? ‘Fiction is truth’. So when you say Kashmir is non-fiction, or Kerala is non-fiction…

Yes, at a banal level. But there are elements that all of us recognise from reality here. Each story is individually tragic. And yet, out of that dystopia, through a very improbable Chengiz Khan’s descendant facing off against Arvind Kejriwal!

(Laughs) But it’s not at all improbable! Here, in this part of the city, there are people who claim the descendancy of Chengiz Khan. But what I’m talking about is that fiction is a kind of truth which is probably truer than something you can only write with evidentiary facts. Take Kashmir. You cannot, just in reportage or just in human rights reports, really tell the truth about that place. You cannot tell what living under a militarised government, what effect that has on people’s minds and feelings. Fiction is the only way to do it, to tell the truth. Or to try and tell it.

Photograph by Sanjay Rawat

Yes, but refugees from all sorts of mainstreams founding a sort of republic in a graveyard. Marvellous thought, but it’s a fabulist scenario, a way of getting hope into the frame. So in your book—as in, not this book, generally—hope has not left the building…

Yes…well, one of the things I find interesting is that people from different realities think of other realities as magical or fabulist. If you spend time in this part of the city, you see how many people live on graveyards. It’s not fabulist, it’s real…so it’s very much in the eyes of the reader, what will be considered fabulist. People will say The God of Small Things is magical realism, but to a Malayali it’s not. Similarly, maybe to a Malayali this will feel like that, but to someone who lives here it’s not. It’s about another way of looking. It sometimes sounds fabulist because we don’t look like that…but it’s there to be seen. 

“It’s not fabulist. Fiction is a kind of truth which is probably truer than something you write with evidentiary facts.”

I’ll show you something. Just the other day I opened a paper and I just couldn’t believe it. On the same day, there were these two items of news. (Picks up her mobile and scrolls through saved images) One was this, a story about Bakarwals being attacked by gau rakshaks. Someone may go around saying it’s fabulist, but it’s not. Or look at this. This is April 22, just a month ago. A vehicle crashed into people sleeping on a pavement, the police asked the rest to vacate. But Manoj said the spot was as safe was any other. “I have nowhere to go…I moved to a park but there were too many mosquitoes.” So he returned. It’s crazy, you know.

And yet, there’s hope here. All of them communing, very endearingly, despite being somewhat sceptical of each other, undercutting each other slightly ….

One of my books was dedicated to those who have learnt to divorce hope from reason. In a way, it’s true that the tide…like the character Saddam Hussein thinks…that the tide has brought us here. That, in some ways, those of us who don’t agree with what’s going on in the mainstream today, we are being pushed into graveyards (smiles) and we are looking for unlikely solidarities. We are in a way living in Jannat Guest House.

Hopefully! When Jannat was coming up brick by brick, one feels almost a sense of impending doom, like this cannot survive…

Instead, it becomes a Noah’s ark…but I’ve seen that. Like when I go into the forest or wherever, ultimately the battles are on in some way, there’s always a form of irreverence, or laughter. It’s very easy for those who are not absolutely on the edge of things to lose hope. Those who are on the edge don’t have that luxury.

In the book, there are strange borders that run through things. In the graveyard, of course, the border between life and death is slightly blurred. Anjum has a border of gender running through her. Tilo has a border of caste running through her. Saddam has a border of caste and religious conversion running through him, Musa of course has national borders. Even Garson Hobart, you know, he speaks with the voice of the establishment but he is also this kind of wreck….

Poor chap…

I think he’s a wonderful guy. I mean it would be so easy to create easy meat, but he’s not, he’s a very bright guy.

Now, in The God of Small Things, with Ammu-Velutha, you managed to get the Syrian Christian community and the Communist Party on the same page!


Yet that was social transgression. Here you move into purely transgressive sexuality. Anjum is neither this nor that, or maybe he’s both…


If it’s both, then we don’t need to assign gender?

But it's she, she…

Okay. Now, a Sufi saint is neither this nor that…

He’s the hazrat of the indeterminate.

This indeterminacy, you could say it about Old Delhi, even Kashmir. Neither this nor that, both, and also something else. What attracts you to these phenomena on the cusp?

I build my home on the cusp. To me, there’s a great violence otherwise. Hazrat Sarmad Sheikh is such a beautiful idea. The blasphemer among believers, the believer among blasphemers. He is the refuser of majoritarianism, the hazrat of love and happiness.

Does all this only afford us the pleasure of violating something, or does it have a genuinely creative possibility? Of being able to melt received wisdom, congealed forms of understanding?

If you believe in some form of pureness, then this liminality is transgressive, but if you don’t believe in that pureness, or the possibility of that, then we are all liminal. That’s what we’re trying to say. That this country is a land of minorities. Though these iron grids are being pushed on us, I’d say it’s actually created by a base intelligence. The search for beauty in our species itself must challenge this.

Anjum works very well as an emblematic sort of figure…

She’s not an emblem, she’s the opposite of that! She is not a signifier, to me that’s very important to understand. That’s why the Khwabgah is filled with all the diversity of Duniya. With Anjum, I’m not trying to do a sociology. Why was she caught in the Gujarat pogrom? Not because she’s a Hijra, but because she’s a Muslim. Why did she escape that? Because she’s a Hijra. If I was doing sociology, it would not be so. We know the violence that’s visited upon them.

Now, a question that rightfully belongs to you, that you’d have agonised over. Fiction/non-fiction, and the gap. Two kinds of gap. Your own gap of 20 years. And two, what fundamentally separates the two? It’s not just about telling Penguin which shelf to put it on. Intention, method, effect…they’re all different.

Absolutely. First of all, let’s talk about what people call the gap. You know, I don’t see it that way simply because I was never that person who was going to be like, “Oh I wrote this one novel and it was, quote unquote, successful…so now I must write another, and then another”. I didn’t have that professional approach. I’ll never want to be assembly line. Which is not to say others do that. I’m just saying, for me, the idea of writing fiction is like…a novel is like a prayer almost, it’s layered, not something to be consumed, it’s a universe that you present. I didn’t even know whether I’d write another one. But I was sure I wouldn’t until I had one to write. I was not worried about not keeping my hat in the ring or anything like that. I am fortunate in that I was financially liberated with the royalties of The God of Small Things, you know. Others were too (laughs), it created a little universe of liberated people! And when I started writing, Outlook has been very much part of that journey, from the word go. And it was hard for me, very hard for me to deal with the fame, the money. It wasn’t something I’d prepared myself for. I was, mentally, always a very marginal person…on the lunatic fringe! (laughs) And suddenly you are mainstreamed. It’s like you are riding a bicycle and then suddenly you are driving a huge bus…. It took a lot of adjusting in my head.

“In a way, the tide has brought us here. We are being pushed into graveyards. We are looking for solidarities.”

But it was around that same time that the nuclear tests happened. And to me, that’s what mainstreamed this ugly public discourse that’s considered acceptable today. And it pushed me into a space, the fame too pushed me into a space. I’ve said this a million times. After being on the cover of every magazine, winning the Booker…then the tests. Keeping quiet wasn’t the same as an anonymous person keeping quiet, the silence had a political weight to it. Would have had. And then, one thing led to the other. It was journeying into spaces. One meditated upon them, learnt a lot from them, and yet…it’s almost a bit like Esthappen and Rahel. Like Rahel, I feel the urgency, I have to make that political intervention only in order to be able to breathe, because I was unable to sometimes, with anger. And yet there was always Estha, you know, watching, knowing, looking at it from the point of view of a fiction writer…who has a totally different rhythm. One is urgent, angry, the other is absolutely calm, absolutely not in a hurry, absolutely not interested in being timely.


Topical… Gathering these layers into something….

And yet they played simultaneously, like in a fugue. The literary writer was not entirely absent in the essays.

No, there was that always. I’m talking about actually writing fiction. The thing is, I wrote this book over ten years. I don’t think I could have easily approximated the closing down of spaces if I hadn’t started then, you know. The horrors are building up, so there’s a bit of air, and then you’re writing through the oxygen being sucked out of our lives.

When you do make interventions in real time, with that urgency, as a method you can’t escape telling it like it is. You say the goad comes from within. Is that, in a way, being more true to yourself, your own conscience, than being the best way tactically forward on any issue?

“There’s this idea of being empirical, reasonable and dispassionate. We have ceded all the rage and passion to the Right.”

Well, you know there’s always this idea of being empirical, and reasonable, and dispassionate…in some ways in India more so. I think it’s so sad that we have ceded all the rage and passion to the right. Because we’re all trying to be accountants. To me, it’s vital that we smash through this, with heart and soul, and rage, and feeling and music, and not just be giving a statistical way forward.

Or emulating journalism…

There’s a place for that. But this frowning upon feelings, I feel there’s something Brahminical about it.

Your essays always had a very strong authorial presence, they were centred around the ego, like empathetic colonial travelogues. Was that a drawback? The Narmada movement, for instance, had a lot more legitimacy in the ‘80s. Your interventions…having radicalised yourself, in a dramatic way, then moving into this, with the self very much embedded in it, do you think they harmed those causes at some level? One year after your essay, the Supreme Court ruled….

No, the Supreme Court judgement happened before, when they lifted the stay! That’s why I went to the Narmada valley. Look, how am I to…I’m not in the habit of defending myself. So you should ask them. Ask the movements, you know. I remember, before I wrote, having a long conversation with Medha Patkar, and I’d said they will try and divide, they’ll say she’s doing this, doing that, are you up for it? Because these are things that always happen. To say, ‘Oh, Arundhati Roy’s essay made the dam go up’ is a bit silly!

Of course, the world was changing, things were turning out in a certain way…

Now, on Narmada, whoever is a thinking person knows it’s wrong to do that, but it’s still happening. It’s not because of me, or Medha, but because that is the way….

The inevitability of it is granted.

And it’s easy to turn around and blame the people. But the actual push is coming from elsewhere. One of my great regrets was…after coming out of Dandakaranya, I got such a beautiful letter from inside (smiles) and you know, I burnt it, I really didn’t want it to be found. But it was so beautiful. Saying “aapke aane ke baad, aapke likhne ke baad…yahan ek khushi ki lahar phaili thi.” And everything is wrong, taking up arms is wrong, not taking up arms is wrong, writing is wrong, not writing… They say the same about Medha, you know. But the fact is there’s a a huge lobby that wants water.

As a generality, do you think dissent of a sort can harden the establishment opinion—that the latter can take oxygen from its opposite?

Of course it can! But look at debates anywhere in the world…on Palestine, or Chhattisgarh. It’s organised as a kind of atrocity analysis. You do something, there’s a response from the ‘inside’, then they say ‘Oh it’s really terrible, both people are bad’. It’s a kind of low IQ analysis. In every battle, the two sides are using an excuse to harden themselves. It ends up in a spiral. But the point is, if you don’t, you still lose. They’ll say, ‘Arundhati, why don’t you just say something nice about the BJP’. And they’ll be quietened? Really?

Raking an old ghost. The EMS affair. Looking back, do you think it was overdone, that you regret the hotelier bit… It did seem to be of a piece with classic, habitual Left-baiting.

It’s all fake…rubbish! I’ve not said that EMS ran a hotel. The real question is, which has now been cleared, has the Left dealt with caste or not? The hotel thing was a red herring. It’s a little unfair…I’ve always been an admirer of the Left. And Kerala benefited hugely from the presence of a mainstream left. But that doesn’t mean you toe the party line and say nothing. To me, it’s a great failure, the way the Left has been blind in dealing with caste, the violence it has done by doing that. And that’s what that novel was all about, 20 years ago! Not looking at caste is terrible. And I will say so. But the hotel thing is all bullshit.

I’m asking because it leads up to something more recent. The idea that criticism of a certain person can be based on his or her caste origin. I wonder if there’s an analogy with what happened to you vis-a-vis the Ambedkar book. How hurt were you by that episode?

I was…I mean I was saddened by it, and yet, a part of me understands. This is centuries of appropriation we are talking about, so at some level you know you have to take it. It’s almost like, you get close enough to get stoned, for the others are beyond reach.

And yet, although one understands where this comes from, this complete rejection—on all the issues you touch on, Kashmir, caste—it cannot become permanent.  Conversations cannot stop.

Conversations will not stop. Look at people like Jignesh Mevani, Teltumbde, even the Bhim Army now. Conversations will happen, we all will get hit, or not hit. I think it’s so strange when people say I’m anti-Indian or something. Because I’m in there, I’m in the argument, getting beaten up, talking. And all this is a form of love, you know, of wanting it to be otherwise, of not going and saying I’ll go and live in California. I could, you know, but you get wounded, you get beaten up, you get criticised, you get love, all that’s a part of it.

Is it exhausting sometimes?

Of course it’s exhausting, but it’s exhilarating too…it’s always been.

Coming to your novel via the Ambedkar episode…I wonder if that was a motivation for you to come back to fiction. In the book, you give Tilottama a caste origin which has a Paraya line…

No, no, that was way before the Ambedkar book. Tilo, in a notional way, is a child of Ammu and Velutha. I had to take a break from the novel for the Ambedkar book, it was already all there. But I find it an extraordinary feat, how many people are able to elide the issue of caste when they write, when they make films. It’s like writing about apartheid South Africa without mentioning apartheid. How do you do it? And now we have this grand statement about how they tolerate us black south Indians…. What caste does to us as a society is, it makes you internalise the infrastructures of oppression even when you are the oppressed.

As you start, with Anjum, a hermaphrodite, strikingly different, I thought you’d finally found a third-person mode, without the author’s overt presence. And then Tilottama steps out of the shadows!

(Laughs) Well, you cannot…I mean, through however many curtains and mirrors and smokescreens, authors are in every word of what they write. Tilottama is…of course, it’s easy to say ‘she IS Tilottama’. But that would be a very basic way of reading it. I mean there are points where I’m so clearly Anjum! When she’s burning all the press clippings (laughs). And I’m saying, ‘Oh that’s me’! And you know, you’re everyone, you’re Amrik Singh, you’re the army, you’re Garson Hobart….

Very uniquely, he’s the only person who gets a first person voice….

He just would not have it any other way! No way.

Doing this, taking bits of yourself, picking up from your own debris, reassembling it in ways, in various alter-egos, some of them patently so, some less obviously, what does it do…is it cathartic, does it help defamiliarise yourself?

I don’t know…it’s mysterious. Art is eventually mysterious and it doesn’t matter at all to me, what is real what is not real, what is me, what is him, what is her, what is the past …it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction, and ultimately that matters to me more than reality. Anybody can take it apart and say this is this or that. This is true of all fiction. Even Annie Gives it Those Ones, people I don’t even know say ‘oh I was that person’ (laughs). It’s not important. Literature is meant to live way beyond our lives. So whether they think it’s me, or my aunt or my mummy….

Forget people. At the point of its inception, conceiving, what is it doing to you?

Writers are ruthless people. They eat their own young. It’s there! (Points to the book.) Doesn’t matter where it came from.

And Kashmir…they want you to be on a jeep!

(Laughs)… Give me a ride.

Even its extreme tragedy, accumulated over years, does Kashmir offer us something to learn from?

Of course, it does. I would leave it with the book. To me, I have no way of simplifying Kashmir into an answer because, if I did, I wouldn’t have written the book. I would leave the complexity of that with the book, for people to read.

Very generally, is Kashmir also one more cusp phenomenon? Another Anjum? Something that may help us dissolve our certitudes?

For sure. It presents us with a complexity which requires us to think about everything in other ways.

Saffron politics? Is there a way of humanising that as well? There’s a subjectivity there too.

The more I think about it, I actually feel as if we are convulsed, possessed in some ways by something, almost helplessly so. When I look at these people spewing this venom on TV, they feel like that girl in The Exorcist, with the green stuff coming out of her mouth, and everyone is helpless. It’s not even that the girl is a bad person. It’s almost like a possession, a kind of convulsion this country is going through right now and we can only hope that it will pass.

Sit by the riverside and wait for the storm to pass?

No! We need exorcism (laughs)…active exorcism. Which in a way precludes hatred, you know? It hopes that the body will recover. I hope that the body will recover.

One can’t help but notice. You have to be fond of animals, they’re practically bursting out from every page! One felt there was a bit of you in all the animal lovers…Zainab, Gulrez, everyone.

Oh, I’m so happy you asked this question! For me, if you look at literature, either you have animal stories, or vice versa. To me, it’s so important to understand, even in this crazy, polluted city, that we are really only a part of things, only one species…

Only the mosquitoes seem to fly under the radar of your empathy….

Killed mosquitoes…saying ‘hide, the vegetarians are coming’! (Laughs) I think it’s the Aymenem part of me, but it’s not just Arundhati, you know. Even Kashmir, or in this part of the city. Go to any house, and the goats are inside, the chickens are inside, on the TV, everywhere. In Aymenem, I knew every worm, every beetle, every creature, every butterfly, every fish…. I can’t look at, can’t enter a space where everything is not integrated.

In Kashmir, the hangul are also part of the mourning…a remarkable picture….

Yes, or the kites drifting across the border to mock the humans.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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