The acclaimed author and activist answers questions from our readers and famous fans on the state of modern India, the threat of AI, and why sometimes only fiction can fully address the world
by Tim Lewis
Arundhati Roy does not believe in rushing things. With her novels, she prefers to wait for her characters to introduce themselves to her, and slowly develop a trust and a friendship with them. Sometimes, however, external events force her hand. One of these was the election of the divisive Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister in May 2014.
At the time, Roy had been working for about seven years on her second novel, the successor to her stunning, 1997 Booker prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things. But Modi’s victory forced her to “really put down the tent pegs” on what would eventually become The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
“It was just a moment of shock for people like me,” says Roy, twirling an elegant, checked scarf around her neck like spaghetti around a fork. “For so many years, I’d been trying to yell from the rooftops about it and it was absolutely a sense of abject defeat and abject despair. And the choice was to get into bed and sleep for five years, or to really concentrate on this book. I didn’t feel like writing any more essays, although I did write one, but I felt like everything I had to say had been said. It was time to accept defeat.”
It may have felt like defeat to Roy, but the arrival of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness last year was a cause of celebration for nearly everybody else. The novel, now out in paperback, opens in Delhi, in what appears to be the 1950s, and introduces us to Anjum, a Muslim hijra or transgender woman. In the second part of the book, the story moves to Kashmir and we follow a new protagonist, Tilo, an architect who becomes involved with a group of Kashmiri independence fighters. The strands eventually converge, but along the way dozens of odd characters dip in and out of proceedings. It’s not always immediately clear what purpose they are serving; it’s only at the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that you realise what an extraordinary and visceral state‑of‑the-nation book Roy has created.
“What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city?” says Roy. “Can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed? So the reader also has to deal with complexities that they are being trained not to deal with.”
Much of Roy’s own experience feeds into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, not least the fact that she studied to be an architect and has campaigned for Kashmiri independence. For herself, she realised very quickly that architecture was not for her. “I graduated but I didn’t actually build anything, because I wasn’t really cut out to be making beautiful homes for wealthy people or whatever,” she says, smiling. “I had too many arguments with my bosses. Kept getting sacked for bad behaviour. For insolence!”
So finding her way to writing was probably for the best then? “It started with knowing very early that I couldn’t have a boss!”
Even now, at the age 56, Roy manages to retain a healthy rebellious streak. We meet in London, at the offices of her publisher, Penguin Random House, a couple of days after the end of the Hay festival. I notice she hadn’t appeared at the festival and wondered if there was a reason. There was: Tata, the Indian conglomerate that owns everything from steel plants to tea company Tetley, sponsored various events at Hay under the banner “Pioneering with Purpose”. Roy has in the past been critical of it as one of the “mega-corporations” that run modern India. She didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
“There are so many of these corporate sponsors and mining companies,” Roy explains. “For example, Vedanta, which sponsored the Jaipur literary festival in 2016. I’ve been writing about them for the last 10 years. Recently, there were 13 people killed [by police] on the streets of Tamil Nadu protesting against one of their projects. It’s a big conflict for me, because so much of my writing is about what these people are up to and then they have these free-speech tents. So I just avoid them.”
Roy, who lives in Delhi, instead wanted to use her time in London to confirm the publication of her collected nonfiction work. In the 20 years between her two novels, these projects have occupied most of her time. She has written powerfully about government dams, the 2002 Gujarat massacre, and spent almost three weeks walking through the forests of central India with Naxalites, a Maoist group that seeks to defend the rights of the tribes whose land, abundant in minerals, is being developed. It is a considerable body of work: so much so that when the essays are released next year – with the title My Seditious Heart – the book will run to more than 1,000 pages.
Her political writing often lands Roy in hot water in India. In early 2016 she even felt it necessary to leave Delhi for London, after student protests broke out in universities across the country following the hanging of a Kashmiri separatist whom Roy had praised. “I didn’t fear for my welfare as much as I feared for my book,” she says. “I was very vulnerable at the time because I was just a few months away from finishing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and because there were students being put into jail, mobs were on the street. The main TV news channel was saying: ‘Who’s the person behind this?’ And it was me. But I came [to London] and I went straight back in nine days or 10 days, because I knew this was not my thing to run away.”
Roy describes her nonfiction as “urgent interventions”, but ever since Modi came to power she is mostly drawn to writing fiction. It seems unlikely, then, that we’ll have to wait another 20 years for a new novel. “Who knows, but I hope not!” she says. “Because I really have so enjoyed writing fiction again. But I must say that, the times are so uncertain, there’s going to be a very, very hard year in India and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t ever say in advance what I’ll be doing …”
She shakes her head and laughs, “It’s a highly unplanned life.”
Famous fans’ questions…
Do you ever worry that your work as an activist detracts – or at least distracts – from your fiction, and are you concerned that sticking your neck out politically changes the way readers and critics respond to that fiction?
I have always quarrelled with this word “activist”. I think it’s a very new word and I don’t know when it was born, but it was recently. I don’t want to have a second profession added to writing. Writing covers it. In the old days, writers were political creatures also, not all, but many. It was seen as our business to be writing about the world around us in different ways. So I don’t feel threatened or worried about that. For me, my fiction and my nonfiction are both political. The fiction is a universe, the nonfiction is an argument.
What I do worry about is the fact that writers have become so frightened of being political. The idea that writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous. Today, for example in India, where majoritarianism is taking root – and by majoritarianism, I don’t just mean the government, I mean that individuals are being turned into micro-fascists by so many means. It is the mobs and vigilantes going and lynching people. So more than ever, the point of the writer is to be unpopular. The point of the writer is to say: “I denounce you even if I’m not in the majority.”
Which Beatle is your favourite and why?
John Lennon. I can say that in my sleep! Why? Because I always felt that there was a sadness that was wrapped with brilliance. And, this is not the reason that I love him – I also love the way he looks. This morning I woke up and felt a little jealous of seeing Yoko Ono and him together. I was like, “Fuck!” Although it was really before my time, but still…
Writer and environmentalist
In a world racked by climate breakdown, ecological collapse and the marginalisation of billions, what gives you hope?
One of my books of essays is dedicated to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason”. So being unreasonable is the only way that we can have hope. I am often among people who battle every day, but when you’re in there with them it’s not all grim. These are people who have their backs to the wall and are fighting for survival, but so much of the time they spend laughing at stupid things.
For example, when I was inside the forests of central India with the comrades, one night everyone was asleep and I saw this guy typing something on his solar-powered computer. So I said: “What are you doing?” And he said: “Oh, I’m issuing a denial. You know, if all our denials were published, they would run into several volumes.” So I said: “What’s the most ridiculous denial you’ve ever had to issue?” And he said in Hindi: “No brother, we didn’t hammer the cows to death.”
The story was that the current sitting chief minister had promised in his election campaign that, if he won the elections, every rural household would get a cow. So once he won, to pretend to deliver on his promise, they rounded up all these elderly cows and then they were subcontracted to people who were expected to deliver them to these far-flung households in the forests of indigenous peoples. Some of them just killed the cows halfway through and then said the Maoists did it. It served so many purposes: they didn’t have to bother delivering them, and the Maoists come out of it as anti-Hindu.
So there’s often a graveyard humour and a steely resilience, and I believe that the only way – if at all – the machine can be pushed back is through these resistances. And I’m on the side of the line with them.
What reader’s response to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness surprised you the most?
Ha-ha, there are several. One is that it’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place. So the first thing that surprised me was that it has been translated into 46 languages – that it is being read in Vietnam, in Georgia. It was never designed to be that kind of an easy read. I got a letter from someone in Palestine the other day who said: “Thank you for making space for the poetics of other languages in your book.” That was amazing because the book is imagined in more than one language. And given the climate we have in India right now, I’m happy to say that it’s been pirated and even being sold to me at the traffic lights. For half-price!
US Indologist whose book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled by its publisher, Penguin India, in 2014
Do you think it is possible for writers and publishers to join forces to find ways to oppose prosecutions for blasphemy (or “offending” religious feelings) under laws like Indian penal code section 295A? Or at least to change the charge from a criminal to a civil offence?
If we’re talking India in particular, I feel that it is possible. I know Wendy Doniger’s publishers let her down very badly. It was very wrong what they did, because they were not even taken to court. It was just this crazy man who makes a business out of going after people in this way. This is the way the criminal justice system is used in India, as harassment. So they could have backed her, but they didn’t.
At the moment what is happening in India is that censorship is being outsourced to the mob. Some person comes out and says: “Oh you’re not showing rajput in a good light,” or any community starts feeling that they can burn down cinema halls, they can stop a film release, and it’s all being allowed. In the same way, writers have been killed and shot and threatened. The government can try to act as if it’s not involved, but its involvement is in protecting the mobs. It’s a question that leads to many questions and Wendy Doniger has suffered.
When did you know your childhood was over?
It’s not over yet! It should never be over for writers. The people I fear most are the people who I look at and I can’t imagine what kind of a child they were. Because of the circumstances in which I was born and how I lived, I had to be in some ways a pretty adult child and I would like at least some part of me to be a pretty childish adult.
General secretary of CND
It’s 20 years since India’s Pokharan nuclear weapons tests. At the time, you powerfully and convincingly demolished the claims that such weapons were deterrents to war. Now the narrative from the White House is one of “usable” nukes. How can we defeat this drive towards global self-destruction, and how can a new movement be built?
I don’t know what the answer to this question is. But one thing that’s truly on my mind now, and I know it will sound paranoid – but I think we do need to be paranoid – is artificial intelligence. Perhaps AI can do better surgery than surgeons, write better poetry than poets and better novels than novelists. But what it does is make the human population almost surplus: it makes it unnecessary. One argument is that it will be the end of work and the beginning of play; that people can be looked after. But people could be looked after now, as we know there’s enough surplus to do that, and it doesn’t happen.
When human beings become surplus, that’s where these smart nukes and chemical and biological warfare – these things that are genocidal – begin to really worry me. Because I do see a time when the masters of the universe will decide that the universe is a better place without most of the population. Artificial intelligence is a way of becoming the perfect human being, which fascists have always thought about: the supreme human being. If you can think of that, if that is your goal, then certainly you can think of the other. I worry about it.
I am a fan of all your writing in all its forms, but what is it that the novel makes possible for us that no other form of writing does?
When photography came, there was a certain kind of art that it put out of business. When film came, there was a certain kind of theatre that it put out of business. So what the novel has to do, what I felt when I wrote The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is [ask] what can it do that nothing else can?
And there are things it can do. There’s a quote from James Baldwin in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: “And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” So if you were to take out the political milestones in this book and just do nonfiction about them, they would not be what they are. Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine. We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.
Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell
Directors of Grafton Architects
You have said that literature is not about issues, that it is about the world, about everybody, that literature is a monumental, profound, beautiful and complicated thing. Would you apply the same values in your contemplation of architecture?
Yes, of course. I’m a student of architecture, and if I had to choose a profession again I would choose architecture, because I do believe it’s about everything. One of the people who made me want to become an architect was Laurie Baker; he was British but had lived in India all his life. He used to do what was called no-cost architecture, where you pay a lot of attention to material and where it came from: he was so against the idea of his buildings living for ever. I learned from him that beautiful architecture is not directly proportional to how much it costs or how much money you put into it. So for me, it’s a very fundamental and beautiful art, certainly extremely profound in terms of how you should be thinking about it.
With regards to your fiction, would you be able to describe the balance between research, autobiography and imagined worlds? How important is it to you?
I don’t do research. What generally happens is I begin to get curious about something for no reason and then I just find it impossible to contain and I’ve written nonfiction. But especially in the novel, these things just settle in you and you become like a sedimentary rock. The characters come by and it’s almost like you’re walking down the street and someone catches your eye and you meet them again and then you become friends. It’s a bit like that. One of the ways in which I write, especially when I write fiction, is just that I wait. And something just comes knocking at your door. You have to be open to it. You have to allow it in, more than pursue it.
I’m very much part of those worlds that I describe. So sometimes it might be really autobiographical and I don’t know. When you’re open to allowing these characters in, everything is autobiographical, no? Esthappen in The God of Small Things says: “If in a dream you’ve eaten fish, does it mean you’ve eaten fish?” For me, those worlds are all very osmotic: experience, autobiography, imagination, understanding. And that’s why it all needs to mix and settle and it’s not segmented.
My friends and I often debate “the best Bookers”. Mine happen to be, in no particular order: Disgrace, The God of Small Things and Midnight’s Children. I’d like to think that you, too, have these “pub conversations” – so, what’s your favourite Booker novel, and why?
I don’t have these conversations, because I don’t feel like thinking about books in this way. Books are unique and so I don’t think of them hierarchically. I understand that people need to give prizes, but it’s so particular to you and I don’t even think of “Booker books” to begin with.
You have been fiercely expressing your disagreements with the state, irrespective of political parties in office. Have you ever wished to go into electoral politics? If yes, why haven’t you yet? If no, why?
No. It’s such an important place and time in which to be a writer, where you’re not burdened by the idea of soliciting people’s support. Where often it’s so important to stand alone, to be a person who expresses themselves very clearly on certain things. So I can only see it as a great defeat if I really wanted to come into politics or stand for elections or ask people to like me or vote for me. It’s just not in my DNA to do that. I cannot even conceive of becoming a person who needed to change something about the way they were dressing or thinking or speaking to get someone to vote for me. To suddenly start going to a temple and pretending I’m really religious because I want to win the Hindu vote, I can’t do it! I’d be terrible at it!
You once said: ‘Each time I write an essay I get into so much trouble I promise never to do it again.’ What was the last essay you wrote and did you get into any trouble?
Well, the last essay I wrote was actually about the trouble, it was called My Seditious Heart. But previous to that, I wrote a piece called Professor, POWabout GN Saibaba. He is a professor of literature, paralysed in his lower body, and he was thrown in prison and sentenced to life for… I don’t know what all the reasons are, but he’s accused of being a Maoist and working against the state. He’s still in prison now and is in a bad state.
I’ve known him for a long time and when I wrote Professor, POW I was charged with criminal contempt of court. I have a long history of contempt of court, being accused of contempt of court – I’ve also gone to prison for it. So I had to appeal to the supreme court to quash it, which they have not done, but they have put it in cold storage. It’s so tiring, but it’s OK for me. Because of the work I do, I have lawyers who are friends. I have the money to fly to the other city where the appeal is being heard and hire a hotel and stay there. But let’s say you’re a young journalist or a young writer who doesn’t have that – what do you do? You’re finished! So the idea is: “Let’s make this an example, let’s break up the stride, then the mobs will come there and will shout at you.” It just goes on and on.
How do you write the parts that make us cry? And do you cry when you read them back?
Writing and crying are things that people do differently. For me, I’m always writing: when I’m walking, when I’m shopping, when I’m thinking. There’s a processing that’s going on – and the heartbreak is close to the surface all the time. But there’s a difference between the retelling of a tragedy and when you sometimes don’t actually tell it, but what it reflects is even more tragic. So often when I think about things, yes, I do cry, but I shift between laughter and tears and anger. That’s what I meant about never stopping to be a child: you have to always be in touch with those feelings.
What female writers have inspired and influenced you?
Oh, so many. Of course, I have read Jane Austen in the past but long ago. I don’t know if I’m inspired by her, but I’m maybe interested in her. There’s Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a great inspiration. The memoir of [Russian poet] Osip Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam [Hope Against Hope] – oh God, what a book, just incredible. And recently I read this book called Barracoon, it’s just come out. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and she transcribed a first-person account of the last slave, who was captured 50 years after slavery was abolished. He has a memory of the whole thing, of how he was kidnapped from his village in Africa – not kidnapped by white people, but by another tribe – and then sold into slavery to American slave traders. So it complicates the way you think about things.
It seems that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness suggests it’s possible to live in a world that is carved out of, yet also away from, the degradations of a class- and caste-ridden (also ableist, homophobic etc) society. Is such a world possible only in novels, or do you think it’s possible in real life?
I don’t think that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness should be viewed as a manifesto, that it’s proposing an alternative way of living. It’s a story about certain particular and unique people who find their way in a unique way. By having these people, you are shining a light on what society is really like and the fact that you can’t ignore caste and gender and all of that. It’s really about that.
What moments in your life give you solace?
The moment when I just put my cheek on my dog’s tummy. I have two of them, and one has a considerable tummy, but the other is slightly more delicate. Both of them used to be strays. I found them. One of them, her mother was killed by a car on the road outside my house. Her eyes were closed and she was so small and I had to feed her with a dropper and now she’s huge. The other one I stole. I’d see her tied to a lamppost night and day on this road, and I just took her. Later, I told the people that I’d taken her, and they said: “OK, we didn’t want her.”