It was 20 years ago that Arundhati Roy, a little-known screenwriter from northeast India, published “The God of Small Things,” a magical, lyrical, distressing novel about a family, about tragedy, and about the “love laws” that set down “who should be loved, and how.” It won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and rocketed Roy to international fame.
In the years that followed, Roy did not publish any more fiction, instead penning searing political essays on a range of topics: environmental degradation, indigenous land rights, Kashmiri independence, government corruption, and increasingly — since the 2014 election of prime minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing nationalist — about the dangers of Hindu nationalism. (Just this week, thousands marched in New Delhi to protest a string of lynchings and other attacks on minority Muslims suspected of eating beef.)
Now, after two decades, Roy is out with her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” which, as she said to me, is meant to be a book that cannot be “explained in three sentences” as about “x or y or z.” It can be said, however, that the novel winds down many galees, or alleys, in its nearly 450 pages, and it is seen through the eyes of several characters: Anjum, a transgender woman who takes up residence in a Delhi graveyard, which she turns into a kind of ministry, Saddam Hussain, a Muslim convert who joins her there, Tilo, a former architecture student, and Musa, a Kashmiri independence fighter Tilo covertly loves and does not love.
It is fiction, but Roy also weaves in some of India’s more troubling recent history — most potently, the 2002 religious riots in the Western state of Gujarat that left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim. (Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat, has been widely accused of being complicit.) In “The Ministry,” the character of Anjum is caught up in the riots early on, but spared because she is a hijra, or transgender, and killing her could be bad luck.
Below, Roy talks about what fiction can accomplish that political essays cannot, what the word “activist” means for writing, and how she views India’s political environment today. Also, where she finds hope:
FLOCK: You wrote “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” over a 10-year period, while also being involved in so much else, from advocacy to other creative projects. What was the experience of writing it like?
ROY: Basically, when I write fiction, in my experience writing “The God of Small Things” as well as this, somehow I’m just never in a hurry. I can’t speed it up or slow it down. It’s like cooking something. So truly for the last 10 years, whatever else I was doing, or writing, this book was always the foundation of me. I feel as if I weigh much less now, because the characters are outside me, instead of inside, you know?
Really the idea for me was I wanted to see how to undomesticate fiction, how do I write where it’s not just a book you can explain in three sentences, that this is a book about a family or x or y or z. How do you write a book about the air in India? The air I know.
I looked at it like: what you can do with fiction? Imagine it as a city, you’re planning a city, but the city doesn’t agree to be planned. It’s planned and unplanned, it’s not just that you’re adding things, it always circles around itself. It ambushes you, it surprises you, it takes you down blind alleys. And you don’t ignore anybody, you stop and talk to them. This is something only a novel can do, not journalism or history.
FLOCK: Your political essays have often been directed at abuses of the excluded or forgotten. Is this novel — where your characters are transgender, a Muslim convert, an abandoned baby — a kind of love letter to the excluded or left behind?
ROY: This book is not just about poor people or fringe people, but how these wheels are turning. Huge populations today are forced to live in terror. Every time you lynch someone you are telling a whole community something.
Much of what is in the air in India now is pure terror, in Kashmir, in other places. Every day you are reading about lynching, killings, even in the presence of police. In New York when I did an event in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of the people in the audience who came up to me, she was the daughter of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of the legislative assembly in Gujarat, who was taken out of his house and hacked to death. That was in 2002, Modi was not yet prime minister. Now, the [right-wing] vigilantes have been let loose.
There have been massacres before, even under the Congress party, [which was in power before Modi’s party, the BJP]. But I’ve never felt like this. There was a degree of hypocrisy, they spoke about secularism. But now there is this open [intolerance] — where language is being used publicly that could not be used before. Members are campaigning saying why should Muslims have graves? Or that they should go to Pakistan. And every time an atrocity is committed, TV channels applaud, even the mainstream television especially has turned into a lynch mob.
FLOCK: Did this book change as you saw India’s move toward right-wing extremism? Did that find its way into the book more over time?
ROY: The book didn’t change because I saw it from years ago. If you saw the political writing on the wall, if you’re saying: ‘look, it’s coming,’ then it’s just culminating in something. The Gujarat massacre in 2002 was different from the Sikh massacre of 1984 [which left nearly 3,000 members of the Sikh community dead], because in 2002 it was part of the stated ideology. It was the approval, that it’s alright to do that. Modi was interviewed by Reuters afterwards, and he said even if I ran over his dog, he would regret it, [as if the massacre was comparable to that].
And today, every institution is being peopled by the RSS, [a Hindu nationalist group that helped elect Modi], and history textbooks are being rewritten, whether it’s a journalist or NGO, they’re going after people one by one. It’s a very, very dangerous time. Even the economic despair, the demonetization [where the government, in 2016, seeking to crack down on illicit money, demonetized bank notes, leading to prolonged cash shortages]. The growth in India does not show up in a growth in jobs. The farmer suicides — it’s all being converted into the price you pay for the Hindu nation. It’s like pain is pleasure.
And at a point it invades people’s lives. It’s not a theoretical exercise. It’s bludgeoning people. In 2002, the massacre that happened in Gujarat — it happened. What’s happening in Kashmir, you cannot fully tell in reportage. What does it mean for a society to live under that kind of terror? Those are complications only fiction can portray.
FLOCK: Taking the character of Anjum, what were the complications of her life that you felt fiction could portray? Was there something specific you wanted to say about the hijra community?
ROY: When I write fiction, however full of all the things that happen in India it is, I never set out to write with a goal or think ‘let me say this in fiction.’ It’s just that that is how it is. Even with Anjum, I never set out to write the sociology of the hijra community. She’s such a specific character. The fact that she gets caught up in the violence, and is spared not because she’s a Muslim or not Muslim but because she’s a hijra — in a sociology the opposite might happen, it might tell a simple story. In fiction it’s not simple.
All of these characters also have these borders running through them, because India — even though it looks like an anarchic society — in India everybody lives inside the grid of their castes and hierarchies. Very, very rarely is there a transgression, and each transgression is often met with extreme violence. All of these characters are outside of these grids, driven out or borne out in some way. But you’re right in that this story, or whatever is said in this can only be said in a novel, cannot be done in a film or a history book.
With the hijra community in India, it is a very diverse community, whether it’s the hijras themselves or attitudes towards queerness. Before this Western, liberal, rights-based dialogue started, there was a place for all of this in India that was inchoate, and undefined. It certainly wasn’t always pejorative. And today the Supreme Court has criminalized homosexuality.
In the book you’ll see this transition, from Anjum to [another character named] Saeeda, who knows the modern rights-based language. The rights-based dialogue is helping the hijra community in many ways, but it’s not as if there was absolutely no space earlier. It’s a cloudy situation where one kind of era is giving way to the other.
To me the real thing is that Anjum is a person, Tilo is a person, and they are part of a bigger story. They are not isolated as some kind of creation of research. They are human beings like everyone else, and behind all of this is the human heart.
FLOCK: The “God of Small Things” was a book about the “love laws” — unwritten laws in India that govern who people can or cannot love. Do you think that, in a way, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is about this too?
ROY: Yes, this book is also about who should be loved and how. The “God Of Small Things” has terror in the most intimate space which is the family. Depending on who you are, where in the hierarchy you live in India, and depending a great deal on your agenda, the family is a space that some people see as a space of security, and for others is a space of great terror. Often for women it is. For all kinds of women. The “God of Small Things” is about the broken heart at the heart of a family, and the politics that blows in. But in “The Ministry” almost none of the characters have any kind of conventional family, or it is destroyed in some way, and they come bringing the shards of their broken heart…
FLOCK: And in “The Ministry” it seems that your lens is wider, it’s not focused on one family. It’s as if you want to look at the whole country, or what you’ve described as the “public turmoil of a nation.”
ROY: I think as a fiction writer, you should be able to go from tender intimate moments, and then without warning into the outside world, and then come back, and then walk down the street. The fitness of your ability to move through those things, change gears, change voices, and use text messages, court affidavits, poetry, songs, newspaper reports, is important.
FLOCK: Has the activism you’ve done over the past two decades influenced that desire to go wider, or to be political in your fiction?
ROY: I keep on wondering about the word “activism,” when did it — it seems like a very recent word — I’m wondering about what writers used to be. Has it been reduced, so that if you write politically, or about the world you live in, that being a writer is not enough, that you have to add that word “activism”? Writers are turned into entertainers or people on the bestseller list. I try to write from a street or the heart of a crowd.
But one of the messages of the book is that it is dedicated to those who have learned to divorce hope from reason. Essentially I do what I do and write what I write, even if there is no reason for hope. We’ll go down if we have to go down. But we’ll go down thinking what we think, believing what we believe. I believe things like hope and happiness, that they are so fragile and momentary. One does not have to have the same kind of ideology — we’ve lived through capitalism and communism — or the idea that everybody is going to live the same way and great human beings will emerge. Instead I sort of look for hope and happiness in unexpected places, and enjoy it for awhile, and know that the next moment know I may be feeling something else.
FLOCK: Will you write more fiction, do you think?
ROY: After I finished this book, first of all, I couldn’t believe I had finished. I don’t think my head has taken a day off for 10 years. I’ve got four more cities to go, and then I think I’ll be .. free? (laughs) So many friends who had not read the book and have read it now, everyone has decided to move into the Jannat Guest House, [or the graveyard, the kind of ministry, where Anjum lives].
For us it’s become more real than the real world, a place where “Surya Namaskar” is on a grave — where everyone is welcome. So even as I am traveling around the U.S. I am peering out of the windows of the guest room at the world.