Arundhati Roy on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy on language, identity and politics - and how she set out to write a story 'like the streets of a great city' 

To you, what is the book 'about’?

I’m not sure novels should be ‘about’ anything in particular.

To me, how a story reveals itself is supremely important. Obviously the language is organic – finding a voice or finding the voice of the characters. But I seem to be incapable of just thinking up a story and telling it – to me it’s more like a building or a city. How do you range through it? How do you look at it from different ways? How do you circle back? This book is an experiment – how do you not just have a political backdrop and characters who are playing out their lives in front of this political backdrop?

My first novel was about a family, and this is most emphatically not about a family. If that had a broken heart, this has a shattered heart.

Arundhati Roy on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

I wanted to write a book that was like the streets of a great city. As I walked along, I tried not to walk past anyone. I wanted even the smallest character to have a story

There are a lot of different voices in the book. Did you always know you were going to write about a big cast of different characters?

I wanted to write a book in which the story was like the streets of a great city. As I walked along, I tried not to walk past anyone. I tried to sit down and smoke a cigarette and ask the time of day. I wanted even the smallest character to have a story. I wanted the background to sometimes become the foreground, the city to become a person. So yes, I knew it was going to get crowded. I wanted that.

The voices are very diverse. At the start of the book you have Anjum, who is a Hijra [a transgender woman who was born male], who lives alongside other transgender women. Was it difficult to write about their experiences, as I assume they aren’t ones you’re familiar with?

I think of gender as a spectrum. I’m somewhere on it, you’re somewhere on it, everyone is somewhere on it.

You can never doubt the humanity and the humanness of everyone. 

So is the book, in a way, about finding yourself in a world that tries to put you in a box?

I don’t think it’s about any one thing – it’s a story.

Sometimes I feel I’m like one of those women who squirreled away money in pockets and under cupboards. Even I read the book and say, ‘oh I forgot about that!’

What is eventually everything that anybody writes – whether it’s a novel or 20 years of political essay writing – it’s really about trying to make sense of the world, why you look at it in a particular way.

I do feel a certain terror at how people are being forced into choosing an identity. If you look at India, even this process of what we call democracy and elections is all about, ‘this is this caste, this caste, we work for that caste’… its reducing people to a kind of essence which isn’t even them. It’s a terrifying process.

Arundhati Roy on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Everything is political. Even the facts surrounding the sex life of a goldfish

There's huge diversity in the way that the book uses languages, too – characters switch between them, there’s even a Kashmiri English alphabet that you’ve created…

Language is a huge issue in India. Language nationalism, for example – the repeated attempts to declare Hindi as the national language – runs into violent protests from the Southern states. In this part of the world, we live and speak and sing and pray in literally hundreds of languages and dialects. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is immersed – marinated – in those cadences.

I did toy with the idea of describing the book: ‘The Ministry of Upmost Happiness, translated from the original by Arundhati Roy,’ because there are so many languages in it; so many fragments of songs and poetry; the Kashmiri English alphabet. When I first started going to Kashmir, that was the first thing I began doing. You could see a space in vocabulary that people had constructed over years and years of war. It was English and Kashmiri, but it was the language of war and occupation and pain. And sometimes it was used ironically, with graveyard humour.

Life and death also loom large, and the boundary between them is a very blurred one…

Death is more determinate in the western world, I think. In places like Kashmir, the living are dead people pretending, as Musa says, and the dead are truly alive and really live amongst the people. They give them the anger and the power to fight for their dignity. So, too, in the graveyard where Anjum lives – there is that sense of a porous border between many things, and people come and go.

It seems inevitable that love should be a strong theme in the novel, too – you have Musa and Naga, and Garson Hobart and Tilo, who have this very complicated relationship. Why is that?

There are all kinds of unexpected love in the book, not just between men and women. Even motherhood is unusual, there’s a beautiful love between Saadam Hussain and Anjum, and all kinds of odd friendships. I think that between Musa, Tilo, Naga and Garson Hobart, what happens is that Tilo does not react in ways that women are expected to, and this puts everything out of kilter – everyone has to reimagine love, and no one is on a sure footing because of that.

In many ways this novel is as political as all the essays you’ve written about politics. Do you think fiction can explore political ideas in a different way?

It’s a cliché for me to say this, but there was never a truer one — everything is political. Even the facts surrounding the sex life of a goldfish. Everything. But yes, fiction and non-fiction can, and should, be very different. I have little patience with novels that are only thinly disguised manifestos in which the characters neatly play out the author’s pre-conceived ideological ideas. Neatness is not something I aspire towards in fiction. I like it when the folks in my book trip me up.

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