Arundhati Roy on language, identity and politics - and how she set out to write a story 'like the streets of a great city'
It’s been 20 years since you published The God of Small Things. What made you feel that now was the right time to publish your second novel?
The 20 years part is a complete coincidence. I’ve been working on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for 10 years. When I finished it, I sent it to my publishers. The timing is astonishing – most of all to me! I could not have written it any slower or any faster than I did. I wasn’t in a hurry – it just took its time, and I was alright with that.
What has writing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness meant to you?
I feel 50 kilos lighter, because everything that was inside me for 10 years is now next to me, not inside me. But at the same time, it’s not a very happy moment to be publishing a book in India, especially a book like this. So the weight of trying to create this book is, in a way, replaced by a certain amount of apprehension because there’s a climate there in which people don’t – I mean, the powers, anyway – even read. It’s just expediency: who should you attack, who should you silence, who should you ban, who should you kill.
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.
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.
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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More about the author
LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
THE SUNDAY TIMES #1 BESTSELLER and THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
'Magnificent - unlike anything I've read in years. An absolutely dazzling, original, and ultimately profound novel... A masterpiece. Very few writers can write with such intense and yet precise emotional intelligence. Arundhati Roy is properly special. We should be grateful to have her among us.' Mirza Waheed, author of The Book of Gold Leaves
'Roy's second novel proves as remarkable as her first' Financial Times
'A great tempest of a novel... which will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion' Washington Post
The first novel in 20 years from the Booker-prize winning author of The God of Small Things
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years-the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, 'normalcy' is declared.
Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy's storytelling gifts.
'A novel that demands and rewards the reader's concentration, this is a dazzling return to form' Independent
'This novel is a freedom song. Every page has the stamp of Roy's originality. Such brutality, such beauty' Amitva Kumar, the author of Immigrant, Montana
'Intricately layered and passionate, studded with jokes and with horrors... This is a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace' Prospect Magazine
'Gorgeous, supple, playful... Roy writes with astonishing vividness... Again and again beautiful images refresh our sense of the world' The New York Times Book Review
'A masterpiece. Roy joins Dickens, Naipaul, García Márquez, and Rushdie in her abiding compassion, storytelling magic, and piquant wit. An entrancing, imaginative, and wrenching epic' Booklist starred review