For twenty years, she waited. For ten years, she wrote. The outcome: Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Intensely political, and yet a work of soaring imagination, the novel is certain to make a huge impact on readers. A few days before publication, Roy answered questions from Scroll.in over email. Excerpts from the interview:
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is filled with horror. Terrible things happen throughout the book, as they happen around us, at a newly relentless pace. And yet it is filled with, I wouldn’t say hope, but delight. There’s a sense of delight in the everyday, of pleasure, sometimes glee, in the small things. There are lots of funny moments in a very dark book. All these years later, how important do the small things remain to you? And is there any place for big change, big hope?
May I answer your question backwards, starting with what you ask about Hope? One of my books of essays is dedicated to those who have learned to divorce Hope from Reason. I think hope is an emotion and a way of seeing. If I felt hopeless I would be debilitated. But I cannot give you a rational, argued thesis that would persuade a committed pessimist to be optimistic. About the moments of delight in a story that has plenty of darkness – it delights me that you noticed! To me delight and humour are not small things. They are gigantic, and they carry us through the night. However grim things are, I find something or someone to be delighted by almost every day. Can small hopes and delights aggregate into hope for big change? I hope so! (Ha! Ha!)
The Ministry is dedicated to the Unconsoled. In what ways will it reach them? Can it reach them and is that part of the reason why you write?
Who knows ? I’ll never know. The Unconsoled I think, is most of us. Surely The Ministry will reach some of us. By no means even a fraction of that vast ocean. But that doesn’t change my longing, my desire to reach every one who is swimming in it.
George Orwell wanted to “make political writing into an art.” Is this what Ministry does? Could it have been written had you not written the political essays that you have worked on over the past twenty years? Do you see one form or genre as being more artful than the other (you have previously said that you see non-fiction as more joyful)?
The journeys I made, the people I met, the life I lived, and the political essays I wrote over the last twenty years are all part of the process of dreaming up The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But the essays and the novel are very different art forms. The essays were almost always urgent interventions in a situation that was closing in on people. I wrote them fast, when my blood was high. And that anger informed them, and it mattered. But when I write fiction I am relaxed, almost dreamy. I am in no hurry whatsoever. I wanted to live with the folks (even the wicked ones) and all the other creatures who had begun to visit me ten years ago…see if we liked each other. To me fiction can never be a manifesto, a thinly disguised political essay, with animated characters doing your bidding. It’s about creating a universe for people to wander through. I wanted to try and write a story in which I never walked past anybody, not even the smallest character, without stopping and smoking a beedi and asking the time of day. A story in which the background suddenly becomes the foreground. A city becomes a person…for me writing fiction is the closest thing to prayer.
Ministry does lots of interesting things with language. It includes verse in multiple languages, Hindi/Urdu words and phrases (concepts really, such as manzoori), a selection of choice galis and Hinglish cadences throughout. How has your relationship with language changed in the years since The God of Small Things and over your many years in Delhi, and have these changes influenced the new novel?
Yes, it probably has. All of us here in India live in so many languages. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness the characters speak Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Telugu…then there’s music and poetry of all kinds. Sometimes the characters translate themselves into English. Sometimes the author does the translating. It would have been easy to turn it all into gimmicky, pidgin English. But to me, the idea that we swim around in this sea of languages actually widens and deepens and dignifies our relationship with English. So I wanted the language of the book to absorb all these cadences and reflect them back, but I found that to do that I had to make the language more and more transparent.
You have likened writing fiction to dancing, and yet you have written so little of it over the past twenty years. All these years writing political essays, how have you kept play at bay? Even if Ministry took ten years, for the other ten did you just not dance?
For a few years I was recuperating from the previous dance – the one called The God of Small Things. Then I began to think about choreography again. Practise a few steps. And then it began. The political essays I wrote came from marching with my arms linked to so many other marching people. There was joy in that too. Now, dancing on the streets that we have marched on, even while the policemen’s batons are raised and the jackboots are poised to come down, even while the lynch mobs are out, and the vigilantes on the internet spit and jeer – that’s utmost happiness.
There was a time in Delhi when lots of young urban elites were flocking to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and to Purani Dilli in order to feel some kind of connection to a non-colonial, non-Western past. I always found this to be a bit cheesy and inauthentic. Reading Ministry made me reconsider this. I think there are ways in which you have actively sought out other stories and other pasts in Delhi (where the novel begins) even if they are not your story and your history. You have a place to write in Old Delhi and I think you often visit Nizamuddin’s Tomb. As urban elites, what should our relationship be to the past and to traditions from which we are at a remove; with which we feel a schism of sorts?
The search for spiritualism has to rise above notions of East and West and “authenticity” and “inauthenticity”. And even what is elite or not. I think as a species, we human beings are in a lot of trouble. It’s almost as though we are possessed by something destructive, something psychotic. We need exorcists and shamans. To me, Hazrat Sarmad is a shaman. Hazrats like him can heal us in small but essential ways. His spirit is central to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
I returned recently to Delhi and India after 17 years on and off in the United States. And as dark as the book is, I felt like it captured so much of what I loved and missed about India all those years away. The density of experience, the layering of lives, the riotous multiplicities, complexities, contradictions. Previously you have talked about your ambivalence towards nations but your love of our rivers. In this book what rises to the fore for me is your love of our cities. Your critics have called you anti-national. It seems to me rather that you bring to the fore all that we have to love, as well as hate, about ourselves, and highlight the things that make us unique in the context of the homogenising influences of global capital. Do you see any need to reclaim the nation and an idea – non-homogenous, contradictory, and always complex – of India?
Yes. I love this place. Despite all that is happening now. But more than reclaiming the idea of a nation, I think we need to reclaim the idea of a species – of what it means to be human beings. What it should mean. We have to understand that we are only one of thousands of creatures that make up the web of life. Even in a city as vast, as chaotic and polluted as Delhi, the people in The Ministry live alongside so many creatures, great and small. Their stories matter too – the gibbon from Borneo, the Nicaraguan Jaguar, the vultures that have disappeared, the geckos, the street dogs, Payal the horse. The kites that drift in the thermals across the Line of Control. It was important for me that animals were as much a part of the story as the humans, even though it’s not an “animal story.”
This may be too intimate: what did John Berger say about your book before he left?
I think it would be a little unethical for me to say.
You know you’ll be asked whether you’re in this novel. Have you thought about the answer? Would you like to answer it for us?
I’m in every cell of it. In Anjum, in Nimmo Gorakhpuri, in Saddam Hussain, in Tilo, Musa, Naga and Garson Hobart. I’m even in the expression in Major Amrik Singh’s eyes.
What does Kashmir mean to the novelist in you?
I dread the idea of trying to explain that in a couple of sentences. I’ve spent ten years grappling with it.
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