In conversation with Arundhati Roy

“Come in, she said, I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm.”

ByMadhu Trehan
In conversation with Arundhati Roy
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Twenty years is a long time. For anything. More so for a writer whose book, The God of Small Things sold more than eight million copies in 42 languages and won the Booker prize. Arundhati Roy’s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness releasing around the world in the first week of June, is nothing like The God of Small Things – and yet it is. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finely chiseled. The craft of weaving meticulously chosen words that burn unforgettable metaphors shows that Roy has honed her craft even further. This book is more expansive, and to choose an old-fashioned word, romantic.

It is an insane circus of fabulous characters, outlanders so to speak, gathered in a gritty web of surviving the vicissitudes of what really is normal life in India: social ostracism, violent riots, caste quandaries, lynch mobs, Kashmiri terrorism, religious complexities and love. Through all the eccentric (who in India is not eccentric? Look at Twitter!) characters, a thread of loving support binds them together. The characters are not there by any insouciant choice, but are in Roy’s own Jannat Guest House, a place created by the most lovable, wild, funny yet heartbreaking central character, Anjum, a Hijra. And to lift from the book, readers will end up with eyes of shattered glass.

Q: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is very different from The God of Small Things, which seemed to pour out of your childhood memories and life in Kerala. This one seems as if you have spent the last 20 years like a magpie. Living, researching, collecting. The expanse, as well as the depth, is astounding. Did the book evolve out of your life experiences or did you seek out what you needed for the book? Or, is there no line between the two?

There is only as much research in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as there is in The God of Small Things. While I have nothing against novels that are constructed out of a great deal of research, neither of the two novels I have written would fall into that category. And no, I did not seek out experiences because I wanted to write a book… Fiction is strange. It arrives. It takes charge. A novel does not come only out of research, memory or lived experience. We sometimes forget about that wonderful thing called the imagination.

Q: It seems that speaking truth to power has narrowed down to slim pickings in India. Few journalists are fulfilling that traditional role. John F Kennedy said: When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world”. In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. 

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”

Iqbal Bano was banned by Zia-ul-Haq from singing Hum Dekhenge, a poem written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The audience would go crazy. It was considered seditious. Of course, it was and is seditious. It speaks truth to power. Iqbal Bano came to India every year and sang it here.

It is close to the Urdu couplet by Mir Taqi Mir you have included in your book:

  Jis sar ko ghurur aaj hai yaan taj-vari ka
  Kal uss pe yahin shor hai phir naubagari ka

My question is: how do you make those in power hear the poetry? The dissent? How do you sensitise those who have built a fortress of power that will not hear? As you know, from the crowds protesting perennially at Jantar Mantar, no one in authority or power hears them. No solutions have come from their tragic presence there. The struggles have become dismissible clichés. How can they be heard?

“A lover’s quarrel with the world.” That’s beautiful. And true. But I don’t want to overdo the idea of my loneliness or isolation — because that’s what those in power would like to believe. That those of us who stand against them have absolutely no support. This is not true of course. There are so many who are standing up, even when hope seems lost. But yes, writing is a lonely task — even more so in this violent, hateful climate. And writing something that takes years to finish, writing something that is long and complicated—in this era of tweets and fake news, when some folks look at a novel as a game of Lucky Dip — pull out a sentence, tweet it and ask for the author’s head on a platter — is pretty terrifying. The only way I could write was to tell myself I’d just write it exactly the way I wanted to and keep it in my drawer. Of course, once it is done, the writer’s ego does not permit that.

And the last part of your question. How do we make those in power hear the poetry? Believe me, they are listening to every word of it. Every single word. And the reason they move to crush the poets, mock them, defame them, or simply kill them — is precisely because they do hear it. And it makes them afraid — and they want to drown it out with their noise. As James Baldwin once said, “And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” But it would be a travesty for me to suggest that it is only those in power who are critical of my writing. People who are liberal and even on the Left have been and surely will be critical too. Which is fine. Nothing’s ever neat.

Q: You wrote: “The saffron men sheathed their swords, laid down their tridents and returned meekly to their working lives, answering bells, obeying orders, beating their wives and biding their time until their next bloody outing.” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Banality of Evil, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” And, you touch upon that. Mob violence and lynching are not carried out by people who are evil monsters in their daily lives. They are terrifyingly “normal”. And, we have seen that. I know that neighbours’ children who would come over to play every evening in a Kashmiri Pandit’s home, came to kill them. Can you address the frenzy that reduces decent human beings to crazed, violent monsters, albeit momentarily? Is it possible to comprehend it?

This idea of “collective punishment” turned into a genocidal orgy when Hindus and Muslims who had been neighbours for generations murdered each other in the run-up to Partition in 1947. Since then, (leaving aside, of course, the killing of tens of thousands of people in Nagaland, Manipur, Kashmir, Hyderabad, West Bengal by the State security apparatus) we have the phenomenon of mob justice — essentially, of majority populations turning on minorities. Whether it is the killing of several hundred Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir by armed militants in the 90s, or the massacre of thousands of Sikhs by mobs in Delhi in 1984, or thousands of Muslims and Dalits all over India in pogrom after pogrom, or the phenomenon of lynchings — all of it has become so much a part of what is increasingly being accepted as “normal life”.  But all this frenzy is usually, in one way or another “allowed” to happen by those in power. It could not and would not happen otherwise. We have all learned that mass killings and election campaigns are often closely linked. Masses of ordinary people don’t just spontaneously turn into monsters. They turn into monsters when they know they can get away with it. A lot of work goes into making that happen. And that work has been happening for decades. It didn’t just start now. But today it happens at speed. So many of our 24-hour TV channels, so many newspapers, so many school textbooks, so many carefully chosen appointees in institutions of learning and in courts of law are so busy orchestrating bigotry and hysteria on a mass scale.

But none of it is spontaneous. It is planned. Even the lies and rumours that are spread on Whatsapp. It’s planned. It’s systematic. And this venom that is being injected into our blood stream cannot be recalled.

Q: In a follow-up question, you wrote, “Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores – as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers – life went on as before. Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.” That is a huge difference between Nazi Germany and India today. For Germany, it turned out to be a phase. For us, we live with a continual uncertainty of when it will erupt again, with the certainty that it will erupt again. What is “the long view”? 

We should make it clear that those lines are said by a character in the book — Biplab Dasgupta a.k.a. Garson Hobart, a very upper class, sophisticated and disarmingly frank officer of the Intelligence Bureau. He, at this moment, is referring to the 1984 Sikh massacre — and like many well-intentioned people in power — looks upon this and other paroxysms of violence as moments of aberration that need to be dealt with, defused and managed.  The “long view” according to him is that Management Program. But his law-and-order, “crisis management” approach is unable to see how all this wickedness that goes on and on — unpunished — aggregates and builds up in our bellies like a sickness. It also “unsees” the normal, day to day, banal violence that is perpetrated on people at the bottom of the social hierarchy in terrifying ways. We as a people, as a society, are not well. Not at all well.

Q: I will take the risk of gauging that there is a lot of you in Tilo. You have said you are a republic of one. You wrote, “It had to do with the way she lived, in the country of her own skin. A country that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates.” You seem to have made your life with unequivocal freedom. Your choices appear as if you do not answer to anyone but yourself. That is the biggest freedom. But, you still have to apply for visas like everybody else. You could not show up at US immigration saying you are a republic of one. Have you found that in the exercise of that freedom, you also have to deal with people who do not understand your freedom and are confused by your choices? Is it a struggle to exercise that freedom or does it fall easily into place with those around you?

Tilo is a fictional character. Like all the others, even if readers feel they “recognise” them to be X or Y or Z. To me, she is the fictional. could-have-been daughter of Ammu and Velutha from The God of Small Things, had their story turned out differently. So, she is (fictional) Estha and Rahel’s (fictional) younger sibling. I know her. But I’m not her.  So, may I separate your question about me and my exercise of my freedom from Tilo’s “country without consulates”?

Speaking for myself, of course, I do not expect to be able to travel anywhere without a visa. I stand in line for a visa, like everyone else does. But I do believe that applying for a visa is a humiliation that must be endured, but never accepted. I will never stop believing that all human beings and all living creatures should be at liberty to move across the earth like migratory geese. I will never stop envying the kites in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness who drift in the thermals, lazily across the Line of Control, as though to mock the humans gathered below them.

Q: I recall that you had an unequivocal fan following before your first book came out. When the money you received for it became public knowledge, there was a backlash of the worst kind. How dare she become rich? You also seem to be a surprised and an uncomfortable traveller in the wealth space. You cannot help having money now. There is definitely a certain freedom one gains from having money. With your highly honed sensibility for the poor and the politically oppressed, how do you come to terms with the dichotomy? 

I have never had an unequivocal fan following. Actually, the hostility over the money and the “hype” began before the book was published. And yes, I was ambushed by fame and money. I never expected it. It took me a long time to know how to deal with it. But now it’s okay. There is a system in place. I share my good fortune with people and organisations who are doing work that I respect and admire — it’s not a big deal, just a little life-raft for people who don’t want to be NGO-ised or “funded” by corporate money. People who believe in solidarity. Not charity.

Q: Is it a natural outcome that the physical space you create for your life reflects where you are in your head? You seem to have not left anything to drift. Do people become their surroundings? Will Edward Snowden become what surrounds him? Will Julian Assange?

Julian Assange is in harder surroundings than Ed Snowden. He’s been inside a tiny flat in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London with no sun on his skin for years. His surroundings surely affect him, his moods, his thinking, his judgment. Snowden is a free man in Russia. His family visits. And he is, in his own words, a “housecat”. Even before he became a whistleblower, like many young people, he lived inside the internet.

Q: Would I be wrong in saying that you yourself are in some way Jannat Guest House? Your collection of “small heroes”?

I’ll take that as a compliment. “Come in, she said, I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm.”

Q: The most enduring image is of the crow frozen in flight, a metaphor that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Is there any antidote to stupidification?

We’ve got to keep movin’ sister. Through this dark tunnel of stupidification. Who knows, Cleverness might be waiting for us at the other end. Or at least some semblance of modest intelligence. But one thing’s for sure. There’s no going back. We’ve got to keep movin’.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @madhutrehan

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