It’s a sunny evening in Manchester as I arrive at the Royal Northern College of Music for ‘An Evening with Arundhati Roy’. It’s one of a number of events which Manchester Literature Festival run throughout the year and it’s clear from many audience members that we’re excited to see a big star of world literature brought to the city.
The evening begins with a six minute video, an introduction to Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, created by her friends. It introduces us to lines from the book and the sights and sounds of its setting.
Roy comes on stage to huge applause. When it begins to die down, she says, ‘Thank you so much and congratulations on the [M]omentum’, fist raised. Once the second round of applause dies down, she reads from the book.
The interview’s conducted by journalist Rachel Cooke who begins by asking if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of everything that’s happened since the first novel – twenty years of political activism – and how the two books connect?
‘In the case of books, the newer one is the older sister,’ says Roy. However she does go on to say that Anjum would be the child of Estha and Rahel if they’d had a child. Writers get fascinated by certain things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of twenty years of travelling into and looking at stories deliberately kept out of narratives.
Cooke comments that Roy’s been writing polemics, essays with specific targets, since The God of Small Things; how did she find the quiet space to write a novel?
Roy begins by saying that a few months after The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, the government in India changed and moved sharply to Hindu nationalists. Public discoursed changed in light of this and the previously unacceptable became acceptable. Writing essays deepened her way of seeing. Solidarity is important, she says. What she does best is telling the story of struggles and blowing open closed down spaces.
‘Fiction is not an argument, fiction is a universe.’ The characters began to populate her house and she wrote in chaos. ‘Nothing terrifies me more than when people offer me retreats.’
How does the book emerge?
Roy says, ‘The world is like a city’. There are new parts, old parts, blind allies and winding roads. She thinks there are ways of trying to domesticate a novel in publishing but each of the things that form fundamental parts in the novel don’t have power. She says there’s an urge in work to specialise and compares it to an NGO funding proposal. ‘A novel can break that and put it all on the table.’
Cooke comments that this demands patience. How much control does Roy have? Is she the ringmaster?
Roy had conversations with the characters but wasn’t the ringmaster. ‘Why you fly a kite, you have to let it go and then rein it back in.’ She says that the city is a character in its own right, a walled city which turns into a big modern metropolis. She wanted the background to become the foreground sometimes. This isn’t a television series, there is a combination of controlling and letting go.
Anjum was ‘born a hermaphrodite’ says Cooke. Are the hijra a metaphor for India and turmoil?
[I have an issue with the use of the term ‘hermaphrodite’ as it’s a pejorative and outdated term. It also isn’t a direct translation of hijra, which is India’s third gender and more akin to an intersex person or a transgender person, depending on their gender identity. I’ll comment further when I review the book.]
Roy sidesteps the question somewhat by stating that Anjum moves in with people of diverse genders and religions. All the characters have ‘incendiary bodies’ running through them. One character, for example, converts to Islam and calls himself Saddam Hussein. Characters are on the border of caste and religious conversion. There’s a fine mesh of divisions designed to preclude any type of solidarity.
Cooke says that Roy has an ‘almost dreamlike’ way of describing violence and that the book cuts dramatically to the war in Kashmir. She asks about writing these sections.
Anjum has had terrible things happen to her because she’s a Muslim. Roy describes the violence in Kashmir as ‘egregious’. ‘You can’t actually tell the truth about Kashmir except in fiction.’ She says there are the Indians who allow it and celebrate it and the Kashmiris who live with it. It’s the most densely populated militarised zone in the world. What does it do to the air? What does it do to the mind? What does it do to survival? What does it do to the living who become the dead? ‘It’s turned a fighting force into a bloated administration.’ What does the moral corruption do eventually?
What kind of time is it to be a writer in India? How does she think the novel will be received there?
There isn’t one single reaction, she says. There is ‘so much unrest in the universities’, the opposition has crumbled. ‘We’re set to go through a pretty dark time.’ In literature and art anything can happen. ‘One has to do what one has to do.’ A novel is never about an immediate utilitarian political goal, she didn’t write it thinking about those people, she says.
Cooke’s final question is whether it’s going to be another twenty years before the next novel?
‘Who knows. I never felt to was my duty to keep writing books. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Roy says she’s laid back about writing and that she allows things to take their time.
The discussion opens to audience questions, of which I’ll cover a selection.
Why’s the book dedicated to John Berger?
Berger was a friend of Roy’s, he understood the connection between her fiction and her non-fiction work, describing them as ‘the two legs you walk on’. He was the only person who knew the title of her second novel years ago and called her ‘Utmost’. He referred to himself as ‘Jumbo’ after a day he told Roy to imagine him standing behind her, as an elephant, flapping his ears to keep her cool. She says that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was the last book Berger read before he died.
What’s the role of journalists in current society?
Roy refers to a modified version of the Finley Peter Dunne quotation, ‘it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and says that the structure of ownership of mainstream media means that it ‘afflicts the powerless and comforts the powerful’. When a president wants to lock up journalists, that’s a good sign. ‘It’s extremely important that whatever can be recorded is recorded.’
Why do you write in English?
‘If you write in English they take more notice of you.’ In India, language is complicated because there are so many languages and dialects that aren’t languages which have swallowed languages. She tries to capture the cadences of the language, which was easier in The God of Small Things, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the North where Hindi, Kashmiri and Urdu are spoken, amongst others. How do you absorb those cadences without turning it into a gimmicky translation? Her work has been translated into many Indian languages but each translation isolates while English widens, she says.
‘It’s important that writers remain dangerous but not a martyr.’ She ends by saying ‘It’s the right time to publish this book in India, I don’t know if it’s the right time to be the author of it’.
The event ends with a second reading from the book which includes a glorious bit of swearing, leaving me keen to get on with reading the rest.