Arundhati Roy: 'It’s a hatred that crosses the line'
Arundhati Roy’s new novel has made her a target for violent threats from the Indian government but she’s not about to back down
Arundhati Roy: “When I’m writing non-fiction, it’s a weapon, it’s an argument. It has an immediate and urgent purpose.” Photograph: Mayank Austen Soofi
I once wrote a bad review of a novel in this newspaper and an eminent writer gave me a dressing down for it when we next met. “More people ended up reading that than ever read the book,” I was told, making it clear that I should consider myself in disgrace until further notice.
I’m thinking about this as I make my way into town to meet Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, whose second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is one of the publishing events of 2017.
The novel, which focuses on the social and political atmosphere of India with particular reference to the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, has been well received. But this newspaper’s literary correspondent Eileen Battersby, a critic not known for half-formed thoughts or noncommittal opinions, compared reading it to “spending years knitting a giant sweater only to discover that it actually has three sleeves”.
I’m nervous that Roy will approach our conversation in a guarded fashion but to my relief she’s gracious from the start, projecting a natural warmth that makes me feel as if I’m in the company of a long-time friend.
She’s arrived on a morning flight from Manchester, and will be flying on to Europe and New York over the coming weeks. But despite such a hectic promotional tour she’s relieved to be busy as it’s not a good time for her to be in India.
“Already, last week,” she says with a laugh that surely masks more complex emotions, “there was a member of parliament who suggested that I be used as a human shield in Kashmir. It’s a very rough time there now.”
Words being her business, she’s conscious that when language is used to incite violence there’s always the risk of an extremist acting upon provocation. When coded threats are uttered by an MP in her own country, it’s particularly troubling; it would be like Mick Wallace using his Dáil time to urge a hit on Roddy Doyle for excessive use of the F-word.
I mention an incident that took place the night before when a writer took to Twitter to disparage Theresa May as a “whore” and JK Rowling bit back, saying she was “sick of ‘liberal’ men whose mask slips every time a woman displeases them, who reach immediately for crude and humiliating words associated with femaleness”.
Roy understands this kind of aggression only too well. “In India,” she tells me, “if a woman says anything against the central national order, the first thing is rape her. There’s a kind of hatred there that crosses the line immediately.”
Since coming to international attention at the end of the 1990s, Roy has focused primarily on non-fiction but rejects the notion that she abandoned novels.
“After I wrote The God of Small Things, the new Hindu right-wing government did a series of nuclear tests. The whole atmosphere in the country suddenly altered, it became very nationalist, very Hindu-chauvinist, so the first thing I did was to write this essay called The End of Imagination, and after that I started writing more essays.”
So, what brought her back to fiction?
“Fiction for me is somehow never a choice. I didn’t think, I have X and Y to say so I will write a book of fiction. As I travelled and as I came to understand so much of what was happening in India, things began to settle in me. It was almost like fiction appeared to me. It wasn’t a business-like decision on my part.”
It’s hard to imagine Roy acting on anything other than pure conviction. She’s softly-spoken but only a resilient person could endure as many brickbats as she has and come through it, at least superficially unharmed.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a response not only to India as it is today but also to a changing world.
“The story is about people. The grid of caste hierarchy, the grid of gender, the grid of national borders, the grid of religious conversion. All the characters challenge that, and I think if you look at it in a larger sense, internationally, historically the failure of the left has been an inability to contend with identity and to just think of class.
“And now, from the other end, you have an inflation and an essentialisation and an absurdification of identity to a point where people are being boxed in with single identities.
“India is a society which has uniquely created the caste system, institutionalised a hierarchy in a very complex way, and created a caste of human beings that others consider to be untouchables. This is perhaps a crime against humanity to me.”
It is Roy’s refusal to compromise her beliefs or play the role of cultural ambassador for India that has made her such a divisive figure in her home country. But when I use that word to describe her, she shakes her head.
“I think often people put the cart before the horse. As in, I write about issues that are really divisive. It’s not that I created the war in Kashmir. I have an opinion about it and I express it, and it really upsets the received consensus because it is very, very ugly what Indians are complicit in.
“It’s not like this is some war that’s happening quietly and nobody knows about it. Everybody is boasting about it. Last month, when the army took a Kashmiri man and tied him to a jeep and used him as a human shield, people were celebrating. The army was given a reward, a medal for it.”
Most blessed thing
When I mention that it must have been enjoyable to use her imagination again, she beams in delight. “There’s nothing like it,” she says, placing a hand on her heart. “And to me it’s the most blessed thing ever that I have had, twice in my life, an opportunity to just use all my powers on one thing and take as much time as I like.
“When I’m writing non-fiction, it’s a weapon, it’s an argument. It has an immediate and urgent purpose. Every essay of mine is an intervention into something and here I’m just taking as much time as I want and as many risks as I want. It’s like navigating a city, taking people down byways and blind alleys. Never feeling that I have to give a guided tour. I just trust that people will walk and enjoy it.”
In my experience the most engaging writers are often very successful ones; in a precarious profession they know that their words are being heard. Roy, a serious person with an uncompromising voice, seems entirely comfortable in her skin even though she is regularly forced to engage in battles that are more concerned with the political realm than the literary one. But through it all, her love of India shines through.
“I’ve often said that India exists in several centuries simultaneously,” she tells me towards the end of our time and it’s a phrase that stays with me as I leave. Indeed, the India of the Mughals, of the raj, of Rudyard Kipling and EM Forster, and now of Narendra Modi might be very different places but somehow they find a home together in Roy’s complex work.
She certainly has her critics but perhaps she keeps in mind something that Mahatma Gandhi said about those who speak out without fear: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.