Never miss a great news story!
Get instant notifications from Economic Times
AllowNot now

You can switch off notifications anytime using browser settings.
Stock Analysis, IPO, Mutual Funds, Bonds & More

Fiction not being real undermines fiction: Arundhati Roy

Roy explains why her new book took 20 years, why Kashmir needs a novel to tell its truth, and why writers need to get out of silos of imagination.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 02, 2017, 11.52 PM IST
Roy has written her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 20 long years after The God of Small Things swept the world.
Roy has written her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 20 long years after The God of Small Things swept the world.
Arundhati Roy has written her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 20 long years after The God of Small Things swept the world and won the Booker Prize in 1997. She has set her new novel in a graveyard in Old Delhi and the graveyard that is Kashmir. It carries the wounds of Gujarat riots, a lynching that recalls Dulina and a murder that brings to mind the killing of Kashmiri lawyer Jalil Andrabi. Roy is waiting in Old Delhi for the interview. A reedy lane opposite Jama Masjid snakes its way through shops heaving with automobile parts – bumpers, headlights, bonnets – and leads to a café with red steps, an open courtyard, saffron and green furniture, water mist to beat the heat – and the novelist, in a black dress, clocked in a long grey coat. In an interview with Charmy Harikrishnan, Roy, 55, says why the book took 20 years, why Kashmir needs a novel to tell its truth, why writers need to get out of silos of imagination, why she is cynical of politicians who are caricatured as the economist Trapped Rabbit, Gujarat ka Lalla and Mr Accountant Aggarwal. Edited excerpts:

Why did it take 20 years to come out with a novel after The God of Small Things?
Firstly, when I write fiction I am never in a hurry. Secondly, I don’t approach writing a novel as a profession -- that I have to keep producing things. It was fine if The God of Small Things was the only book I wrote. What other people see as a gap, I just see as a way of life. I was never putting myself under any kind of pressure. To me, it matters that this book took 10 years to write, that it’s not pre-digested baby food.

How did the Ministry of Utmost Happiness begin?
About 10 years ago, I started to be visited by these folks. A lot of what I had seen and known and lived during the last 20 years began to sort of break down in me in a different way. I was travelling and spending time in Kashmir without any agenda at all. Then I knew that the terror of what is happening there could not be told in reportage about human rights and atrocities. That is when you really think fiction is truth. You can’t footnote everything. It is not evidentiary. And yet it is true that this horror is unfolding. We as people on all sides are accommodating it, digesting it, holding it in out gut.

This novel is about a graveyard that becomes Jannat Guest House in Shahjahanabad, and Kashmir, a jannat, that becomes a graveyard. How do you look at these two graveyards?
Graveyards blur the line between life and death. Strange things happen. The dead snore and turn over. As Musa says about Kashmir, the dead will live for ever, and the living are only dead people, pretending to be alive. All through the book, borders are blurred: between gender, between castes, between human and animals. There’s an osmotic membrane between imagination and what seems to be real.

Anjum, a hijra, is a hero of the novel. She leaves duniya and creates a paradise of her own in a graveyard. Is jannat possible only in the forgotten graveyards of modern India?
A moth-eaten, broken paradise. In some sense, all of us who disagree with the current dispensation are living in graveyards. We are beaten back. We are trying to keep ourselves alive in a kind of graveyard – and even that is denied to us, contested as we know from the rhetoric during the Uttar Pradesh elections. In a larger sense, too, as inhabitants of a planet facing climate change, we are living in a graveyard.

The novel focuses on Shahjahanabad, the cultural heritage of the Indian Muslim, which is under attack.
Fiction writers are sometimes tuned to believe that there is something embarrassing about politics being foregrounded. For me, it is only embarrassing if you are trying to write a manifesto and pretending it is a novel. I did want to do a novel in which politics sometimes elbows its way to the front and then recedes. Sometimes the city becomes a person. I wanted to write a book in which I never walked past anyone without stopping to smoke a cigarette and say, ‘Hello.’ Almost everyone has a name. Surely, the process of mythologizing history and turning history into mythology is such a toxic one and it is happening at such speed here. It has only picked up speed now; it has been happening for a while.

The novel moves through the horrors of modern India: the Gujarat riots, the Dulina lynching, the Jalil Andrabi murder. It is made of people who are haunted by them.
There are the horrors and the beauties. And the music. And the creatures. And the love. And the freedom. In this era of atrocity analysis on TV, of body count and human rights violations, you are not allowed to look at the aftermath of that, except as a legal appendage. The ghosts of all of these walk among us. I don’t want to nail it in, that this is Dulina, because fiction is more important, it is nourished from all that.

Is there a reluctance to look at contemporary politics by Indian English writers?
People do try to look at it. Also, these issues have become subjects. Are you going to write only about caste? Are you going to write only about religion? It is a kind of NGOisation of our imagination. ‘Oh I am working on gender.’ ‘I am doing caste.’ ‘I am on Kashmir.’ ‘I am looking at Adivasi problem.’ ‘I am a specialist on irrigation.’ But this is our society. All the people affected by these live together and their stories do entwine. We have to break out of those silos. The first thing I wrote about was the baby that appeared in Jantar Mantar. It actually happened once when I was there years ago. Jantar Mantar, in a way, was a nerve centre, for looking at the world from that pavement.

Do you think there will be criticism that this novel is a catalogue of the dispossessed? That this is activism?
Of the 30 publishers, not a single person has said that. I would say that anyone who saw that was looking through those lenses. Anyone who misses the love and the beauty and the whimsy and the poetry will see that. There are all kinds of people looking for all kinds of things. I am sure all sorts of things will be said. It doesn’t matter because these things live beyond all that. When people say what will happen, I say years from now, whether I am dead or alive, I will be saying, like Maryam Ipe (a character who recalls lines from Henry V): Then will I strip my sleeve and show my scars. And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day’. When everything is collapsing, the only ethical act is to say it, write it, perform it, sing it.

How have you changed as a writer: in these two novels?
The God of Small Things was geographically set in one place. And although it had a broken heart at the centre of it, its coherence came from the fact that it was the story of a family and its relationships with people around in that little village. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is almost the opposite of that. Nobody has a family. Nobody has a home. And yet everybody brings these shards of broken hearts and creates a mended heart somewhere.

Has there been a shift from home to the world?
And also from the world to the home. It is not just breaking, it is also mending something, however fragile.

Your character Maryam Ipe takes the reader back to The God of Small Things.
In some ways, somewhere in my head, (Maryam’s daughter) Tilo was the child that Ammu and Velutha (of The God of Small Things) could have had. When I was reading for the audio book, I realised there are so many references – some I have made purposely like ‘Where do old birds go to die’ – but the cinema theatre is here too, with the cement kangaroos and, the ending too, the boatful of police/ soldiers going through the waters seems to recall The God of Small Things.

Your novel has caricatures of contemporary Indian politicians. The political class is not spared.
However much hostility they spew against each other, you can see how they enable each other.

Can you elaborate?
If I stick to my fiction and not make references to so-and-so, then you see how those who believe India is a Hindu nation come out of those who are murdering Sikhs in the street. You create an economic system that creates a very powerful, very noisy middle class, and a huge underclass that is floating, pushed out of villages and to the margins of cities. The idea that you want to make more efficient a system that is creating huge inequalities, that is ‘sorting out corruption’ – that is terrifying. Historically, whenever people start talking about ‘corruption’, you worry about fascism. That empowers the coming of the real right wing. And the faux pretender has to give way to the real one.

Your book talks about the new emperor of Hindustan.
We are in a situation where every institution has been taken over and emptied out. Even the government is done away with. We have a system where you have the emperor and the mob. Everyone else has to kowtow or will be terrorised, or you are out.

There are multiple voices from Kashmir. Your thoughts that have appeared in nonfiction have leached here but it is more nuanced.
When I am writing nonfiction, I strongly believe that in a situation of conflict, it is important to take a moral position even when you see the nuances. Nothing can be entirely right and nothing can be entirely wrong, but I take a position. Here I am trying to tell a story, I am trying to create a universe, but even so I don’t think there will be any doubt on where my heart lies.

You have said India needs azadi from Kashmir as much as if not more than Kashmir needs azadi from India. What do you think now?
What I think comes through in that conversation between Musa and Garson Hobart. People should read and figure it out.

Have you been to Kashmir recently?
Not at all.

How do you react to Paresh Rawal's comment that you should have been tied to the jeep instead of Farooq Dar?
I don’t react. What can I say? It is fake news, real hysteria.

What do you think will be the reaction to your novel, especially about Gujarat Ka Lalla, from the Indian right wing?
I don’t know. Everything seems to create an uproar. Partly, I feel they are in a position of such power now that they might say, okay let us allow it, as this proves that we are a real democracy.

You talk about the stupidification of the mainland. Do you think that is happening?
Yes, the stupidification is more frightening that the saffronisation. If anybody has any love for this country, the fact that the IQ will drop as fast or faster than the water table should be a matter of concern. When you start censoring people and deciding what can be said and how they have to think, it leads to stupidification which will leave the next generation and the next generation with no intellectual tools.

What are these places to you: Kerala, Delhi and Kashmir?
These are places I love in different ways, think about in different ways. Kerala is home in really visceral ways: food, landscape, childhood memories, of trauma too. Delhi is a place which so far has been a refuge and an exhilarating place to live in, to meet, to be. A secret city, with its layers of history and many languages. The book is in so many ways a homage to Shahjahanabad. Kashmir is a place where some of my closest friends live and fight and remind us all of how whole societies can be immoral. We talk about human rights and worry about somebody who has been arrested, but then here you have tens of thousands of people who have died. What does that do to us? Kashmir makes me think so much.

In this book, has the distance between reality and fiction been reduced?
I don’t know what these categories are – fiction and reality. I don’t know why these should be separate categories. Fiction not being real undermines fiction. As it is written on my bag, fiction is truth. Even science fiction and fairy tale will mean anything to us only it we see the taproots in the soil we have grown in. Yes, non-fiction and fiction are separate categories and they employ different techniques.

How different is writing fiction from nonfiction?
They are completely different. There is nothing that make me happier than writing fiction. It involves every cell of me. And towards the end, it becomes obsessional, holding things together. The kind of nonfiction I have written are interventions – in a situation that is closing down, it is a blowing open of a gate. And yet those essays have led me to worlds that have informed my fiction. It is the framework on which I walk.

Will there be another novel?
Once again, who knows?

Also Read

Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth make India proud; authors' books join list of most-inspiring novels

Writing non-fiction is an argument, but fiction's my first love: Arundhati Roy

After backlash, Paresh Rawal deletes tweet on Arundhati Roy

Actor Paresh Rawal receives flak for offensive tweet about Arundhati Roy

Add Your Comments
Commenting feature is disabled in your country/region.
Download The Economic Times Business News App for the Latest News in Business, Sensex, Stock Market Updates & More.

Other useful Links

Copyright © 2019 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service