Arundhati Roy: The point of the writer is to be unpopular
The acclaimed author answers questions from our readers and famous fans on the state of modern India, the threat of AI, and why sometimes only fiction can fully address the world
Arundhati Roy does not believe in rushing things. With her novels, she prefers to wait for her characters to introduce themselves to her, and slowly develop a trust and a friendship with them. Sometimes, however, external events force her hand. One of these was the election of the divisive Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister in May 2014.
At the time, Roy had been working for about seven years on her second novel, the successor to her stunning, 1997 Booker prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things. But Modis victory forced her to really put down the tent pegs on what would eventually become The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
It was just a moment of shock for people like me, says Roy, twirling an elegant, checked scarfaround her neck like spaghetti around a fork. For so many years, Id been trying to yell from the rooftops about it and it was absolutely a sense of abject defeat and abject despair. And the choice was to get into bed and sleep for five years, or to really concentrate on this book. I didnt feel like writing any more essays, although I did write one, but I felt like everything I had to say had been said. It was time to accept defeat.
It may have felt like defeat to Roy, but the arrival of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness last year was a cause of celebration for nearly everybody else. The novel, now out in paperback, opens in Delhi, in what appears to be the 1950s, and introduces us to Anjum, a Muslim hijra or transgender woman. In the second part of the book, the story moves to Kashmir and we follow a new protagonist, Tilo, an architect who becomes involved with a group of Kashmiri independence fighters. The strands eventually converge, but along the way dozens of odd characters dip in and out of proceedings. Its not always immediately clear what purpose they are serving; its only at the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that you realise what an extraordinary and visceral stateofthe-nation book Roy has created.
What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city? says Roy. Can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed? So the reader also has to deal with complexities that they are being trained not to deal with.
Much of Roys own experience feeds into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, not least the fact that she studied to be an architect and has campaigned for Kashmiri independence. For herself, she realised very quickly that architecture was not for her. I graduated but I didnt actually build anything, because I wasnt really cut out to be making beautiful homes for wealthy people or whatever, she says, smiling. I had too many arguments with my bosses. Kept getting sacked for bad behaviour. For insolence!
So finding her way to writing was probably for the best then? It started with knowing very early that I couldnt have a boss!
Even now, at the age 56, Roy manages to retain a healthy rebellious streak. We meet in London, at the offices of her publisher, Penguin Random House, a couple of days after the end of the Hay festival. I notice she hadnt appeared at the festival and wondered if there was a reason. There was: Tata, the Indian conglomerate that owns everything from steel plants to tea company Tetley, sponsored various events at Hay under the banner Pioneering with Purpose. Roy has in the past been critical of it as one of the mega-corporations that run modern India. She didnt want to be a hypocrite.
There are so many of these corporate sponsors and mining companies, Roy explains. For example, Vedanta, which sponsored the Jaipur literary festival in 2016. Ive been writing about them for the last 10 years. Recently, there were 13 people killed [by police] on the streets of Tamil Nadu protesting against one of their projects. Its a big conflict for me, because so much of my writing is about what these people are up to and then they have these free-speech tents. So I just avoid them.