You can’t tell the story of Kashmir through human rights reports: Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy on writing a book that presents a more complicated universe than the one in her non-fiction writing
Arundhati Roy says her words live within her. Which is why there weren’t many different drafts of The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness—“I do it all in my head". Which is why she doesn’t need to reread The God Of Small Things: “I know it by heart, line by line. It’s like an audio in my head." This, 20 years after she wrote that novel. Her years since, of political activism and essays on issues ranging from the Pokhran nuclear tests and Narmada Bachao Andolan, to Maoists in Dantewada and Kashmiris seeking azaadi, have all come together in her ambitious second novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness. In these edited excerpts from an interview, Roy tells us about writing in a way that doesn’t just take a moral posture.
Your fiction is so different from your non-fiction writing. How does that happen?
My body feels different when I am writing fiction. My whole sense of time is different. All my non-fiction essays are these urgent interventions when things are closing down: Operation Greenhouse, Salwa Judum, the media calling all these people terrorists. Whereas fiction is completely the opposite. I am never in a hurry. I am the opposite of a hurried (person). I am trying to slow it down. I am trying to ensure that I really want to be with these folks for a long time. You know, in non-fiction you have an opinion. In fiction, you deal with the universe.
But the opinion is very much there in your fiction as well.
Yes, it is, and yet it is so complex. For me, one of the more engrossing and delightful surprises (in The Ministry) was (an Indian intelligence officer posted in Kashmir) Garson Hobart. When I started writing him, he started writing himself. And it was very intriguing to me because he wasn’t just any easy target. (He could have been just some sleazy character, but he wasn’t one). He’s a very clever guy. And he complicates opinions.
In fiction, you say, truth is more complex...
I am not saying truth is more complex, I am saying you are presenting a universe. When you are writing non-fiction, you are making an argument. At some point, especially when I’m writing, I think it is moral to take a position on that.
There are so many distinct sections in the novel. It first seems to read like a very Delhi novel, and then you enter Kashmir.
Although a Kashmiri will say that it (Kashmir) is Delhi, controlled by Delhi, the powers come from here.
Were these parts written at different times?
No, it was all written, sort of, parallelly. I had all the pots on the burner simultaneously. I mean, I was experimenting with that thing too, you know. How do you allow a story to unspool and yet control it? One of the things I was extremely keen on was trying to write a book when you just don’t walk past anybody. Sit down, smoke a cigarette, and then how do we hold these disparate things together? It’s easy to break them into subjects: This is Kashmir, that is transgender. But that’s not how life is. The nerve centre, of course, is Jantar Mantar, where you understand the battles that are going on. That is how the threads meet, even if it’s not the first thing in the novel.
And also, I think, fiction writers sometimes, they have a finger wagged at them: You ought not to be political, that’s a separate thing. To me, the fitness of a storyteller has to be your ability to deal with it all. To deal with the really micro, the little gecko who will be fed mosquitoes, to what’s happening at a funeral in Kashmir. We are all... we turn into experts on subjects, it’s like being NGOized in your head... funding iske liye milega, lekin uske liye nahin milega, tum uske baare mein mat bolna, iske expert yeh hain (you’ll get funding for this, not that; don’t talk about this, he’s the expert for this). But this is the stuff of our lives.
Anjum, the transgender living in a graveyard in your novel, greatly resembles a real person in Delhi, Mona Ahmed. Have you met her?
I know her (Mona), I met her once briefly. It is not her. Nobody is anybody in that sense. Fiction, you don’t want it to be screwed down by (real) people. You want to think about it in radical ways. Anjum is not anybody, Anjum is a person who is much more real than a real person.
Your mother too appears in this novel again, in a way.
There are many in-a-ways. Even in The God Of Small Things, you know, people would say, ‘I am that person (one of the characters).’ And I would tell them, ‘No, you are not.’
Writers eat their own young. We are carnivores. Then we cook it. To me, everything (is laid at the feet of) the author of fiction. On my bag, it says fiction is truth. To me it is more than reportage or human rights reports. You can’t tell the story of Kashmir through human rights reports. You cannot tell the way the air is ceded, the way living under the boot of the military affects people’s imagination and souls and lives. So in a way the truth is fiction.
You’ve travelled to Kashmir a lot?
I’ve been going there. Actually, I haven’t written a lot about Kashmir. There, there are certain things you can say if you want to say something morally. But when you are a fiction writer, the things you pluck out of the breeze are what’s in the book. Like I said, what does it do to your lungs, even your heart, to your mind? What does it do to those who don’t want to think about it? What does it do to those who give permission for that to happen? What does it do to us, who have to live with all that in our gut and not say anything?
What also stands out in this novel are the many languages, and the music.
I must say that it’s fundamental to the enterprise of writing fiction here. Here, our daily life is full of language, full of music, poetry. So for me it was so interesting and beautiful and important to somehow absorb those cadences without being guilty. So you have people like Azad Bhartiya or Comrade Revathi, who actually are not English speakers but somehow they translate themselves. Then there are people who are translated obviously by the author. How do you keep all these cadences and make the language of the novel transparent? Because the temptation is to make it pidgin English or make it silly. Whereas to me, the knowledge of other languages, even when they are merely writing with their own peculiar idioms and grammar, deepens the language and sweetens it, (making it) something beautiful. That was very, very important to absorb. That, I think, comes from a place of love for me. It’s so wonderful that all these languages, we speak them, we live them, we sing them, we pray, we know them.
And then it was also very important to not forget the animals and creatures who are always there. I’m an Aymanam girl and so growing up, I knew every creature on the river, every fish, every bird, every dragonfly. So I am always aware of the creatures. In The God of Small Things, the landscape was rural, bucolic. Here too, I mean, Kashmir is. But the (rest of the) landscape was city, and all the creatures in the city that we don’t think live here, but they do. And it’s so important to remember that we are just one of a million species; we are not the only ones. So strange how we, in our stories, exclude the creatures we share this planet with.
Are you worried? I think you mentioned somewhere that you just want this book to come out before it got banned.
No, I don’t remember having said that. Look at it in the sense that the people in power have consolidated themselves so much. I do feel that when society starts shutting down its artistes and journalists, you are endangering the national IQ. Our IQ is almost as frightening as Hindutva, if not more.
It’s pretty much someone wakes and says who shall we lynch today? And there are 40 policemen watching people being lynched? Now it’s not even like the pogrom of Gujarat or the 1984 riots, it’s just normalized, it’s everyday life.
The life you’ve led these past 20 years has, in a sense, been determined by your Booker win, hasn’t it?
When I got the Booker, it was just before the nuclear tests, and to me those tests are a real marker of when what was acceptable in public discourse changed. When I wrote The End Of Imagination, if I hadn’t written that, being the kind of girl on the cover of every magazine, I would have automatically been part of the party. So there wasn’t a way in which I could have just slipped under the radar. I had to step (out). And once I did, one huge wall of fury came on this side, but, on the other side, a great embrace.
It has also required courage. Have you ever told yourself that you need to stop?
Of course, every time I finish an essay, I tell myself, no more. Enough. But it also requires some kind of keeping quiet; getting on with your glittering life is also something horrible for me. I kept feeling like I couldn’t ever be a writer unless I wrote what I thought. I would be building bars around myself. I would be making myself small and frightened, and how will I write if I am that person?