On the day we spoke, Arundhati Roy was under attack. A lawmaker (and Bollywood actor) from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had tweeted that Roy be tied and dragged from an Army Jeep for her support for the freedom fighters in Kashmir. His reference connected to a grisly episode from a few days earlier, in which an Indian Army major had trussed up a civilian named Farooq Dar to the hood of his Jeep as a human shield against a stone-throwing mob. The politician has since deleted the tweet, but the pressures Roy faces in India’s constricting political and expressive space continue as dissenting authors, bloggers and academics face the wrath of the Modi Government. There is, as Roy puts it, “much terror in the air.”
It is among just these kinds of macabre realities, and of an atmosphere laden with fear, that Roy penned her much awaited new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Taking her readers into the winding alleys of Old Delhi, where India’s increasingly beleaguered Muslim minority currently ekes out a beleaguered existence, Roy tells the intertwined stories of Anjum and Tillo, transsexuals (hijras) who also inhabit other margins. We spoke about the novel, Roy’s political writing and the task of articulating India’s complexity via her layered and multi-dimensional fiction- Rafia Zakaria
The Barnes & Noble Review: In the past couple of decades you have written mostly non-fiction. What made you turn to fiction now with Ministry of Utmost Happiness and would you call it a work of “political fiction?”
Arundhati Roy: To me everything is political. I realize that this is a cliché but it is also true. In India issues of caste, of rising cultural or religious nationalism, are in the air you breathe. If you choose to write and not write about them, then the fact that you avoid them is a very political act. There is no way you can hide your politics away in any form of literature that you choose; it is not more or less political than anything else. It (politics) is seeded in the air we are breathing now.
BNR: In your book, you refer many times and with some cynicism to “The New India,” a place fraught with strife and a rabid religious populism. What is the role of the artist in this New India? Must art turn to activism now?
AR: No, what I am saying is that all art is political, whether you are overtly aware of it or not; to avoid looking at what is going on is also political. I do not think that my novel is a manifesto that is masquerading as a story where characters are playing out an ideological map that I have drawn; it is not what I do.
BNR: The fluidity of identity and the question of “passing” are central to the book: men turn to women and then back to men, Muslims pass as Hindus and little girls are dressed as boys. Is this an argument against immutability, against the belief identity is something inherent and unshakeable?
AR: Everybody in the novel has some kind of border running through them. Anjum has the border of gender, for Tillo it is caste, for Nimmo it is Indo-Pakistan, Saddam has caste and religious conversion. Even the graveyard, where much of the action of the book is located, is some kind of border between life and death. The book is also about how, when you harden these borders, this violence of inclusion and exclusion results.
BNR: What, then, of an author’s identity? For instance, what does it mean to be a brown female Indian author who writes in English? What do you make, for instance, of cultural appropriation and what authors like Lionel Shriver have called “the right to write fiction and take on other identities”? Should the fluidity of identity or exploration trump the dynamics of power, of whiteness writing brown-ness?
AR: When you come to India you become witness to the complexity of appropriations, you see that every form of dominance and appropriation goes to the bottom, there is no pure victim and pure oppressor; a system that perpetuates itself and the oppressed are part of the project; it’s very complicated. One cannot make any declarations. As a fiction writer, your world is people and all kinds of people and you have try and do the best by them
BNR: The book is laden with loss: the loss of India’s syncretic past, the loss of people on whose graves new lives are constructed, the loss of old buildings, old ways of living, old stories. There is a sense of endangerment. Is that a reflection of how you feel about the India of now?
AR: Well, I certainly have never felt so much terror in the air, the terror of minority communities, the terror felt by people who do not support the Hindutva project, the silence, the subjugation, the cooption. I have never felt like this ever before. I am the last person who looks back with nostalgia. I know what the past was for women and for Dalits, but what is happening now is terrifying. It’s not about nostalgia; it’s more about the speed with which the idea of justice is disappearing around the corner. There used to be a sense of revolution, people were demanding equality and justice. Now justice has just become a question, Kashmir is occupied, the forests are full of soldiers, there is no clean water to drink, all of us have identity cards, the level of devastation of the land is pretty terrifying as are the ways in which people, Black Africans, Muslims, Dalits, are being lynched. It is terrifying and everyone thinks it’s a great democracy.
BNR: The novel plays great attention to the vocabulary of violence. For instance, you present the Kashmiri English alphabet constituted entirely of references to state violence and to religious extremism. You also present an array of vile insults that rain down on hijras. When words exist and cement division and subjugation, can they ever be erased, made to not exist? Can the verbal architecture of hate that they represent ever be dismantled?
AR: The thing is, this language of hate — it’s like something being dripped into our bloodstream. You just look at the language being deployed by politicians during elections, you don’t know how you can come back to any place of sanity. It was unleashed at Partition, but even then there was at least an attempt to nominally say that India was a socialist and secular republic. Now you feel that the Constitution is going to be changed, at least for those who are marginalized, who are minorities, or who are the people who don’t agree with this ideology (even if they don’t come from the oppressed class). The Government today, all of whose members belong to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevakh Sangh) that was founded in 1925, has been moving to this idea of a Hindu nation for a while. However, 9/11 gave them impetus, and the pogrom in Gujarat, it was more brazen because it dovetailed into the Islamophobia in the rest of the world. It is so today also.
BNR: Delhi and Kashmir are both enclaves for India’s Muslims, where they eke out lives of desperation or revolution. What made you set the book in these contested spaces?
AR: It is a very different scenario for Kashmiris, because at least they are a majority where they are; there are no mobs roaming the streets and they have the dream of freedom. In the rest of India, in the villages, there is a terrifying scenario, where a person can be lynched for something like moving their cattle. They cannot respond, because the immediate consequence is collective punishment (for all members of that minority). There is great anger over dispossession and all that anger is being funneled downwards and on Dalits and Muslims. This is, of course, the way Governments win elections; they provide means via which the dispossessed can channel the anger further down, on those even more dispossessed.
BNR: Is there a parallel in America?
AR: There is a political parallel there but there is also a big difference. Trump is not supported by the institutions of Government (in the way Modi is in India) and he is not supported by the media. In India, it is deeper: lots of institutional support, no one is mocking Modi, all the chess men are in place, history and syllabi are being re-written. It is a pretty dark tunnel.
BNR: You’ve described your political essays as a “march” and your fiction as a “dance” what do you mean when you say that?
AR: All the political essays were written at a time when things were closing in, something was happening, there was military being deployed in the streets or into the forests. Every time I wrote one I would say I am not writing another one, yet you cannot keep quiet and then again you get into trouble. When I write political essays, my body is different; it’s a body of a fighting force. When I write fiction I am never in a hurry, never trying to write anything necessary. In writing (this book) over the last ten years, and all these people (characters) have lived with me, I have been keen to make sure to love them even in the wicked world. I am not interested in timeliness; it is a more dreamy and beautiful process. When I was writing this book, what I wanted to do was look at a story like the map of a great city, the whole of it, and then never walk past anybody, sit down in places or go down a blind alley. I wanted to make the background, the foreground and the city a person, to not be frightened of politics and yet to not submit to some idiotic template or some chess men character. Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the product of that experiment. All the characters are real to me and in that sense the book is like a tree that has been nourished by what I know.
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