‘You have to write like a suicide bomber, you have to detonate’—Arundhati Roy discusses The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy visited South Africa on a book tour recently, and sat down with The JRB to discuss her highly anticipated second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, as well her wide-ranging non-fiction work.

Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Arundhati Roy
Penguin Random House, 2017

The JRB: Thank you for your time. First, a quick question about lunch yesterday, which was India’s Independence Day.

Arundhati Roy: Yes. Some Indians’ independence day.

The JRB: Yes, the national day. I wondered about why you chose to eat at a Johannesburg steakhouse on that day.

Arundhati Roy: Well, I didn’t choose to eat at a steakhouse, but it made me quite happy to be there. Because it’s a complete myth that Indians don’t eat beef. It’s just certain very upper-caste Indians who don’t eat beef and are trying to inflict this diet on everybody else. I mean, the state I come from, Kerala, everyone eats beef.

The JRB: You’ve spoken about how many people assumed the title The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is satirical. But when you read the book you really do get the opposite impression. In such a self-aware and self-conscious meta-fictional age, did you find it difficult to maintain the honesty and simplicity of your fiction?

Arundhati Roy: I’m a person who writes instinctively, so I’m not aware of choosing a form or a kind of language or maintaining a balance. So it’s hard for me to answer that question because I’m so delighted by the act of writing, and particularly of writing fiction, it isn’t a set of choices that I make while I write, it is how I write. So there isn’t a sense of trying to keep a balance, or losing a balance. It’s really more like concentrating and seeing what happens.

The JRB: How do you balance that almost instinctual writing with your preoccupation with form, and structure, and those types of things—more rigid things?

Arundhati Roy: The thing is that in both The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness there’s a process that happens before I start thinking about form, which I’ve often said is almost like generating smoke: when you begin to know what the material that you’re playing with is, and what it is that you’re going to mould into a form. So the earlier parts of writing are more like that, it’s like generating smoke. And then sometimes you see, for example, in The God of Small Things, I started out with the image of this pair of twins in a sky-blue Plymouth, stuck at a level crossing, with this Communist procession swirling around it, and they seemed to be there for more than a year, while I wrote, and I wasn’t sure what was I doing at that point. And then, gradually, the form of what I was doing emerged to me, that there was a thread of the book set over a single day, and then there were threads moving in other directions over several years. In The Ministry, again, the first image I wrote was of this baby that appears on the pavement, in the midst of these swirling anarchic protests of all kinds, at Jantar Mantar, and then gradually there were all kinds of other things. When I visited Kashmir the Kashmiri–English alphabet started forming in my head. It’s only once you have these things that are floating around that you start to see a structure. And for me, if I had to simplify things, I would say The God of Small Things was a building and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a city.

The JRB: It’s quite a filmic image that you seem to start with each time.

Arundhati Roy: It’s a visual image.

The JRB: With lots of motion. In that scene with the Plymouth, you can see the blue and the red as the Naxalites are driving forward. A still point in a sea of chaos. The scene with the baby is maybe less cinematic, because it’s so fragmented, all these different protests—

Arundhati Roy: But still it is, you know, it’s like the inversion of the nativity as we are told it. A little black girl in a sea of garbage with weird animals, instead of a boy in a manger with parents. And it’s beautiful.

The JRB: You studied architecture, then you started your career in film, more or less. I was listening to your Sebald Lecture, when you said that ‘language is that most private and yet most public of things’. What do you think writing does that your former creative outlets do not?

Arundhati Roy: Well, architecture, if you were to practise it in the way that we are taught we ought to practise it, I would have probably ended up servicing the wealthy, you know? Making beautiful houses, beautiful monuments, or whatever. Which is fine, it’s just not something I saw myself doing. Although when I joined the school of architecture I was inspired by an architect who was called [Laurie] Baker, who built my mother’s school in Kerala, and who practised what he called ‘no-cost architecture’. Beautiful. But by the time I was in final year, I was pretty much at odds with my professors. In fifth year we were supposed to submit an architectural thesis, which would be like a hospital or a housing colony, and I had a huge battle because I wanted to write a written thesis on postcolonial urban development in Delhi and how the city came to be what it is. So I was already very interested in the power divisions in urban planning. And some of the ideas from my thesis actually still echo in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The JRB: I was going to say, that doesn’t sound like one thesis, it sounds like a series of books.

Arundhati Roy: [laughs] Yes. And then when I started working in cinema it was first—not that I loved doing it—but it was first acting. It gave me a ringside seat into how films are made. After that I worked both as a screenplay writer and as a set designer. It was nice to design things that you dismantle and don’t leave around! It was very interesting. But after I finished acting in one film and writing two others—as a screenwriter you really pay attention to the spoken word, to listening, to writing dialogue—but I really felt that I couldn’t write ‘Exterior, day, river‘ any more. For me to write about the river that I grew up on the banks of—I just wanted to write what I called a ‘stubbornly visual but unfilmable book’. So there is that part of me that is extremely visual. I’m still obsessed with design and colour and form and things like that. But somehow to evoke that in words seems to be something that I love doing. Because, think about it, if you film a river, you can’t really imagine the fish in it and what’s going on under the water. There’s something deeper, always, in books. It’s necessary to evoke the smells, the visual, the feeling, the texture, but also underneath that the politics, the rage, the love, the music, the poetry.

The JRB: So if language is the most private and public form, it’s perfectly matched to what you wanted to do, which was to write very aesthetic books that also contained all this politics and power within them?

Arundhati Roy: Every time I’ve finished writing something it makes the blood in my veins flow easier, because you have expressed something the way you want to.

The JRB: Turning to the book itself, one interesting thing about your character Anjum is that being a hijra, a trans person, is not what destroys her—it is her Muslim identity that almost does so. But she is able to find happiness despite not fitting into an identity set out by society. And I think a lot of the characters in the book are in that space.

Arundhati Roy: Truly, I had nothing so simple in mind when I was writing The Ministry. It’s not that hijras don’t have problems, they do, they are marginalised, there is violence. They are also accepted in some ways. What few people perhaps realise about India is that although it is presented as a society that is anarchic—and Bollywood and yoga and Gandhi and The Beatles—it’s actually a very rigid society that lives in an iron grid of caste, of ethnicity, of religion, and any transgressions, even today, are met with extreme violence. Beheading, killing, even in Delhi. Whether it’s inter-caste, whether it’s Muslim–Hindu, whatever. Then if you’re actually, as I am, a person who’s among the very few who are outside of that grid—my mother was a Syrian Christian, it’s not that I came from an oppressed caste or that I was among the poorest of the poor, but I was just outside it—you don’t really have a community at all. When you’re like that you tend to meet others who are outside of the grid in some way or other. But this story, when I was writing it I didn’t think about all this. It’s only after, when you have some distance from it, that you find intelligent ways of speaking about it. But I realised that all of the characters have these incendiary borders running through them, and therefore when you look at their stories it shines a light on that grid. When you look at hijras, for instance: homosexuality is criminalised in India, whereas there is also now a legal provision for what they call a third gender. But it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of how society functions. That has an older rhythm to it. For instance, the conversations between Anjum and Saeeda will tell you how an older, feudal society is turning into this more Westernised, rights-based society, and what the differences between them are.

The JRB: Have you had any response from the trans community to the book?

Arundhati Roy: Yes, but to me it’s really important not to just say ‘Anjum is a hijra’. Because she’s a Shia, she’s born at a particular time, she’s a particular kind of hijra in the Khwabgah, where there are many. So to me she’s a person in the book—as Garson Hobart is or as Tilo is or as Musa is. It’s a book about a universe in which to exclude someone like Anjum would be violent. Eventually she creates the Jannat Guest House, she creates a universe and in some ways she presides over it. And it’s not only a universe of hijras or trans people or Shias. She creates a very revolutionary space, which is not, again, meant to be such, it just happens to become that.

The JRB: Her exceptionalism is not the fact that she’s a hijra.

Arundhati Roy: She’s just an incredible person.

The JRB: You’ve said that the character of Tilottama was, to you, the sibling of the twins Rahel and Estha in The God of Small Things. Were you tempted to bring any characters from your first novel back?

Arundhati Roy: Well I think that Esthappen and Rahel would definitely have rooms in the Jannat Guest House. Definitely. And with Maryam Ipe’s notes from her hospital bed, if you look at those long enough, you’ll see The God of Small Things is there.

The JRB: Definitely, you can feel it. Sometimes down to the phrasing.

Arundhati Roy: Tilottama is the child of Ammu and Velutha, in my head. And her being in the country of her own skin signals that, she lives in a way in which she’s excluded, but she’s not oppressed because she’s just floating in a space where no one really knows what to do with her. And yet Garson Hobart and Naga are unnerved by her. In a way they love her and yet they are nervous of her. So it was interesting when we were working on translating the book, I was sitting with the Urdu and Hindi translators, and we always had trouble in the descriptions of Tilottama because she doesn’t match the women in that literary tradition. She’s not there in Bollywood, she’s not there in Alternate Bollywood, she’s not there in literature. She’s not there.

The JRB: I’m interested that unlike The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which had a worldwide release, The God of Small Things had an unusual debut in India, publishing-wise.

Arundhati Roy: Penguin was in India before I published The God of Small Things, it was a very small outfit. I didn’t give my book to them because of my obsession with design, I just couldn’t bear the way they printed, so friends of mine actually published the book. They set up a little publishing house and they published The God of Small Things in India. It was already sold all over the world. I just thought, after all these years of writing, to have an orange cover with crooked text, I can’t do that.

The JRB: So did you have input on the cover design for The God of Small Things?

Arundhati Roy: Yes, yes, always, in fact from the beginning, even when I went to the UK, I didn’t even know much about the publishing world and they would ask me, ‘What would you like?’ And I was supposed to say ‘I want a seventy-five city tour’, or something. I said: Complete design control. No tigers, no saris.

The JRB: We have acacia trees on book covers in Africa. The curse of the acacia tree. So that lily on the cover of The God of Small Things is your lily?

Arundhati Roy: Yes, in fact a friend of mine took that picture, and I worked with the designer, who also designed the Ministry cover.

The JRB: This question is semi-frivolous but it’s actually very serious. Anjum trusts no one with her vegetable shopping. What is it about vegetable shopping? I’m also very particular about it. Are you similarly fastidious about your vegetable shopping?

Arundhati Roy: I’m fastidious about almost everything, just for the sake of it. [laughs] But in Old Delhi, people are obsessed with food, I mean obsessed. Sadly, not vegetables. [laughs]

The JRB: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is being translated into forty-six languages, as far as I read—

Arundhati Roy: Forty-nine now.

The JRB: —and you speak about the book as an attempt to create a ‘companionship of languages’. When Anjum is born, her mother wonders if it is possible to live ‘outside language’. Which do you think is a more viable possibility?

Arundhati Roy: You can’t exist outside of language. You can’t exist outside of language, except maybe as an individual in the wilderness somewhere, and even then you’ll speak to the birds or the burrowers in the sand. But that’s the thing, for me it’s so important to think about things as—when Anjum is born, her mother is present at her birth, her mother has to deal with the child she has created, and her mother has to go through all she went through and then embrace Anjum. And the relationship between Jahanara Begum and Anjum is so sweet, you know, compared to what everybody would like to think. In Old Delhi many people who live in those areas where Anjum eventually ends up—it’s so important not to simplify their identities. I once met an old hijra who was living outside the Dargah of Sarmad, the shrine, and she was reading an Urdu newspaper, an old lady, so I sat down and I was talking to her and she was getting very furious about Palestine, so I said, I’ll bring you something tomorrow. And I had this little map, on a postcard, of the Israeli settlements from 1948 to now. So I gave it to her, and she stuck it up on this wall, and she was giving people lessons. [laughs] So the integration into society and the care about other things, other oppressions, other battles, to me that was so beautiful, you know, and is. The solidarities, as opposed to the isolation.

The JRB: You come up with the most wonderful phrases, some of which are extremely, pointedly, disparaging. One of my favourites is ‘the Parakeet Reich’. What’s the reaction in India when you come up with and publish a phrase like ‘the Parakeet Reich’? That is pretty inflammatory stuff, I would imagine, intentionally so.

Arundhati Roy: The ‘Parakeet Reich’ is something that I made up, but last week there were thousands and thousands of ‘pilgrims’, who were actually young men who were completely stoned, given saffron robes, and they were on a sort of political mobilisation, supposedly bringing water from the Ganga and walking to their homes or something, but there were mobs on the streets of Delhi. Then they started—normally it’s what they call ‘cow lynching’—but they started lynching cars, turning them over, they had baseball bats, smashing them up, and it was really like this cloud of saffron parakeets had descended on the streets of Delhi. One of the things about what is going on now is that it’s not that I am saying that these guys are fascists, they are saying they are fascists. They are people who adore Hitler, who have Hitler on the covers of textbooks, who have said ‘we have lessons to learn from Germany’. They are not in the least bit offended by me saying that.

The JRB: It makes me wonder if ‘History with a capital H’ is now moving East to West, rather than West to East. For a while ‘History with a capital H’ seemed to be going the other way—the centre of events was in the West, and moving East—and now what’s happened in India has presaged so much of what’s come to fruition, what’s happening in the West now. It’s almost as though history is changing direction.

Arundhati Roy: I mean this organisation the RSS [The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], to which [Narendra] Modi and all these people belong, was started in 1925. [BS] Moonje, one of the main ideologues, had visited Mussolini and then wanted to start these kind of Brownshirt type of camps. So the alt-right and organisations like that are very much in touch with the Hindu organisations. The RSS has penetrated universities in the US. It’s not like there are passport controls going on with this.

The JRB: As you pointed out earlier, South Africa has some catching up to do when it comes to fascism.

Arundhati Roy: On this trip, I have spoken to so many young people and journalists, and there is a lot of rage among Black and Coloured people. This morning I was watching SABC, and they were continuously playing stories and footage of the Marikana Massacre, the anniversary is today, and I was talking to a friend in India, saying—It’s amazing, we have a Marikana Massacre every few months, no TV channel would show it. But the privatised TV channels in India, many of them are owned by mining companies. A few months ago [in May] thirteen people were shot in Tamil Nadu protesting against a mining company called Vedanta—a company that sponsored the Jaipur Literature Festival, where people will go and speak about free speech and so on.

The JRB: We do have a lot of protests that go unnoticed and uncovered, if they happen in places that aren’t city centres, they’re known as ‘service delivery protests’. You once said that sometimes violent protest is the only option for disenfranchised people …

Arundhati Roy: Well, that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was I’ve always maintained that it depends on the landscape in which you’re protesting. So I wrote a little booklet, or a long essay, whichever way you want to look at it, called ‘Walking With the Comrades’, where I went and spent many weeks inside the forest with the guerrillas who call themselves Maoists. They’re fighting the takeover of indigenous lands by mining companies. Now, the TV studios and the Indian liberals and all of them will say that this is unacceptable, that they’ve taken up arms against the state, they should be wiped out. But what is actually happening there is that, first of all, half the armed guerrillas are women, and the government—which has already signed MoUs [Memorandums of Understanding] with mining companies—first they armed a kind of vigilante group of indigenous people called the Salwa Judum [Purification Hunt] and they and the paramilitary swept through the forests—you know, villages four, five days’ walk from the road—burning, killing, raping women. So I said, now what form of nonviolent protest are they supposed to adopt, you know? They are not Gandhi. Can they go on a hunger strike? Anyway they are starving. Nonviolent protest requires an audience. It’s theatre that requires an audience—a sympathetic audience. They don’t have an audience. You can’t decide for them what the right mode of protest is meant to be. So I’ve always said there has to be a diversity of protest and people will decide what that is. The people who are oppressing them can’t decide in what ways they would like to be resisted.

The JRB: I think that echoes very strongly with South Africa. And what you said about a sympathetic audience is also interesting, because during the recent Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa you saw public opinion swing from one side to the other so quickly, led mainly by images in the media. And the public also had strong opinions on how the students should and shouldn’t be protesting.

Arundhati Roy: In India it’s the same now, the privatisation of education is going to be denying education to vast sections of underprivileged people who had just about got a toe-hold into the system. The privatisation of water, electricity, railways, everything, is happening.

The JRB: Reading about Indian journalists like Gauri Lankesh, who was killed last year, or Rana Ayyub, who wrote Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, I was wondering if you ever feel in danger because of your journalistic or non-fiction work.

Arundhati Roy: Everybody has to be alert to the situation but we can’t get paranoid. A person I know who was shot at yesterday is another link in this chain, and people are openly putting out hit-lists and so on. And in the coming months—because in May we have elections—everyone is waiting to find out what form of fireball is going to fall from the sky. Because that is the way BJP [the Bharatiya Janata Party] wins elections—by creating conflict, by distracting people. The economy from the outside may not look so bad, but from the inside it’s just terrible, joblessness and small businesses collapsing and all that. So to distract from that the only option they have is to create communal conflagration, assassinations, whatever. But so many people are in danger, you know, and I sort of slightly shy away from this means of getting brownie points by saying, oh my life is in danger, I’m so brave, and all of that. [laughs] Many people are in that situation but I don’t feel that I am, particularly.

The JRB: Modi was just in South Africa for the BRICS Summit. So, South Africa is the smallest little part of BRICS—

Arundhati Roy: —But you make it plural, at least!

The JRB: —quite! So there was that picture of all the five leaders, very surreal to see the president of Russia standing on stage, but all of them, very surreal to see Narendra Modi as well. What do you think about BRICS? Does BRICS make an impact in India?

Arundhati Roy: For some, but mostly everybody knows that the real alignment economically, militarily and otherwise is America-Israel-India. That is the alignment.

The JRB: So people aren’t under any illusions there?

Arundhati Roy: No, I don’t think so. Recently there has been a huge unfolding scandal about the purchase of fighter jets from France. So India basically buys itself on to the world stage by being the largest buyer of weapons and fighter planes and so on, so everybody’s seducing India and India is buying all these weapons at a huge cost. And of course that too has been privatised, which was a scandal in India, that it was taken away from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and given to a private corporation that has never built an aircraft in its life, and at four times the cost.

The JRB: We had our arms deal at the beginning of democracy, and that scorched us very badly.

Arundhati Roy: So here it’s a huge one. But because of various things like demonetisation, which depleted the reserves of cash of all political parties except the BJP—so now it’s the richest political party in the world, I believe, I mean, I’m not sure about that but it’s certainly [trails off]. In demonetisation, overnight eighty per cent of the currency was made illegal tender. It was like taking a cricket bat and breaking the spine of every citizen and saying, ‘Are they going to accept it?’ And they did. And a lot of the rage is then diverted by saying, ‘You have to pay a price for a Hindu nation, and, the Hindu nation is coming.’ Now that’s the new thing, just before the elections, you know: ‘Some of the decisions we have to make are hard, but after three hundred years we will have Hindu nation.’

The JRB: It was the election of Modi that was the incentive for you to finish The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Arundhati Roy: Yes, I thought about putting that down in the acknowledgements. [laughs] No, it was not a surprise, yet there was a sense of defeat. And I didn’t feel that I had anything more directly to say.

The JRB: You describe your essays as ‘urgent’ responses to things that are going on. Did you feel that fiction was a more viable way of tackling this moment?

Arundhati Roy: No, I have no utilitarian impulses when it comes to fiction. There’s nothing about ‘viable’, or ‘tackling’, or anything like that.

The JRB: Reading the book, it almost has more of an impact than an essay.

Arundhati Roy: Yes, but … recently someone said to me, ‘After I read The God of Small Things I thought this writer will never be able to write anything again, because she’s put everything in this book.’ So I said, you have to write like a suicide bomber [laughs], you have to detonate, you can’t save little bits for later. And then you have to re-live a life. For me The Ministry is really an understanding of life, from so many years of travelling and living. It is trying to construct a universe. And of course that universe is informed by who I am and how I think.

The JRB: Do you find that there’s overlap between your fiction readers and your non-fiction readers?

Arundhati Roy: It’s interesting that when The God of Small Things came out initially, in India it was only in English, but when I wrote the political essays they were immediately translated into so many languages and pamphlets and all of that. In the world, I think initially they were separate and then slowly each began to lead to the other. We were having this conversation yesterday, about why it would be that thousands of people show up at a reading of a book of fiction, in the US, or all over Europe, and the publishers are a bit taken aback. I think it’s because of the combination of both things.

The JRB: Do you find that the politics of your non-fiction readers and your fiction readers are aligned?

Arundhati Roy: I don’t think the readers of the non-fiction are all perfectly aligned, you know, because I’m not perfectly aligned. For instance when I was writing about big dams you would have the formal Communist Party pretty outraged, because they did believe in huge infrastructure projects. ‘The commanding heights’, and all that. When I wrote the God of Small Things the Party was outraged, whereas on many other things they completely agree with me. No one is aligned. If you write about the Maoists, then the mainstream parliamentary left is outraged, they say, ‘Oh these are anarchists’, you know, the usual insults that Communists have for each other. For me, together, the fiction, the non-fiction, The Ministry, they are eventually a worldview in which I don’t see contradictions. Although formally people might.

The JRB: There’s a current trend for counterfactual fiction. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not counterfactual but there’s a sense of alternativeness about it, more so than in The God of Small Things, that seems to feel important.

Arundhati Roy: Sometimes people say to me, you know, you’ve written about all these things, and yet the dam has been built, the fascists came to power, and so on, and I say, whatever it is, I’ll go down, but I won’t be on your side, you know? To me, the joy comes from being on this side. I think people should be longing to be in the Jannat Guest House any day compared to some fucking five-star hotel. In my head sometimes I divide the world up into people who Anjum will allow in and whom she would kick out. If that suggestion of an alternative doesn’t contain beauty, if it doesn’t contain joy, if it doesn’t contain wild humour and sex and desire and battles and tragedies and sweetness, then what is it?

The JRB: My next question seems so boring after that answer [Roy laughs] but I wanted to ask about the essay you wrote, ‘The Greater Common Good’, which focuses on people being displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam being built in the Narmada Valley. You got in trouble for saying that for the government to give an indigenous person cash compensation for their land is like paying a supreme court judge’s salary in bags of fertiliser. In South Africa we have our own ‘land question’, which is slightly different in that people are demanding land expropriation from white farmers without compensation. Do you have any thoughts on the symbolic value of land?

Arundhati Roy: It’s slightly different but not all that different. I remember here people say, ‘When you came you had the Bible and we had the land, and now you have the land and we have the Bible.’ In India the thing is now if you look at Sardar Sarovar, the dam … first of all, in the caste system, the Dalits did not have the land, right? Indigenous people had the land, but they were outside of the Hindu caste system, and they had been pushed into the forests. So that was one thing. The upper castes had the land. They were the most powerful. And now the indigenous peoples’ lands are very valuable, because of the minerals that have been discovered and so on. So after Independence, there was something called ‘land ceiling’. Zamindars, the word for the huge landowners, would own thousands of acres of land. Then there was supposedly ‘land ceiling’, were you’re only allowed to own a certain amount of land and then the rest was redistributed. It was mostly symbolic, except in places like Kashmir where it sort of happened, and in Kerala, but in most other places in didn’t really happen. In the late sixties, you had the Naxalite movement, where you actually had people demanding redistribution of land. Of course that movement was destroyed, squashed, militarily. From the sixties to now, even the radical imagination has been shrunk to, ‘Please allow the indigenous people to hold on to what little land they have instead of giving it over to corporations.’ So the initial agreement was what was called ‘land for land’, so if you are displaced from here you will be given land there, that was when they started distributing this cash compensation, only to a few people. But say the Dalits, they don’t qualify as affected, because they don’t have any land. So we have been reduced to where the land acquisition law has been changed, and now whatever little land redistribution happened has somehow been reversed by these corporate infrastructure projects, where land is being forcibly taken from people. So gains that were made earlier have been reversed. And you do have the equivalent of what is happening in South Africa, but very small. The Dalits are saying, ‘give us land’. But that’s a very small part of what’s happening. But mostly, for me, the most profound understanding of all politics has come from understanding the anti-dam struggle. Because it’s like, take all the water of this mighty river, put it in a reservoir, and then you will decide who you will give it to. Take all the land and put it into special economic zones so the corporates own huge swathes of it, and you have millions of displaced people, millions. But they are not even thought about because it’s all within the borders of the nation state. So the internal displacement is massive.


The JRB: It strikes me that the fate of the world and the fate of fiction are somehow intertwined. One of the morals of the story of The God of Small Things is that it’s impossible to be prepared even as you know that a) anything can happen and so b) it’s best to be prepared. But you can’t be. How do you live in a world where anything can happen, where, for example, fiction is under threat?

Arundhati Roy: I actually find it more difficult to live in an ordered world, where you know what is going to happen. It scares me. I was talking to someone about artificial intelligence recently, and how it can write masterpieces and do translations and diagnose your eye trouble and whatever, but what can it do about a human soul’s yearning to create art? Whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s a masterpiece, whether it’s sold, whether it’s not sold, it’s not the point. That desire to write a sentence, to make something beautiful, is separate from what happens to it in the world. So how can fiction ever be under threat, for me? I mean, it can be under threat in terms of how it’s sold or awarded or rewarded, but that doesn’t matter to me. I wrote The God of Small Things thinking seven people will read it. When it came to The Ministry, again I thought, let me write this really difficult book. I can play into the ‘magnum bestseller’ moment, or I can say, okay now I don’t need to be a superstar, let me try and write experimentally again, let me try and make it difficult. So for me there’s nothing that necessarily connects the market to the pleasure of writing. I mean, publishers were offering me millions to sign a contract. But could I have written The Ministry with a contract riding on my head? No. I couldn’t have taken this risk, I couldn’t have thought these thoughts, I would have had a kind of boss. The pleasure of being able to take this risk, to play in this way, that yearning to know Anjum and Tilo, is separate from the future of fiction. We can’t always think as policy makers. It’s okay. I’ll always write what I write. 

Author image: Victor Dlamini/Composite: The JRB

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