THERE are writers who plan their novels down to a tee; who believe they are God, deciding exactly how their characters will act; there are those whose plans are looser — and who declare constant surprise at the direction and decisions their invented cast make — and then there’s Arundhati Roy.
The 55-year-old from Delhi, whose debut famously won the Man Booker Prize back in 1997, becomes so enmeshed with her characters, that, it is said, she consulted them before deciding which publisher to go with. When asked what she thought of reviews at her London launch, she said that her characters might have something to say in reply to harsh critics.
Since The God of Small Things propelled her to stardom, she’s felt no pressure to write a second book.
“Sitting down and writing a novel is not some mechanical thing, and I can’t be pressurised. I have to wait for it. It has to be everything.”
Roy has had a trying day. Delayed at Dublin airport by an exceptionally long queue at passport control, her schedule has been disrupted. Her hotel room wasn’t ready for her, and she rushed her lunch in order to talk to me, yet she’s in sparkling spirits; relaxed, and utterly attentive.
Daughter of a Hindu father and Christian mother — they divorced when she was two — Roy has always had a rebellious streak. A trained architect, who wrote screenplays for television and movies, she’s been married twice. A fitness fanatic, she once taught aerobics.
“I’ve always had excess energy. My mother used to say, ‘just run 300 times round the house, and come back.’”
Roy hasn’t been idling away the past 20 years. The moment she became famous, she turned her attention to the wrongs being perpetrated in the state of India, becoming a prominent political activist of human rights and environmental issues. She’s written reams of essays, and has been charged with sedition, but denies that she’s in any way controversial.
“It’s not that I’m controversial, it’s that I write about controversial things.”
She’s been particularly critical of the policy in Kashmir — a subject she visits in her new novel.
“It’s been horrendous,” she says. “Indian citizens are supposed to celebrate and enjoy that we have the greatest, most dense military occupation of anywhere in the world. They kill children, and blind people with pellet guns, and you’re supposed to celebrate and go, ‘oh yeah, we deserve it!’
“When you watch schoolgirls with basketballs in one hand throwing stones at soldiers you are supposed to be on the side of the soldiers. It’s impossible for me. And then they say, ‘she’s controversial!’ To me it is controversial to keep quiet and accept all that.”
It must’ve taken courage though?
“It’s more like protecting myself as a writer. If I started to keep quiet about these things that I find repulsive, like the nuclear tests, if I hadn’t said anything it would have looked as if I approved because I was so famous. It would be a disrespect to myself as a writer. I’d be almost losing that skill, or contaminating it.”
Arundhati started penning The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 10 years ago. How come it took so long?
“I wasn’t working in some hard grinding way — especially for the first few years. The characters start to visit you. Before they move in for good, they drop in now and then. It’s like mapping a city. You can’t just say, ‘well here it is, I’m going to do this research.’ There wasn’t any way in which I could hurry it or slow it down. It was its own thing.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a whopper of a book. There’s a massive cast of characters, who intersect, and carry the political action. It was an ambitious undertaking. Was there a moment when she realised it was going to work?
“It’s not that you know it’s going to work. You know you will make it work,” she says. “You never let it go until it is all right. It was the same with The God of Small Things. It was like being stuck in a car at a level crossing for a couple of years, but once the novel has got hold of you, you might go to the grave with it, but it will have its way.”
If all this sounds self-indulgent — and certainly — there are many writers who would call this kind of talk literary bunkum, it makes sense once you’ve read the novel. Fundamentally, it answers its own question. ‘How to Tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming not everybody, but everything.’ Roy doesn’t just take you into the streets of India — she allows you to enter its very fibre.
There’s a line in the novel, saying that sophisticated stories cannot be written about Kashmir. ‘There’s too much blood for good literature.’ Was that an issue?
“There’s a sense, today, that it is wrong for a writer to be political and to have a world view. We should be neutral. They say, ‘why is she a writer and an activist?’ That’s a new word. We’re being commodified.”
In order to examine India in the wake of partition, Roy charts the life of Anjum — a transgender woman, who, traumatised after seeing her friends killed in a massacre, retreats to a graveyard, where, gradually, she establishes a community.
Then there are the friends who met and bonded at university — principally Tilo, a charismatic architect who marries for security, whilst loving Musa, a freedom fighter for Kashmir. Through them, and the myriad supporting characters, we’re led to an understanding of the complexities and brutality of the time.
Yet this is far from a daunting read. Yes, it requires attention, yet it manages to be both lyrical and life-affirming thanks to the author’s empathy and understanding for the characters she has invented.
“It’s a love story. I know these people. I spend a lot of time in the old city chatting to them. Sometimes I spend all day sitting on the roadside.”
The dead are described almost as vividly as the living. Does Roy believe that souls live on? She nods.
“Especially now I’m getting older. While I was writing the book a close friend was ill with cancer. I went with her to the doctor and he said the cancer had gone to her brain. He said, ‘in three weeks time you won’t be able to understand,’ and she was cheerful, and said, ‘I am ready to go.’ We sat under a tree, and I read her the book, and now I can see her there, reading it.” She laughs.
“To me, many of the dead are still here, but so are the characters in the book. I am a little strange in that way. They comfort me; both my characters, and the departed.”
The book ends on a note of love, the characters living happily in the graveyard — now named Jannat Guest House. They’re united by an abandoned baby.
“It was an inversion of what people think of as saviour,” she says, chuckling. “This little black girl is a child of rape, yet she somehow brings them all together like a herd of elephants in the graveyard.”
Roy has no idea what’s next in her career.
“And that’s how I like it. For 10 years this book has had its arms round me, and I have had my arms around it. Now we are walking arm in arm and that is how it will be forever. I am in Jannat Guest House. I live there!”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Hamish Hamilton, €14.99; Kindle, €11.34
Published in The Irish Examiner on July 29th.
© Sue Leonard. 2017