It's About 'The Air We Breathe In India': Arundhati Roy On Her Novel

  • 9:06
  • Published On: June 20, 2017
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Arundhati Roy's first novel since her famed debut 20 years ago with Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things. In an interview with NDTV at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Ms Roy noted the two decade gap between her two books was not intentional but she did not want to feel forced to write. "Fiction visited me again, the characters in the book showed up at my doorstep and just would not go away," she said. The book, set mainly in old Delhi and Kashmir, focuses mainly on two central characters - Anjum, a Muslim transgender and Tilo, a fiercely independent woman who challenges long held social and political norms. But in many ways it is a messy and monumental take on modern India, interspersing the narrative with references to Hindu nationalism, Kashmir separatism and caste politics, "I do not look at these as issues, it is the air we breathe in India. What is happening in Kashmir, to caste, what is going on politically is the air we breathe," Ms Roy tells NDTV.

Here's the transcript of the interview:

NDTV: Her name is synonymous with bringing Indian literature on the global scene, but 20 years later, two decades later, Arundhati Roy has not stopped making her mark. Her latest book is now an international bestseller, both in the UK as well as fast rising on the charts here, and part of the New York Times must read 10 list. Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to have you on NDTV and just minutes before this very important book launch and signing that you are going to do here at The Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Arundhati, first just tell me, 20 years in the making; you have not been silent; you have written extensively about activism in that interim, but what was necessary to bring all these forces into this culmination, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, now in 2017?

Arundhati Roy: Well there isn't any inflection, there isn't any real set of practical goals or anything like that you know. So I suppose things just get layered in me in all these years of living and working and writing and fiction visited me again. And it isn't something, I have always said that I wasn't just going to write a book because I had written a successful book or I never felt it was my duty to keep writing. I write only when I had a book to write and characters in the book just showed up at my place and wouldn't go away.

NDTV: I want to talk about these characters in the book and precisely about two main ones. Anjum, who is a transgender and doesn't like to be described in the modern term, as is known as being a Hijra; as well as Tilottama, who is a very strong person, who is almost boundary-less; casteless in many respects, has a voice of her own. And then it intersperses that with a lot of issues from what we are witnessing in terms of nationalism movement to Kashmir separatism to Gujarat riots, even to politicians to political movements, what happened as you described Manmohan Singh as being sort of the rabbit, the puppet who was controlled and you described Anna Hazare as well. So various people have taken up a form. How important is the politics and how important are these people who are living on those boundaries of those politics?

Arundhati Roy: You know I don't, even when I was writing non-fiction essays, I don't look at things as issues. I know that's how people look at it, but I don't. I just look at it as a way of deepening, a way of looking at the world and these are things that are in the air that we breathe. It's not that you bring in these issues under some sort of heading for the evening news, it's the air that we breathe in India: what's happening in Kashmir; what's happening with castes; what's going on politically. It's not a current affairs book but it is about the air we breathe and the things that move people and the things that affect people. In order to actually write a quiet little book about an intimate life, you have to actually ignore these things that are impeding us. And I felt that novels are getting domesticated, that you have to have a subject heading. Actually, how do you write a book about the air or how do you write a book that isn't just about a few characters in the background, a political, you know, curtain, but how do you break out of that? It was an experiment.

NDTV: Do you know even when you even talk about these people who live in the shadows, there very essence seems to be one of optimism of being warriors or fighters or leading the best lives that they do lead. But you talk about very difficult subjects and one of them, in which you make references also, is some kind of notion of being a Hindu version of Pakistan. You have given both opinions their platform, because you have spoken to people who have felt marginalised on both sides of the platform. But these are messy and monumental issues. If there is a message that you want to give out and you've always said that you write with a message, you write to be vocal and to be heard, not to subdue opinion, what would you like to leave in essence?

Arundhati Roy: I write the essays because I always need to intervene sometimes when the situation is closing down. But certainly never when I write fiction, do I have some very simple message. I wouldn't take 10 years to write a book if I could tell you in three minutes what the message was. And actually you refer to real people, the thing is fiction is always rooted and nourished in reality, but you know they are not real people in that sense of the word. If you look at a situation, for example, a large part of the book is set in Kashmir, and I have been travelling there a lot and I know that you can't just tell the story of Kashmir in any real way. It's just in reportage, in human rights reports or how many people were killed, or how many people were tortured, or how many militants killed. You can't do that because ultimately you are talking about a society that has been administered by a military, more or less for years and years. What does it do to normal life there and you look at it from different points of view, and that's what a novel does. So it isn't simple, it isn't a news item or news report, it's something more and it's not just about news. Why are there 2,000 people gathered here, because it's talking about everybody, about the world and not just about current affairs.

NDTV: And that's interesting, because in many ways, though this is huge, almost an inside into the modern India that we live in, which is messy and monumental and there are no clear answers, it's also a reflection of how we are vis-a-vis the rest of the world. And the world seems to be having its own turmoil and mess as well. Do you feel that everyone relates to that - that we are essentially living in a world which is being changed by political movements, by agendas, by people's own desires to use platforms selfishly. But in the end, you leave with some kind of positive message?

Arundhati Roy: I think people are here for the literature, which is a profound thing, so we can't keep making it about issues and current affairs. So literature is a monumental thing, a beautiful thing and a complicated thing and if it weren't somebody sitting and writing in India would not be reading to 2,000 people in The Brooklyn Academy Of Music.

NDTV: Absolutely not, but I'm going to leave with just a final word because I know you are being called and you have to address 2,000 people and a talk will be upcoming along with lots of book signings, but it's an exhausting tour. Can you just tell us a little bit about the reception? I have seen headlines from various places saying that this is going to be a masterpiece and if there wasn't an Arundhati Roy, then the world would have to invent one.

Arundhati Roy: Well, I'm really enjoying this even though it’s hectic. I am in a different city everyday but it's such a pleasure to meet readers without the gatekeepers and it's a thrill and I'm loving it.

NDTV: Thank you so much and wish you all the very best.

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