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Arundhati Roy's Return To Fiction

After 20 years, Arundhati Roy has returned to fiction writing with  "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness." (Penguin Random House)
After 20 years, Arundhati Roy has returned to fiction writing with "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness." (Penguin Random House)

With guest host Anthony Brooks.

20 years after her smashing debut, novelist Arundhati Roy’s back with a shattering mosaic of modern India.

Arundhati Roy published “The God of Small Things” back in 1997, then spent much of the past two decades criticizing and writing about inequality and government corruption in India. For that, she’s faced criminal charges and prison, and at one point, was forced to flee the country for her life. Now comes a much anticipated new novel about outcasts – and India’s kaleidoscope of chaos, colors, darkness and light. This hour On Point: Arundhati Roy and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

Guest

Arundhati Roy, author of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Her previous fiction novel, “The God of Small Things,” won the Booker Prize in 1997.

From The Reading List

New York Times: Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade — “In her late 30s, Roy was perhaps India’s most famous writer. The publication of “The God of Small Things” in 1997 coincided with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. It was the beginning of an aggressively nationalist, consumerist phase, and Roy was seen as representative of Brand India. The novel, her first, appeared on the New York Times best-seller list and won the Booker Prize. It went on to sell more than six million copies.”

New Yorker: Arundhati Roy Returns To Fiction, In Fury — “Now, finally, the second novel has come out, and it is clear that her politics have been part of its gestation. ‘The God of Small Things’ was about one family, primarily in the nineteen-sixties, and though it included some terrible events, its sorrows were private, muffled, personal. By contrast, ‘The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness’ is about India, the polity, during the past half century or so, and its griefs are national. This does not mean that Roy’s powers are stretched thin, or even that their character has changed. In the new book, as in the earlier one, what is so remarkable is her combinatory genius.”

The Hindu: Writing fiction is a prayer, a song: Arundhati Roy — ” I didn’t choose to write fiction because I wanted to say something about Kashmir, but fiction chooses you. I don’t think it is that simple that I had some information to impart and therefore I wanted to write a book. Not at all. It is a way of seeing. A way of thinking, it is a prayer, it is a song.”

An Excerpt From “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

“She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut), in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, “It’s a boy.” Given the circumstances, her error was understandable.

A month into her first pregnancy Jahanara Begum and her husband decided that if their baby was a boy they would name him Aftab. Their first three children were girls. They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum’s life.

The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.

Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was. Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash. Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken. Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created. Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child. Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but allthings—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him— Hijra. Two words actually, Hijraand Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.

Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.”

Arundhati Roy’s Views On Activism And Writing

A conversation from this broadcast, lightly edited.

Host Anthony Brooks: “Much has been made as to whether you are an activist, or a novelist. What do you make of that? People have asked that question as if it has to be either or, but my sense is that for you, these roles, these avocations are tightly intertwined. Do I have that right?”

Arundhati Roy: “Well I have written a whole essay about why I’m not an activist. Because activist is a relatively new word. I don’t think writers who used to write even contentiously about the societies that they lived in and the politics that governed them, used to be called activists. But somehow I feel that when everything becomes commercialized or an industrial product, then writers are required to fulfill some other task, more entertainment than engagement. And then activists are supposed to just go on saying the same thing and so it reduces both the activist and the writer. And what writing means, and what it should mean. It is true that for 20 years after ‘The God of Small Things,’ I didn’t write fiction, I wrote non-fiction. I wrote essays that intervened in a situation in India with a great deal of urgency. But it was still writing.

Host Anthony Brooks: “I understand, and I want to talk a little bit about that. You were involved in a number of campaigns, from campaigning against a dam project, for which you were jailed; you’ve been charged with sedition for your criticism of policy toward Kashmir. I understand you’re facing a charge of contempt for articles you wrote defending a professor sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-nationalist activities. So what’s the cause you’re most concerned with these days?”

Arundhati Roy: “See, Anthony, I don’t see these things as causes or subjects, and I think that’s where it all becomes limited and reduced. When I wrote about the dam, surely there was a big resistance movement to the dams being built in the Narmada Valley, but what I was writing is what do these huge dams do? It isn’t just about one dam or one campaign.”

“It’s not that I am an espouser of causes or particular campaigns actually, it’s really a way of seeing a kind of politics that emerges from being involved in these resistance movements and writing about them. I think it would weaken the novel — any novel, not just my novel — if you just started writing about particular themes. So the fact that the book is not just about Kashmir or just about the way caste is practiced or just about how Hijra or trans people are living in traditional societies, modernizing societies — it’s about all of these things, and how do they relate to each other? And that is what creates a universe or a worldview. And so too with the political essays. They’re all connected to each other.”

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