Arundhati Roy: ‘Always try to negotiate freedom. The royalties are peripheral’
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“The radical act is utmost happiness,” says Arundhati Roy. “Utmost sadness, we all know about. But the real victory is, can you come out of that with an understanding of how to be, at least occasionally, happy? To me that’s very important, extremely so.”
The subject has been on the 56-year-old writer’s mind a lot this year. In June she published The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the long-awaited follow-up novel to her Booker Prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things. When I arrive at her home, set back among septuagenarian trees in a prosperous neighbourhood in Delhi, she has just returned from touring a turbulent Europe.
“I was in Germany during the elections, I was in Gothenburg in Sweden during the biggest Nazi march, I was in Barcelona during the [independence] referendum,” she says. “It was amazing, you could talk about all of it through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If you’re travelling in Europe and talking about the rise of the right, or about the craziness caused by neo-liberalism, it’s easy — everybody knows what you’re talking about at once.”
Making tea in the open dining room, where a large poster features a menacing policeman with his truncheon raised under the mocking slogan “Sedition Protects Democracy”, Roy characterises The Ministry as “a book about the air [in India], and the air is filled with nerve endings, filled with Kashmir and caste and violence”. Deeply and insistently political, it has, like everything Roy has done since she burst on to the scene 20 years ago, polarised opinion.
Her 1998 Booker Prize win conferred an instant, and not entirely welcome, celebrity at a time when India was seeking symbols of global success, from sports stars to Miss World contestants to charismatic authors. Roy knows that the heat she generates today still has much to do with the phenomenal success and influence of The God of Small Things. The novel sold in the millions worldwide, and in India broke all records in its English edition sales alone. “It changed the pH balance of everything,” she says simply.
It also shaped her view of how one achieves happiness. Though she appeared to take success in her stride, she admits that “my shoulders hunched for a while”. Yet she was sure she did not want to follow the path that had been created for her by writing a huge international bestseller.
“There’s an incredible domestication that comes with fame,” she says. “There’s always that invitation to replicate something, to write The God of Small Things Two, which just bores me . . . Every instinct I had said no, walk away, walk away from that. I scavenged my freedom. Always try to negotiate freedom. The royalties are peripheral.”
Roy is disarmingly frank but also acutely self-aware. Her long, looping sentences are punctuated by laughter and warmth, and she refers to her fictional characters as though they were old, living friends, present in the same room.
Her book-lined home feels like a refuge from Delhi’s smog-choked, blaring chaos. The house has posh markets to one side and a 17th-century graveyard on the other, its dark earth sheltering peacocks and other homeless creatures. She shares the light-filled, spacious rooms with two rescue dogs — Maati Ki Lal and Begum Filthy Jaan — who offer me warm, dignified greetings.
This affinity with strays and outsiders is well documented. In the 20 years of writing non-fiction that have separated her two novels, Roy has told the stories of Indians without power, from the Kashmiris caught in an unending, brutal political struggle to the committed, fierce and joyous women who fought unsuccessfully against the building of big dams across the Narmada river.
Her first essay, “The End of Imagination”, written after the Bharatiya Janata party’s nuclear tests in 1998, was “a declaration that I’m not part of this”. That, she says, led her into many other worlds. “Which was the real reward. Writing leads you to worlds, other people’s worlds, and freedoms.”
She has followed her conscience and her curiosity ever since, into imperial America and the workings of caste, but rejects the label of writer-activist. “Does that mean that now writers are not meant to write about what’s going on in their countries, their cities, their homes? You can’t be a writer and encompass political intervention? Why? In the olden days, that’s what writers did. Why do I have to have this added profession?”
Outspokenly critical of corporations and of politicians across the spectrum, her essays have attracted plenty of praise but also aggressive criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. She faced sedition charges in 2010 and an attack on her house that year by rightwing activists. In one bizarre incident earlier this year, media in India slammed her for comments on Kashmir that she’d never made, in an interview she’d never given, spread by fake-news outlets.
Roy shrugs off the attacks: “There isn’t any such thing as absolute freedom. You live in a place, and you’re negotiating with that space all the time, with the powers, the powerless. It’s a dance.”
She also dismisses accusations that she has set herself up as a spokesperson through her activism. “Sometimes people can confuse this place I’m in with a kind of leadership. I say ‘No, I’m not speaking for anybody. I’m not your leader, I’m not your conscience.’”
At the same time, she won’t accept the idea that writers like her must live in the shadow of fear. In India, recent years have seen the murders of rationalist thinkers and writers such as the literary scholar MM Kalburgi and the Kannada-language journalist Gauri Lankesh. Acknowledging the risks — “I’m not idiotic” — she says: “We have to stop spooking ourselves all the time. All that matters is the text. It’s got to be good. And I don’t want any excuses for myself beyond that. I don’t want to protect myself from anything. Go ahead and attack. But the work has to be great, at least by my own standards.”
On the living-room wall there’s a picture taken by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, of a house that Roy described in The God of Small Things. “The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat . . . The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives.” This was the place, in Aymanam, Kerala, (the model for “Ayemenem” in the novel) where Roy spent her childhood.
She was actually born 2,000 miles north in Shillong. Her father Rajib, the manager of a tea plantation, was Bengali Hindu; her mother, Mary Roy, from the Syrian Christian community. But the marriage didn’t last, and when Mary moved with her children back to the ancestral home, the reception was chilly. According to Roy, villages in Kerala are often more prosperous than villages in North India, “a kind of continuation of the city”, but there were barriers. Mary had married out of her caste and her community, then got divorced, transgressing multiple taboos in 1960s India.
Roy remembers growing up with the knowledge that they were excluded. “The daughter of the house is not supposed to come back, regardless of anything,” she says. “It was made very clear to me, and my brother, even when we were tiny: even the people who worked in the house would say, ‘Why are you here? Why don’t you get out? This is not your house.’”
She has since seen enough of other people’s struggles to realise that what she faced as a child was far from terrible. But the experience gave her a lifelong identification with outsiders, and a deep rejection of any kind of hierarchy. “You just grew up outside the grid, watching caste being played out. Many Indian writers who write in English don’t come from rural backgrounds, and don’t see that obscenity right in front of their eyes,” she explains. “That was the thing I didn’t have the option of — not seeing.”
From her mother, she got a thirst for freedom, the feeling that “you could do whatever the hell you wanted to do”. But theirs was a conflicted relationship. Mary, a well-known educational reformer, is in Roy’s description, “wonderful, mad, creative, destructive”, all at once. She tells a story about her childhood. It is stark, savage, true — and unshareable.
“You have to survive that,” she says afterwards. “It’s not what people think mothers should be. In every book I seem to write, the mother dies. She used to always tell me, from the time I was young — ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die, leave me alone.’ My urge to get away, to stand on my own feet, started young. The one place of great security was also a place of great danger, for me.”
All writers shape the story of their own lives to some degree. Roy tends to skip the stable, more ordinary bits — the times in boarding school, or in a student hostel — recollecting instead the more elemental experiences that inspired the fictional terrain of both The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
When she was 16 she moved to Delhi to study architecture. The thing she remembers most is the brief period when she and her boyfriend stayed in a slum near Nizamuddin.
“From that childhood where you’re being told, ‘You don’t belong here’, you come into a place where many other people don’t belong anywhere. You learn to think from there about the world — not from some position of policy, advising the state on how it should be, but from the bottom.”
For her, the characters in her latest book, like Anjum, the transgender proprietor of a guest house located in a Delhi graveyard, aren’t dropouts — “just off-grid. All of them have an incendiary border running through them, of gender, of caste, of religious conversion”.
She was always a storyteller, she says — even before she wrote The God of Small Things. In the 1980s and early 1990s, while working as an architect and a production designer, or writing screenplays for cultish films, she says, “It wasn’t that I was jumping from one thing to another — these were different ways of expressing these concerns, these delights, a way of looking at the world, right?”
For those who ask why it took her so long to write another novel, the answer is here. Fact and fiction are not separate categories for Roy, but intimately connected “in their concerns, and their delight, and their jokes”, though if she had to choose: “The joy of writing a novel is unequalled, it allows me to play. And that’s very important to me.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the dogs. Something — a passing cyclist, or perhaps just an insubordinate moth — has announced a threat and must be barked into submission.
Still on the subject of happiness, Roy is talking passionately about what success means. In her view, it’s been hard for women to reject the paths that society has laid out for them. “And yet, it’s so important . . . The joy of having made all these choices and landed on your feet is important for other women, younger women too.”
In the years when she tracked the “very free and fierce women” who fuelled the movement to save the Narmada river, she met an Adivasi woman who was fasting to stop the dam. Protesting allowed that woman to claim her freedoms, too. “She was gay, and now she has a life. She’s found a space and a partner.”
For Roy, these are victories, “little islands which can and should be created”. She’s sharply aware that many women don’t have the power to shape their lives or exercise their own choices, particularly in India. But she rejects the idea that women, especially successful ones, should suffer: “It’s branded into us, women suffering. The woman who sacrifices — please. What I have I’m going to enjoy.”
When women have the power, she says, they should use it. “I think when you do make that choice, you create more and more space for other women. I chose not to have children, I chose not to have a family. Everyone doesn’t have to, but at all points in your life, to be independent, not just financially, but inside, I think it gives dignity to everyone around you.”
Over the years, she has learnt to occupy such territory more comfortably: the freedom of living alone, if “on a raft of love” from friends; the freedom from authority; owning this house (“it’s not my father’s money — there was no father, really”), and finally becoming comfortable with both fame and notoriety.
Profiles of Roy often mention her beauty, but what comes through when you spend time in her company is more distinct: she radiates a power that has its roots in radical openness, a stubborn, probably lifelong drive towards independence in all its forms.
“I’m not going to be anonymous, because other women should know you can do this,” she says. “You can be happy, you can take the f***ing space.”
Nilanjana S Roy is an FT Weekend contributor
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