Most middle-class Indians hate Arundhati Roy—or, rather, they hate the political activist she has apparently become. She was palatable as a novelist; in fact, Roy was widely celebrated back in 1997, when her debut novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker Prize. But now her stock has fallen.
The first sign of trouble was “The End of Imagination,” a 1998 polemic she wrote after India tested a nuclear bomb. Roy denounced our country at the moment of its great scientific achievement—and just when we were close to war with Pakistan! Did she not see how dangerous those Muslim ideologues in Karachi were? Could she not understand the importance of national security? The next year, Roy wrote another searing polemic, this one about the Sardar Sarovar Dam. OK, the dam was a scandal—it would destroy thousands of lives—but did she have to tell us urban people about it? I mean, we have our own problems. (Why can’t she analyze the traffic in Delhi?)
Roy then defended Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim who supposedly masterminded the 2001 attack on Parliament. She did reveal that there was no evidence against him, but, again, surely this is a small matter when the “collective conscience of society” is at stake. Later—and this was the final straw—she visited the Maoists in Chhattisgarh and did not denounce them.
Middle-class Indians will say such things about Arundhati Roy—in public, on television, through WhatsApp. But they always include, by way of qualification, their abiding love for The God of Small Things. This is the worst sort of bourgeois philistinism, for a decent reader would recognize that her fiction and nonfiction are animated by the same fierce love of justice—and make the same demands on readers. They’ll have to find a new rhetorical technique to express their admiration for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s much-awaited second novel, which was published in June. It’s a sprawling story about people on the fringes of modern India, and, as such, does not accommodate itself to pieties about “language” or “feeling.” Impressively, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is entirely unlike The God of Small Things in its structure, style, texture, and ambitions.
I discussed this formal departure, among other things, with Roy over the phone recently. She was disarmingly kind (as kind, really, as her prose is merciless). Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a formal departure for you. Your previous novel, The God of Small Things, was essentially about a family. By contrast, Ministry is a sprawling political novel: It addresses impunity, caste, institutional violence, the rise of Hindutva, the troubles in Kashmir. You allude to this through a funny in-joke: In “The Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children,” which your protagonist Tilo is composing, she confesses that she “would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which, even though nothing much happens, there’s a lot to write about.” But then she admits that this “can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” What are the challenges of dealing with this sort of subject matter?