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Arundhati Roy on Returning to Fiction, Redefining Happiness & Writing About Worlds Ripped Apart

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Today we spend the hour with the acclaimed Indian writer Arundhati Roy. It has been 20 years since her debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” made her a literary sensation. While the book won the Booker Prize and became an international best-seller, selling over 6 million copies, Roy soon turned away from fiction. Now, two decades later, Roy has returned to fiction and has just published her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today we spend the hour with the acclaimed Indian writer Arundhati Roy. It’s been 20 years since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, made her a literary sensation. When the book won the Booker Prizer and became an international best-seller, selling over 6 million copies, Roy soon turned away from fiction. She became a leading critic of U.S. empire, the wars in the Middle East and the rise of Hindu nationalism in her home country of India. Her nonfiction books include The End of Imagination, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers and Capitalism: A Ghost Story. In 2010, she faced possible arrest on sedition charges after publicly advocating for Kashmiri independence and challenging India’s claim that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

AMY GOODMAN: Two years ago, Arundhati Roy made headlines when she visited NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Russia. She was joined by Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and the actor John Cusack. She co-authored a book with John Cusack based on their conversations with Snowden, titled Things That Can and Cannot Be Said.

Well, now, 20 years after the publication of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has returned to fiction and has just published her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The Washington Post has praised her novel, writing, quote, “This is a remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains. … [It] will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion,” they wrote. The Indian literary critic Nilanjana Roy has hailed the novel as, quote, “an elegy for a bulldozed world.”

Arundhati Roy joins us in our studio for the hour.

Arundhati, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you. Thank you, Amy. It’s lovely to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be back to fiction? You’ve been writing now for years this book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Talk about how you feel upon its publication.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, fiction was always, in reality as well as in my imagination, my real home. But this time it’s home with the roof blown off. You know, so, somehow, it’s always been the thing that absorbs every part of me—fiction. You know, every skill I may have is actually part of writing this. So, to me, I just feel that, you know, even if in a lifetime you had two opportunities to spend many years lavishing everything—all your brains and your toenails and your hair and your teeth and your gallbladder—on creating one thing, you know, it’s a grace that you should be happy for. Whatever the product is, you know, whatever comes out of it, is such a beautiful thing to have had the opportunity to do, for me.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve called fiction writing the closest thing you know to prayer.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Because of this. You know? Because, to me, the idea of being able to concentrate on trying to—you see, the nonfiction that I’ve been writing, you know, these are all essays that I—I mean, were urgent interventions in situations that were closing down in India. Each time I wrote an essay, I would—you know, it would lead to so much trouble, I’d promise myself not to write another one. But I would. But they were arguments. You know, they were urgent. They were—they had a definite purpose, a worldly important purpose. But when you—when I write fiction, it’s, to me, the opposite of an argument. It’s like creating a universe. You know, it’s like doing everything you can to create a world in which you want people to wander, you know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, tell us about the title of the book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and also the dedication. It’s dedicated to “The Unconsoled.” Who are “The Unconsoled”?

ARUNDHATI ROY: All of us, in secret, even if we don’t show it. Some of us do, and some of us don’t. But I think the world is unconsoled right now. And the title is not—you know, though many think it’s a satirical title, it’s not a satirical title, because it’s a title that—for me, you know, I think, fundamentally, as a species right now, we need to redefine what is being defined for us as the path to happiness or to progress or to civilization. You know? And in this book, it is a specific story and people who understand that it’s a fragile thing. Happiness is not a building or an institution that is there forever. It’s fragile. And you enjoy it when you can, and you may find it in the most unexpected places.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also said in a 2011 interview, when you were asked about the writing of this book, you said, “I’ll have to find a language to tell the story I want to tell. By language I don’t mean English, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, of course. I mean something else. A way of binding together worlds that have been ripped apart.” What did you mean by that?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Sounds quite clear, doesn’t it? Well, really, I’ll—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what worlds have been ripped apart that you bring together?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, well, the worlds that have been ripped apart in—I mean, in the world, as in including here, but in the subcontinent, where I live, it’s as though people have ceased to be able to speak to each other. Again, I don’t mean in real languages, of Hindi, Urdu or Malayalam, but it’s as though people who live in cities, they don’t even know how to go into a village anymore. You know, they don’t even understand what it means to live on the land anymore. People who live there don’t know what to do when they come into the other modern world. I mean, India has always lived in several centuries simultaneously, but it’s just becoming almost psychotic now. And also, I mean, in real terms, we live in several languages, in real languages. Here I do mean Urdu and Hindu and English, and all of that together.

And all the—and fundamentally, I think what I mean is that there is a danger of fiction becoming domesticated, you know, of too much of a product that has to be quickly described, catalogued, put on a particular shelf, and everybody has to know what is the theme. And, to me, I wanted to blow that open. You know, what is the theme? The theme is the air we breathe. The theme is the politics that affects our lives. It’s not just news headlines. You know, what happens in Kashmir or what happens with people who have been displaced or what happens in intimate spaces, all of it can only be presented as part of a universe in fiction, because you can’t do it otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about some of the places and the people. This takes place in Kashmir. It takes place in Old Delhi. It takes place in a graveyard. And among the featured people are a trans community. And we’d like you to start there when we come back, reading from your book. Arundhati Roy is with us for the hour. Her new novel is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. We’ll be back with her in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Rekha Bhardwaj sings verses from the 13th century Sufi poet Amir Khusro. Part of the verse appears in Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

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Arundhati Roy Reads from Her Acclaimed New Novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

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