- Arundhati Roy
author of the new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things.
Extended interview with Indian writer Arundhati Roy talking about her new novel "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness," Kashmir, Donald Trump’s upcoming meeting with Indian President Narendra Modi, and two of Roy’s biggest inspirations—Eduardo Galeano and John Berger.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And I’m Nermeen Shaikh. Welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.
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: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest for the hour, Arundhati Roy. Would you read from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Sure. I’ll read a part, which is when Anjum, who—Anjum is born.
“She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight, 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 first 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 while her bowels convulsed ... 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 all things—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, Hijra and 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.
"Her sixth reaction was to clean herself up and resolve to tell nobody for the moment. Not even her husband. Her seventh reaction was to lie down next to Aftab and rest. Like the God of the Christians did, after he had made Heaven and Earth. Except that in his case he rested after making sense of the world he had created, whereas Jahanara Begum rested after what she had created had scrambled her sense of the world."
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, reading from her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. So, introduce us to some of your characters and where and how they lived. Introduce us to the trans community that has—you’ve both created and you’ve been living with for so many years now.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, first, I do want to say that, you know, Anjum, who was Aftab, or the book in general, is—you know, she’s not a signifier. This is not a sort of social history of the trans community. I mean, she’s a character, like many other characters in the book, very unique, very much herself. And when she’s born in the walled city and grows up, and then when she—she actually moves out of her home to a place close by called Khwabgah, which in Urdu means "the House of Dreams," where she lives with a community of other people, none of whom is like herself. You know, even inside the Khwabgah, though there are many trans women, people who are—Anjum, for example, she’s a hermaphrodite, but there are others who are men, who are Muslim and don’t believe in having surgery, some who do. There are Hindus. There are Sunnis. There are Shias. So, they themselves are a very diverse community. But they look at the world and call it duniya, which means "the world" in Urdu, which is something else. But they have a history of being sort of inside and outside the community, which sort of predates the kind of Western, liberal, rights-based discourse, though, even in the story, as it modernizes, you know, there is that feudal story overlapping with the new, modern language and so on.
But actually, Anjum, though she does have this incendiary border of gender running through her—all the characters have a border, which is, for example, one of the—she moves into the graveyard, and she builds—eventually, she builds a guest house, called Jannat, which is the Paradise guest house. And one of the people who becomes a very close comrade of hers is a young man who was—who is a Dalit, who has watched Hindu mobs beat his father to death, as is happening every day now with Muslims and Dalits, because he was transporting a carcass of a dead cow, and so he’s beaten to death by people who call themselves cow protectors. And he converts to Islam, and so—and calls himself Saddam Hussein, because he’s very impressed by this video he sees of Saddam’s execution and the disdain he shows for his executioners. So Saddam has this border of caste and religious conversion—incendiary in India—running through him. The other major character is a woman called Tilottama from the south, and she is also a person of indeterminate origins as far as India is concerned. There’s Musa, who is now a Kashmiri, fighting, with the national border running through him.
So, it’s not conceptual. I mean, what happens is that India is a society of such minute divisions, such institutionalized hierarchies, where caste is a mesh that presses people down and holds them down in a grid. And so, all these stories somehow are about people who just don’t fit into that grid and who eventually create a little community, and a kind of solidarity emerges, which is a solidarity of the heart. You know, it’s not a solidarity of memorandi or academic discourse, but a solidarity which is human, which is based on unorthodox kinds of love—not even sexual love or anything, it’s just based on humanness. And yeah, so.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, what you say, you say that the characters are kind of—who don’t fit into the grid. The places, the principal places, where the novel is set are Old Delhi, the walled city, as you said, and Kashmir. So, is the focus—did you focus on these places also because they stand somehow outside the grid, they don’t fit into the grid?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, it’s not just Old Delhi and Kashmir. Actually, it starts in Old Delhi, and it spools out into the New Delhi, the modern, sprawling metropolis, supposedly the center of power of the new India, and then into Kashmir. And, actually, you know, the thing is, when you write a novel, you don’t think about it conceptually. It would be terrible to do that. So, I—you know, as I go along and have to talk about it, these concepts emerge, and it sounds as if that’s what it’s about. It’s not, though.
So, the nerve center of the book—though it’s not the start of the book, the nerve center is this place in Delhi called Jantar Mantar, where all the ragged and beautiful resistance movements, all the dreamers and idlers and nutjobs and protesters, you know, gather. It’s a wonderful place in Delhi—no longer, though. I mean, it’s being—that, too, is being policed in terrible ways. And it’s a place where I have actually spent much of—much of my time. And a baby appears in the middle of the night, and nobody knows whose baby it is. And it actually happened to me. And there were all these protest movements, all this politics, all this wisdom, all this beauty, and then the baby just—nobody just—just nobody knew what to do with her, you know?
And from there, you know, the nerves of the novel spread out, because all of it is brought together in that place. And then you follow the appearances and disappearances of these baby girls. And a team of graveyards, of course—I mean, Anjum builds the Paradise guest house on a graveyard in Delhi, whereas Kashmir, which is called Jannat, which is "paradise," by many people, is a paradise that’s covered in graveyards. You know, so, the graveyards are also—I mean, apart from the borders inside the characters, graveyards are also the borders between the living and the dead. And also there are porous borders between human beings and animals in the book. So, it’s a book of porous borders.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, you said that you actually lived with these communities, these resistance groups, in Delhi, outside your home. You live in Delhi also.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you mean, spending days there, and also your times going to Kashmir.
ARUNDHATI ROY: You know, the thing is that Delhi is a place where all these groups from all over India come, to Jantar Mantar, this place called Jantar Mantar, where, in the past, they were allowed to stay there. So, many people would be on hunger strike—the people from Bhopal, the people from the Narmada Valley resisting the dam, people who are, you know, resisting displacement for some mining project, just dreamers who are on fast for everybody and for the, you know, world peace. And a lot of these movements shelter, you know, people who are just idealists who have kind of gone over the edge but who dream of a better world in the most charming and beautiful ways. And sometimes it’s—there’s a lot of violence. The police will come and beat up people.
So, I—I mean, obviously, because I was, you know, closely involved with the anti-dam movement and—I just would just go there, and I found it a very—you know, a place—though it’s a place of resistance, it’s also a place of peace, where you think—you know, people who are just not—who just don’t agree to allow things to roll on. So, it was also a place where I felt at home and a place where I talked to a lot of people. I mean, many of them are characters in the book—pamphleteers, you know, art installations, whatever.
So—and, of course, Kashmir is—you know, the mothers of the disappeared in Kashmir are also in the book and in that place. And the baby appears actually right next to them, and so there’s this whole thing about how the mothers of the disappeared don’t know what to do with a baby that has appeared, you know? And then, one of—Tilottama is a character who actually just picks up the baby and runs, you know, because the police have come. And Anjum wants her, the baby, and that’s how kind of it gets connected. And Tilo has a long connection with Kashmir.
And the thing about Kashmir is that, yes, I’ve been going there for many years, and my dearest friends are Kashmiri, actually. And I realized long ago, when I started visiting it, that you cannot tell anything that remotely resembles the truth about Kashmir in reportage, in human rights reports, in the documentation of the dead or the torture or the atrocities, because it’s not just that. You know, what do you do when a people have lived under the most—under the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years? What does it do to the air? What does it do to the soldiers? What does it do to the army? What does it do to the collaborators? What does it do to the intelligence people? What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. You know, last year, they blinded people with pellet guns. And, crucially, what does it do to Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities as—you know, with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs? How do we—
AMY GOODMAN: For people—
ARUNDHATI ROY: How do—
AMY GOODMAN: For people who aren’t familiar with Kashmir, here in the United States, who are watching or listening now or who will read this, explain. Put that struggle in context, where it is and why it’s happening.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, Kashmir was—at the time of independence, in 1947, Kashmir was one—Jammu and Kashmir was one of the independent princely kingdoms, one of the 500-and-something princely kingdoms, who were all required to decide whether they wanted to be with India or Pakistan. And Kashmir, of course, had a majority-Muslim population but a Hindu king. And it’s called the "unfinished business of [partition]," because, you know, initially, the king didn’t decide while partition and bloodshed was happening—also in Jammu, which is part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. And then, eventually, he fled to India and signed a secession based on the fact that there would be a referendum, which there never was. And so it’s, as I said, called the unfinished business of Pakistan [sic], but—I mean, of partition.
But so, India and Pakistan have been fighting over it, and it’s become a toxic situation, a flashpoint. The Indian Muslim population is, of course, held hostage to all the debates between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. And we’re talking about two nuclear powers. So, you’re talking about a place with—proliferating with graveyards. In the '90s, the struggle turned militant. The army was fighting militants. Now the population has turned militant. Recently, the army general said that he wished the people who are throwing stones were actually firing at them, so he could do what he liked with them. Just last month, they tied a Kashmiri civilian to a tank, used him as a human shield, and the officer who did that was rewarded, was honored, and many people in India applauded it. And that's by no means the worst thing that has happened there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Kashmir and Kashmiri is just one of the languages—I mean, in the literal sense—that appear in this novel. You also cite a number of Urdu literary and poetic traditions and sources in the book—lyrics, poetry, songs. And what do you think the importance is to all of these references—Muslim, Dalit, Kashmiri—at a time when India’s image often is projected as much more homogenous?
ARUNDHATI ROY: So, I mean, I have written about this in nonfiction a lot, but right now what we are seeing is a very, very dangerous moment in India, because, since 1925, the forces—the organizations that—I mean, mostly an organization called the RSS, to which Modi belongs, to which many prime ministers and ministers belong, and which is really the cultural guild that controls the political party, the BJP, has always said that it wants India to be declared a Hindu nation, just as Pakistan is known as an Islamic republic. But India’s constitution calls it a secular socialist republic.
So, right now, the people in power are almost in a position to be able to change the constitution. History is being rewritten. School textbooks are being rewritten. People who believe that India should be a Hindu nation are being placed in all the institutions of democracy in positions of power. And as you know, every day you’re hearing stories about lynchings, about killings, about vigilante groups. So you have minority populations—and by minority, I’m still talking about millions of people—being forced to live in terror, being pushed to the bottom of the food chain, being unrepresented in the media, unrepresented in the judiciary, unrepresented in the bureaucracy, unrepresented in any way, you know. The moment of the big Dalit parties, like the BSP, led by Mayawati or Lalu or Mulayam Singh Yadav, which seemed to be bringing some sort of representation, have also been pushed out. And the idea is, and always has been, to create this constituency called the Hindu constituency.
And now the difficulty is that if you’re going to celebrate the idea of the Hindu nation, you’re turning what is pain into pleasure, when things like the demonetization happen, when jobs are being lost, when people are being displaced, and you’re told you are doing this for the Hindu nation. So, all your pain is being turned into some kind of yearning, like some kind of religious sacrifice, and all your anger is being directed downward to the most vulnerable communities. And so, it’s a psychological muddle, you know, which analysis and numbers and figures and facts don’t seem to help, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about Modi’s visit next week, I did want to ask you about Tilo, the young woman you referred to who is a character in your book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati, who has a lot of similarities to one you. She was trained as an architecture student. And talk about that. Talk about her place and your place in this novel.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, actually, to me, Tilo, Tilottama, is the fictional child of Ammu and Velutha in The God of Small Things, had their story ended differently. She’s the younger sibling of Esthappen and Rahel. So, you know, I know her well, but I’m not her.
But she’s—yeah, she and Anjum are, in some ways, you know, women with such different kinds of strengths and moods, you know, and generosities, and very different in that Anjum is much more external in her expressions of pain or grief or joy or poetry and what she wants to do. She’s an extravagantly—outwardly expresses herself. And Tilo, in the book, is called the city—a country who lives in her own skin, a country with no consulates, a person whose quietness destabilizes people, you know, a person whose most intimate—whose signs of being intimate with someone is to not greet them or, you know, to not change her expression when someone she loves comes. So, very different.
But, most of all, different in the—in their attitude towards womanhood. Like Anjum finds a young child on the steps of the Jama Masjid, and she just falls in love with her, an abandoned little girl, and she falls in love with her mostly because the baby just holds her hand and starts howling and isn’t scared of her. So she takes her back to the Khwabgah, where she’s adopted, called Zainab. And Zainab grows up with lots of mothers and fathers and in this unorthodox way. Tilo, on the other hand, is someone who’s a little bit wary of motherhood. She could have a baby and—but she doesn’t want it. And she doesn’t want to put another version of herself into the world. She thinks that she’ll be an even worse mother than her mother was to her. And she’s also curiously alone. Like she has a relationship with Musa, who becomes a militant in Kashmir. And Musa is a man of his people. And she loves that about him, because she thinks that she has no people, except for the dogs that she feeds in the park. So she’s very, very strange—strong woman, though, you know? And a little bit—a little bit on the edge of crazy. But, yeah, that’s who she is.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go now to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s—
ARUNDHATI ROY: Wow! What a jump! From Tilo to Modi.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of countries.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, his trip to the United States, coming to D.C. next week to meet Donald Trump, President Trump, for the first time. Let’s go to comments that Trump made last year to the Republican Hindu Coalition.
DONALD TRUMP: I’m a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India! Big, big fan. Big, big fan. ... Prime Minister Modi, who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy, great man! I applaud him for doing so. And I look forward to doing some serious bureaucratic trimming right here in the United States. Believe me, we need it also.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Trump speaking on the campaign trail to the Republican Hindu Coalition. And now, just recently, on the occasion of Trump’s birthday, a right-wing group in India called the Hindu Sena celebrated Trump’s birthday. So could you talk about that, first of all? And also, you know, a lot of people have been saying that Trump and Modi are very similar. But you think—you said that there are very important distinctions between them, so if you could talk about that?
ARUNDHATI ROY: I don’t know whether it was this group that you’re talking about or whether it was last year, or whenever, there was a—in the same Jantar Mantar where much of this book is set, some people were celebrating Trump’s birthday. And they had a cardboard picture of him, and they were feeding the cardboard picture cake. And some TV—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: It was just now, earlier this month, on the 14th.
ARUNDHATI ROY: No, so I’m talking about an earlier occasion.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, I see. OK.
ARUNDHATI ROY: And then they—the TV crew asked them what was happening. And they said, "Oh, we are celebrating the birthday of Donald Duck." But so it was very funny.
But anyway, yes, there are, to my mind, very serious distinctions between the phenomenon of Trump and Modi. Look, I’m not, you know, like a real close commentator on American politics, so I might be wrong about what I’m saying, but from what I see, Trump somehow has sprung up from the sort of effluent of a process where the Democrats, who claim to be the representatives of workers, of unions, of the people, has betrayed—has betrayed them, has left a group of people disenchanted, furious, and even more furious when Bernie Sanders was, you know, not the candidate, and it was Hillary Clinton. So, Trump comes in as a kind of outsider, suspected and mocked, perhaps rightly so, by the media, by American institutions. There’s an inquiry against him. You know, you see the big wheels, or what I call the deep state, also a little bit worried about him, whereas this is not the case with Modi.
Modi, as I said, is a product of the RSS, that from 1925 has been working towards this moment. The RSS has hundreds of thousands of workers. It has its own slum wing, its own women’s wing, its own publishing wing, its own schools, its own books, its own history. Its people are everywhere. The movement is from the ground. You have to give them that. They have worked endlessly. So he’s—Modi is the opposite of an outlier. He is—he is someone who—right now, the RSS is in control. The only thing is that the RSS is a little bit—I mean, I think, a little bit worried about this single man who’s taking all the attention, and maybe they are preparing an heir to Modi, because he has destroyed government. It’s just between him and what’s on the street, you know? So, much of what government policy is, is being executed by vigilante mobs, and the bureaucracy—the party itself is being put into a corner, and it’s just Modi and his lieutenant, Amit Shah, and everyone else is humiliated. And then there is this whole—you know, the great strongman and temples being built to him and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could create the meeting that will happen between Modi and Trump, as you’ve created the communities in this book, what would you make happen? What would help India, the India you want to see, Arundhati?
ARUNDHATI ROY: It would help if both of them are both sent to the Frying Pan Park in Virginia with all the turkeys that are forgiven on Thanksgiving. I think, you know—I mean, the meeting isn’t going to help us, because that’s not the issue, right? The issue is that—what do they represent, and why—I mean, to me, I don’t—it’s not important to me to mock Trump or to say things about Modi, because the real question is, why are they—you cannot dismiss the fact that they are people who have been elected democratically. So there’s fire in the ducts. And that is the problem, you know, not—it’s just—you know, they are both easy meat. You know, they are both easy to laugh at, but I don’t think it’s a laughing matter, you know?
And the point is that someone like myself, you know, I am in a position where one is—one is in a minority of voices right now. And even though I’m a writer and I don’t necessarily believe ever that the majority is always right, so there’s something very wrong going on. And that wrong has been created by the people who are criticizing Trump now, you know? So we do need to think about that seriously. You know that. I mean, you’ve been following it, and you know that better than I, you know. And the same in India. You know, the Congress Party has opened every door, lit every fire. Now that it’s burning, we can’t look at them as an alternative. They have been involved with massacres themselves. They have created vigilante groups themselves. They have created communal conflagration themselves. They’re just the B team. So...
AMY GOODMAN: You visited Edward Snowden in Russia with the actor John Cusack and with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg, who was just in our headlines today. What was that like? We have less than a minute to go.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Oh, it was wonderful, phenomenal. I mean, most phenomenal to see Dan and Ed talking to each other about what it meant to be a whistleblower in the '70s and then now, you know? And to me, from the outside, I did wonder, you know, like how long is it going to be. You know, that was Vietnam. There's Korea. There’s Iran. I mean, history just keeps reinventing itself. And again, today, you hear them say, "Oh, it’s going to be a long war." So, you know, one enemy of America turns into another, turns into another, turns into another. But the big wheels keep on turning. And we don’t have enough Snowdens and Ellsbergs around.
AMY GOODMAN: Writing is such a solitary act. When you wrote The God of Small Things and then won the Booker Prize, one of the leading international literary prizes, how did that change your life, affect how you could write, and lead to what you’re doing today?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was obviously, you know, thrilling to win the Booker Prize. It wasn’t something that I had thought about as being even a possibility. But after that, it became complicated, because if you actually become very well known and then you—let’s say, you move to a place, London or New York, where lots of well-known international people live, then it’s a different story. But if you want to carry on living where you lived and being with your old friends, you know, all of them have to deal with the Booker Prize and the fame, and it’s really hard. But it’s OK.
But the thing that happened was that very soon after I won the Booker Prize, the BJP government came to power, did the nuclear tests. And I was, at that point, you know, on the cover of every magazine. I was the face of this new India. And then the new India, to my mind, suddenly turned ugly. The public discourse after those tests became overtly nationalist, overtly ugly. Things that could not have been said, even if they were thought, publicly were now acceptable. And if I hadn’t stepped off that train, I would have been part of it. I didn’t have the space to be neutral, or, as Howard Zinn says, you can’t be neutral on a moving train, but especially not if you’re suddenly famous, you know? So, I wrote "The End of Imagination," which was the first essay, condemning the tests. And, of course, that was the end of my romance as the face of the new India.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember when you came to the United States, after writing one of your essays around the Iraq War. You were fierce in your criticism of President Bush. You held a news conference. And I can’t remember which women’s magazine came up to you after—or maybe I can—and said, "Can we just follow you shopping?"
ARUNDHATI ROY: Really? I don’t remember that. Really?
AMY GOODMAN: But what it means to be a kind of star like that, as you’re taking on these critical issues.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it’s—you know, the thing is that I’ve now been baptized in fire, you know, because I’ve had—I’ve had so much happen in the course of the political writing. I mean, just last—last month, based on some fake news in a Pakistani website saying that I had said something in Kashmir, a BJP member of parliament suggested that instead of the Kashmiri man, I should be used as a human shield in Kashmir, you know? So, but that’s all part of how they are with a lot of women who stand up to them. You know, there’s that whole thing going on. And so, but eventually it just makes you more—more sharp, I think. You know, I mean, you don’t—you know, people call me fearless and all that. I’m not fearless. I think it’s stupid to be fearless, really. You have to be extremely fearful, extremely knowledgeable about the possible consequences, and then do what you’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: People wrote in around the world when they heard you were going to be on. Abdullah AbduSalam in Nigeria wrote something that is very—sounds like it fits right in with what you’re saying, said, "I would like to ask Arundhati Roy how she copes with the hatred against her in India and how we can combat the tyranny of opinion in the world today."
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, see, the thing is that, you know, the hatred is also a bit exaggerated, because they have these troll factories. You know, they have—they have—it’s a factory product, too, you know? So it exaggerates the extent. When I walk on the streets, I certainly don’t feel hated in India. But they would like to—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re revered, as well.
ARUNDHATI ROY: They would like to project it as such, you know? And there are many people in India who are standing up to what’s going on there, many people, people more vulnerable than me, too, you know? So it’s a remarkable country for that reason. You know, students, they were so much trouble in the campuses last year. You know, so I certainly—they would like me to portray myself as some lone warrior, the sole voice. That’s not true. I’m just one of many people who believe the things I believe, you know? I mean, many people don’t write the novels, but many people do believe what I—there would be something wrong with my politics if I was really just a lone person. I am in the heart of a crowd.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, it seems that with the publication of this book, you can expect only more fame, because the book is already due to be translated into at least 30 languages. And I want to go to what some of the reviewers of this book, who have suggested that there—there may be analogies between The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and other Indian novelists writing in English. But it strikes us that you may have a greater affinity to writers like the Uruguayan novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano, who died in 2015. Two years before he died, in 2013, Democracy Now! spoke to Galeano in our New York studio. Let’s go to a clip.
EDUARDO GALEANO: I didn’t receive a formal education. I was educated in the Montevideo cafe, in the cafes of Montevideo. There, I received my first lessons in the art of telling stories, storytelling. I was very, very young and sat at one table, neighbor of other table of people, old people, or more or less old, and they were telling stories, and I was hearing, because they were very good storytellers, anonymous. ...
We have a memory cut in pieces. And I write trying to recover our real memory, the memory of humankind, what I call the human rainbow, which is much more colorful and beautiful than the other one, the other rainbow. But the human rainbow had been mutilated by machismo, racism, militarism and a lot of other isms, who have been terribly killing our greatness, our possible greatness, our possible beauty.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, who passed away in 2015. So could tell us—
ARUNDHATI ROY: Who I loved dearly, yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, could you tell us about him and the possible affinities between your work and his?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, Eduardo was a master of the shattered story, even though I don’t think he wrote fiction. As far as I know, he never wrote any novels. But he wrote a beautiful book called The Open Veins of Latin America. And he had that—I think, you know, perhaps he had that way of making realism magical without being a magical realist, you know? What a writer he was! And what a seer! Wonderful.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s on the back of your book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, that quote of yours: "How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything." Explain what you mean by "shattered story" and that quote.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s actually a little scribble in one of Tilo’s many notebooks, so it’s in quotes. But what do I mean? Well, I think what I mean is that the power of telling a story which is not a subject heading, you know, a story that is not afraid at looking at the connections, like Eduardo was saying—you know, what is—is there a connection between the new, emerging, you know, great economy, nuclear superpower, and patriarchy? Is there a connection between the rise of the Hindu right, what is happening in Kashmir, how women are treated, what’s happening—I mean, that we are a society that practices caste, which is the most institutionalized form of hierarchy? And yet few people write about it. It’s like writing about apartheid South Africa omitting to mention there was apartheid. But what is the connection between the way women are treated and all these things that I mentioned? If you write books where each of them is a subject heading, an academic piece or journalism, you don’t understand fully the rainbow that he’s talking, not a beautiful one necessarily sometimes. But each of—so that’s what I mean.
This is what makes up the air we breathe. And so, it’s a shattered story, but, actually, if you want to breathe in that air, you have to become everything, you know, and the creatures—and the fact that perhaps the most profound political education I received was in the Narmada Valley and the understanding of what big dams do to rivers, to populations, to fish. It was not just about human beings and progress and development, but, you know, a mind that looks at a river and thinks, "I must pour tons and tons of cement into it," but how a river that belongs to a civilization, the water can be centralized, and then—then, once it’s centralized, it can be controlled, and once it’s controlled, it can be given to the hotel industry or to the golf courses, instead of to the people who lived and grew crops by its banks. And you can say that this is development, you know? So, you have to become that river, too.
AMY GOODMAN: You also take on many controversies, that may not be as controversial where you are, but you come to the United States. Abortion is a centerpiece of a Republican plan to dismantle women’s healthcare, particularly focused on Planned Parenthood. There’s an abortion in this book.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, there’s a—but that’s—I mean, it’s not controversial in India. But it’s always interesting to see how, you know, the same people who are happy to bomb whole countries to smithereens, to massacre people, to destroy whole populations, suddenly begin to talk about abortion in this way, you know? And it’s the same in India. I mean, I remember watching people demonstrating outside the Irish Embassy because an Indian woman who could not get an abortion had died in Dublin. And they were the same people who are celebrating the massacre of women in Gujarat.
Yesterday, by the way, in the Brooklyn Academy, you know who was present? The daughter of the Ehsan Jafri, the member of the Legislative Assembly who was hacked to death in 2002 Gujarat. His wife, Zakia Jafri, has spent all these years in court after court trying to get justice. Nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: And she was at your reading last night—
ARUNDHATI ROY: She was, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Explain the significance of that, and, you know, leading right up to President Trump meeting Prime Minister Modi on Monday.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Ehsan Jafri was, obviously, a Muslim, but he was a trade union leader and a former member of the Legislative Assembly in Gujarat in 2002. And when the—post the train, the burning of the Hindu pilgrims on a train, when the mobs decided that collective punishment of the Muslim community was the answer to that, and started to massacre Muslims on the streets, rape women and so on, something like 60 people sheltered in Ehsan Jafri’s very middle-class home in a housing colony in Ahmedabad, hoping that, you know, because he was a politician, he would be able to save them. A mob gathered. Ehsan Jafri made 200 phone calls, to all the politicians. The police came and went. Nobody did anything. He came out of his house to reason with the mob, to ask them to at least spare the women and children. They hacked him to death. They killed him, and then they killed everybody else. And then the killers boasted about this on camera, right? And his daughter was there at the reading yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was Modi’s role at this time?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time. So he was the man responsible for law and order at the time. And when he was—and then he—of course, it was very close to elections. You know, most massacres in India are very close to elections. And they—but, you know, they polarized the vote, and so he won the elections. And when he was campaigning for prime ministers, Reuters asked him whether he regretted what had happened under his stewardship in Gujarat in 2002, and he said—I mean, I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, "Even if I was driving a car and a puppy came under my wheels, I would regret it."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, one of the things he said is, "I feel sad"—he’s quoted by a British author and TV producer, saying, "I feel sad about what happened, but no guilt. And no court has come even close to establishing it."
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, so the point is that it’s not about—it’s not about legal—I mean, if you cannot establish a hands-on, legal link that you’re really involved in any of it, but you were the chief minister, you know, you do have a moral responsibility. I mean, it’s not about just—you know, legal recourse has never helped the onset of this kind of majoritarianism and fundamentalism.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s astounding is, you have Narendra Modi, the prime minister, about to meet President Trump, about to make an historic address to Congress. He is—he was once banned from entering the United States, right? As a Hindu nationalist, denied a visa to enter the U.S. in 2005, stemming from allegations he tacitly supported the Hindu extremists during the riots of 2002.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, well, I would not call them riots, but they were—it was a massacre, you know? But I think, technically—
AMY GOODMAN: I was reading from an article.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah. I think, technically, the technical reason I think that he was banned was that there were also assaults on the Christian community in Gujarat. And that, I think, has some legal play over here, which led to his banishment. But then, of course, when he became prime minister, you can’t ban the prime minister of the so-called largest democracy in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, Arundhati, I wanted to turn to a person who was seminal in you giving birth to this book. Well, earlier this year, the revolutionary British novelist, screenwriter, literary critic John Berger died. Berger is most famous for his 1972 book and television series Ways of Seeing. He won the Booker Prize that year for Ways of Seeing. This is John Berger speaking in 1972 about his reaction to winning the Booker Prize and how he planned to give half the money to the Black Panthers.
JOHN BERGER: The prize is given by Bookers, Booker-McConnell, who are a firm who have extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for 130 years. The extreme poverty is the direct consequence of the exploitation of companies like Bookers and others. And so I intend, as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean, people who are involved in a struggle to resist such exploitation and eventually to expropriate companies like Bookers. I am actually going to give half the prize to the London-based Black Panther movement.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the British novelist, screenwriter, literary critic John Berger. He, before he died, was seminal in your writing this book. Why? How, Arundhati?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, obviously, you know, the first words in The God of Small Things are a quote from John Berger, who says, "Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one." And I didn’t know him, obviously, personally. I admired him very much. And one day I came home to find a letter from him. This was after I had started writing the political essays. And he said, "To me, they are like your walking on two legs." You know, he understood how important they both were, as always people have, you know, these debates about which is the more important thing.
So, then I began to meet him every time I—whenever I could. And once I was speaking with him in Ferrara, and I went home with him to his village. And he just said, "OK, now, open your computer and read to me the fiction you’re writing." He didn’t even know that I was. And, you know, he may have been the only person in the world that could just demand that I did that. And I obeyed. And then he told me, "Look, just go back and, please, please, do not do anything else. Finish this book. You’ve got to finish this book." And I promised him that. He used to call me Utmost, because he knew the title. And he sent me off back to Delhi to finish.
And within days of my getting back, this note came under the door asking me to go into the forest to walk with the comrades, you know? And I couldn’t say no. And that set off a whole other thing. But when I finished the book, which was in September or August, the first thing I did was to go to him. I read it with him, part of it, and then he—it was the last book he read before he went away. But he’s around in the other room. I talk to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, thanks so much for spending this time. To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. Arundhati Roy has written a new novel; it’s called The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Her first fiction book, 20 year ago, The God of Small Things. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.