Arundhati Roy’s Latest Novel Takes on Fascism, Rising Hindu Nationalism in India & Abuses in Kashmir

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We spend the rest of the hour with the legendary, award-winning author Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel “The God of Small Things.” In 2017, 20 years after the publication of her first novel, she published another work of fiction, just out in paperback, titled “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” The novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book has been hailed as “an elegy for a bulldozed world.” Arundhati Roy received the 2002 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Prize, and her journalism and essays have been collected in several books, including “The End of Imagination,” “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers” and “Capitalism: A Ghost Story.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We spend the rest of the hour with the legendary, award-winning author Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things. In 2017, 20 years after the publication of her first novel, she published another work of fiction, which is just out in paperback, titled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This is a clip from a short film introducing the novel, narrated by Arundhati Roy and directed by Sanjay Kak and Tarun Bhartiya.

ARUNDHATI ROY: She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. …

When people called her names—clown without a circus, queen without a palace—she let the hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain. …

“Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.” …

Dear Comrade Azad Bharathiya Garu, My comrade Suguna knows to send this letter to you when she hears that I am no more. As you know we are banned, underground people, and this letter from me you can call as underground of underground. …

How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s a short film introducing Arundhati Roy’s most recent book. The film is directed by Sanjay Kak and Tarun Bhartiya. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was longlisted for the Booker Prize and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Washington Post praised the book, 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.”

AMY GOODMAN: Indian literary critic Nilanjana Roy hailed the novel as, quote, “an elegy for a bulldozed world.” Arundhati Roy received the 2002 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Prize, and her journalism and essays have been collected in several books, including The End of Imagination, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers and Capitalism: A Ghost Story.

Arundhati Roy, welcome back to the United States and to Democracy Now!

ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you. Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a great honor to be with you. So your book has just come out in paperback, and we want to talk about also the response to it over this year. But why don’t you start off by talking about why you chose to go back to writing a novel, and the title, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, when I finished—when I wrote The God of Small Things, I never, ever saw myself as a person who, you know, because I had written a successful book, I had to just keep doing the same thing. And I always said that I’d only write a book when I had a book to write. And for 20 years I spent sort of traveling through India, you know, in the valleys and the forests, whether in Kashmir, in the forests of Bastar, trying to understand the very massive and sudden changes that were happening, particularly post what they call globalization, you know? And it was obvious that this new economy was traveling parallel with a huge impetus of Hindu nationalism, and that both were traveling companions. And now, of course, you know, it’s at its peak. The battles are both so joined at the hip. And I—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: If I could just interrupt briefly, Arundhati—

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: If you could just explain the context in which liberalization or globalization came in to India? What accounted for the transformation of the economy after, really, decades of a different kind of economic system?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, obviously, until, you know, 1990, India was what—I mean, India called itself a nonaligned state. It had a protected economy, an economy that was doing badly, by the way, for reasons that we all know, of massive corruption, of these very, very centralized forms of development. But after—basically, after the end of the war in Afghanistan—I mean, the war hasn’t ended in Afghanistan, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it became—India became completely aligned. Now it thinks of itself as an ally of Israel and the U.S. And the markets—and when the world became unipolar—now it’s collapsing that, but, then, the markets were opened, and liberalization entered at a speed which was hard to imagine. You know, every form of protection to workers was dismantled. Rivers, forests—everything was privatized. Now education, health. All of it is in a state of collapse. You know, in a way, the polarization that we all know globalization brings is happening.

And you have—it was almost as though you had a feudal country, which—a feudal and colonized country, which, in 1947—from 1947 to 1990, tried, even if symbolically, to—I mean, the radical movements in the '60s, for example, were talking about the redistribution of wealth, the redistribution of land, of justice, of revolution. But suddenly this new economy has pushed even the radical discourse into a space where people are just asking to let, let's say, indigenous people continue to live on what little land they have, instead of it being taken over by the corporation. The idea of redistribution is over. And yet, you have a situation where, in a way, it’s a form of corporate feudalism, because the land which belonged to the upper castes now belong to the corporates, which are upper-caste, you know?

So, caste, feudalism, capitalism—all of it merges in a very unique way in that place. And you had—for example, you had 50 years of some gesture towards what we call reservation, what you call affirmative action. Now you have privatization in which Dalits are being pushed out all over again, pushed out of educational institutions, pushed out of jobs, pushed out of—so you have the consolidation of upper-caste, upper-class capitalism. You have a situation where, like everywhere else, you know, a hundred families own 25 percent, or something, of the GDP. And you have a consolidation of inequality, which is incredible.

But how do you manage that in a place like that? You manage it by—with the flag of Hindu nationalism, by making people who are actually losing feel that they’re winning the Hindu nation. And you isolate the Muslim community. Last election proved that you don’t need the Muslim vote. So the Muslims of India, who number maybe 150 to 200 million people, are actually now surplus people. They are not—their vote is not required. The work through which they have sustained themselves—you know, the meat industry, the cattle industry, the leather industry—all under attack, shut down. So they’ve been pushed to the bottom. They are being ghettoized, lynched. So, you know, Hindu nationalism is the management policy to quell the unrest that liberalization has brought.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let me just go back, because the initial question that Amy asked had been about—and I had interrupted you—about what brought you back to fiction. So, in a way, when you wrote The God of Small Things, which came out in 1997?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is that right? At that moment, that’s when these massive transformations as a result of liberalization were coming in and accelerating in India. So, could you explain the time that you spent in these 20 years, the kind of writing you did then, and why—I mean, you’ve been working on this book, The Ministry, for the last 10 years. So what brought you back to fiction?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, after I wrote The God of Small Things, and when it won the Booker—I’ve spoken about this many times—you know, I was suddenly sort of being marketed as the face of this new liberal, neoliberal India, which was something I was very uncomfortable with. And then, in 1998, the BJP government, the NDA, the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP being the main party, came in and did a series of nuclear tests.

And for me, somehow, the national—those tests, you know, changed the national discourse, in terms of what is acceptable to be said openly. You know, it isn’t that the—I mean, the RSS, which is the party—the organization which Modi belongs to, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has always believed that India should be declared a Hindu nation, was actually formed in 1925. So we are watching something that has been inexorably growing to this place. So it’s not that the nuclear tests started something new, but they jump-started a discourse. They allowed things to be said in public that were not acceptable earlier. They gave that a kind of acceptance.

And then I wrote this essay called “The End of Imagination,” and so suddenly the fairy princess was kicked off her pedestal. But that led me into 20 years of following what was going on, you know, the protests against dams, the—you know, for example, I wrote a big essay called “The Greater Common Good” about the protest against the Narmada. And, to me, the—

AMY GOODMAN: The Narmada dam.

ARUNDHATI ROY: The Narmada dam, sorry, the dams that are built on this Narmada River. And, to me, that political understanding and education that I received from that movement, I see the bones of—the sacrificial bones of this uniquely Indian fascism really in the foundations of that dam, you know, really the idea that there is a community that is more entitled than another, the idea that you can take the water from a river valley, centralize it in a dam reservoir and then decide who should—who should get that water.

I mean, recently, now that the dam is built, now that everything that the anti-dam movement has said has come true, we had an incredible spectacle of: whatever little water there was in the reservoir, which should have been used for the farmers of Gujarat through the drought months, given what the dam said it was going to do, was released, in a rush, the day—just weeks before the Gujarat election. For what? For the prime minister to land a seaplane as an election spectacle. And today, that water is gone. And what little water there is in the canal is being protected by the police from farmers who need it. You know, this is fascism. It’s not just concentration camps, you know?

So, I mean, 20 years of traveling, of seeing, of writing, but all those essays were always very urgent interventions in a situation that was closing down. There was something very urgent about the way they were written. But, simultaneously, there was all this kind of gathering in me—for example, the travels in Kashmir. I could not write about Kashmir. Nobody really can easily write about Kashmir in nonfiction, because what happens there is not just based on what evidence you can produce, you know, the terror that seeds the air, the terror of living in the most dense military occupation in the world, half a million soldiers, the complicated—

AMY GOODMAN: Which most people here really know almost nothing about.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Nothing about. I mean, just imagine the fact that just in the last few, two or three, years, a new technique of firing pellet guns into crowds has blinded completely or partially more than a thousand people. A thousand people, you know? But under the banner of this market-friendly democracy, no one’s going to talk about it. Under the banner of a democracy that buys huge amounts of weapons from France, from America, we are being courted. All those dark secrets are being swept under the carpet, because we are buying weapons from the West. And how will the West survive if we idiots don’t buy weapons?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Kashmir is one of the places that features prominently in your—in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It’s one of the settings of the book. Now, you’ve pointed out, as people have said, this book is suffused with politics, with the implication being that somehow fiction stands apart from politics or partisanship. You said in a recent interview that the elite are partisan and so privileged that they don’t need to appear to be. So, could you explain that, and also the reception of your book in India in those terms?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, look, you know, I have always found it remarkable—I mean, The God of Small Things was a political book. After it won the Booker Prize, people in India especially, but a lot of people, particularly in Kerala, you know, liked to think about it, because they wanted to claim me, but not the politics of the book, so let’s ignore the fact that it’s about the most brutal and ancient social hierarchy that any human society has produced, which is caste. Let’s not talk about that. It can be a book about children, or it can be a book very lyrically written, and so on.

But, for me, the fact is that for fiction writers to avoid writing about caste, to avoid writing about Kashmir, you have to assume some extremely complicated yoga posture, you know? The real thing is, can you look at the air? Can you breathe—this is the air we breathe there. It’s not just horror. It’s music. It’s poetry. It’s Kashmir. It’s caste. It’s all of that. You know, so I don’t—I am not in the least bit shy of saying that, to me, as a writer, to be able to write about love, to be able to write about intimacy, about music, about poetry and violence, with the same intensity, is what matters to me. But to try and edit out these things because you don’t think that maybe the market wants it, I don’t care about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Arundhati, tell us the plot of the book. It begins and ends in a cemetery. Hindus are not buried in cemeteries; they’re cremated. So they’re Muslim. And it’s about, really, not the fringe minority, but the fringe majority, in a sense. But tell us about the characters, how unusual this book is.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, look, Amy, that’s a rather mean question: “Tell me the plot of the book!” It’s difficult to say, to answer that.

To me, what can I say? I think of it as a city. You know, the plot is a city, like a big city of my part of the world. It has an old-world section. It has people trying to plan it, and then those citizens unplanning it. It’s always sabotaging itself, the plot. And yet, it does inscribe itself on the surface of the Earth, against the contours of nature, as cities do and as stories do, you know. But I really wanted to write about the air, you know? I did not—I do not see this book as a book about issues, about political issues. One of the main characters, for—it’s not about marginalized people, as you say, at all, you know? It’s got characters who are all—in some ways, India—India is a society that lives in a very fine grid. Only the West thinks of us as anarchic. But we actually live in a very iron grid or mesh, in which everyone lives within their caste, within their community, within their ethnicity. It’s less than, you know, like—I don’t know—3 percent, or something, of people who will marry outside their community. So, the characters in this book somehow all have a border running through them, a pretty incendiary border running through them, whether it’s of gender or caste or religious conversion.

And the book, see, it sort of begins in the old city of Delhi, and then it just spirals out, you know, into the new metropolis, into—I mean, into Kashmir, as you said, but the nerve center of the book is this place called Jantar Mantar, which has been shut down now, but it used to be the place where protesters from all over India would gather. And it’s a place where I spent a lot of time. And one night—I would spend nights there. I mean, it was just in a most interesting place, you know? And one night when I was there, a baby appeared on the pavement, abandoned. And all of these movements—Bhopal, Kashmir, Narmada—all the wisdom, all the politics, of all of us, didn’t know what to do with that abandoned baby. And it made me think, you know. And so, although that’s not how the book begins, that is the nerve center. The scene in Jantar Mantar, the chapter called “Nativity,” where this baby, who is the antithesis of Christ, is born, a little black girl swaddled in garbage. And the story—in fact, for me, that chapter, it’s like the inversion of the ball at the beginning of War and Peace, you know, where all the beautiful people gather. This is the gutter ball, you know? And from there, the story takes you out.

AMY GOODMAN: And the main other characters, outside of the baby, your main character?

ARUNDHATI ROY: So, the characters are—there is Anjum. She’s born as Aftab into a Shia Muslim family in Old Delhi, born as a boy, but soon discovers that she is really a woman trapped in a man’s body, and, at the age of 16, leaves home to live in a community of hijras, the Urdu word for trans people. She lives in the Khwabgah, which is the House of Dreams, in Old Delhi, with a group of people who belong to a variety of genders, as complicated as the duniya, which is how they refer to the outside world. Duniya, again, in Urdu, means the world. So there’s themselves and the world, as separate. And Anjum grows—I mean, spends her teenage years, and until she’s about 40, there.

One of the most beautiful and most celebrated hijras of Delhi, you know, the slow news story, the—all the foreign correspondents, everybody courts her, wants, you know, to do this story. And then she actually—and then, you know, but the thing about her is she’s not—that’s not only who she is. She’s not only a hijra. She’s a Shia. She’s a woman who wants to be a mother. She adopts a little girl. And then she gets caught up in the massacre of 2002 in Gujarat, and, of course, caught up not because she’s a hijra, but because she’s a Muslim. And, in fact, she escapes, because she’s a hijra, and people think it’s bad luck to kill a hijra.

AMY GOODMAN: And this really took place in 2002, the massacre.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, the massacre, of course, it took place, and when Modi was the chief minister. And then Anjum comes back, is unable to continue life as she knew it, and she moves into a nearby graveyard, where her relatives are. And slowly, as she recovers from her trauma, she begins to build a guest house there.

Then there’s her friend Saddam Hussein, who’s a young Dalit who also escapes from a massacre of Dalits, again by the Hindu right. And he, in anger, decides to do what Ambedkar, the great leader of the Untouchables, did. He said, “You must renounce Hinduism.” So he renounces Hinduism and becomes a Muslim and calls himself Saddam Hussein. And he’s her partner in running the guest house.

And then you have one of the characters called Garson Hobart, who’s a very upper-caste, Brahmanical intelligence officer, who is, in a way—part of him is the voice of the state, you know, who understands things in a historical perspective, who has the ability to wait, to watch, to think in this generous—he’s a member of, let’s say, the Nehruvian elite, who has been displaced now by this new Hindu right wing. But Hobart, because that’s the name of a character he plays in a college play, Garson Hobart, is a pretty brilliant person, you know, and someone that all of us do have to contend with. He’s not easy meat, by any means.

And then you have Musa and his friend Tilottama. Musa is a Kashmiri; Tilottama, his love—who are both—Tilottama is a strange woman living on the border of sanity and insanity, you know, a very, very individual and irreverent and lowly woman—lowly in the sense that she’s a loved woman, but she doesn’t know how to really receive it, because she lives on the borders of so many things.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy is describing her latest novel, her second. It’s called The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. And we’re going to continue with her in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” a version by Indian-American musician Zeshan B, performing right here in our Democracy Now! studio. To see the performances and the interview, go to democracynow.org.

Yes, this is Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Arundhati Roy, the author of the new novel, well, now out in paperback, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Arundhati won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first book, The God of Small Things.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Arundhati Roy, we concluded our first part of the discussion by talking about the book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. And the book more or less concludes with Modi, an allusion to Modi. You had said earlier that he’s, although formally associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party—I mean, that’s how he was elected—his real ties are with the RSS. So, could you explain what the RSS stands for and why it’s so significant that he’s more closely aligned with the RSS than with the PJP?

ARUNDHATI ROY: So, the RSS today—RSS stands for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is basically a sort of national self-help society. But it is the most powerful organization in the country today. It was founded, as I said, in the 1920s, and it has always believed in rewriting the constitution. It has openly believed that India should be declared a Hindu nation. Its ideologues have openly called Muslims of India—have said, you know, the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany.

Now, it has—it is a formidable organization. You know, it has—it works in education. It has women’s wings, slum wings, forest dweller wings, publishing wing. It really writes the story of what is going on today. And it’s not just Modi, but almost all his ministers, including the former Prime Minister Vajpayee, Advani. All of these people were members of the RSS. So, whether or not the BJP loses elections or wins elections, the RSS’s work is inexorable. You know, it just goes on. And so, the BJP is just really the political arm of the RSS. There isn’t any way that the BJP can have an independent agenda. It is fused with the RSS. So, the danger today is that because of the massive majority with which they came to power, every institution has now been penetrated by the RSS.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion at democracynow.org. Arundhati Roy, author of the new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

And that does it for our broadcast. Oh, and yet another Democracy Now! family announcement: Jahan Guzder Turner, welcome to the world. Congratulations to our dear producer Deena Guzder and her husband Peter. What a privilege it was for Nermeen and I to get to hang out with our very dear newest member of the Democracy Now! family, Jahan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jahan, which means world or universe, welcome to the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And the universe. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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