Arundhati Roy says her new novel is a concerted attempt to reflect the way we live now. (Supplied: Mayank Austen Soofi)
In 1997, Arundhati Roy took the literary world by storm with The God of Small Things. The novel won the Booker Prize and sold millions of copies, but Roy didn’t publish another sentence of fiction for 20 years.
“Unless fiction becomes disobedient, it will become irrelevant,” Roy told Books and Arts.
The above might be an aesthetic manifesto, but it’s also the rule by which Roy lives her life.
(Books and Arts)
With nonfiction titles ranging from The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002) to Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014) Roy has been busy employing her hypodermic intellect and elastic prose to take on all manner of social injustice.
She’s been charged with sedition and faced obscenity trials. All the while, devotees of The God of Small Things have been waiting with baited breath.
Roy, whose arrival on the world stage was sudden and jarring, said the expectations put on her to be a bestseller-writing machine turned her off the craft.
Arundhati Roy, back in 2009, at the height of her nonfiction and activist career. (Getty Images: Satish Bate for the Hindustan Times)
“To put something as profound, as wonderful as a novel onto a conveyer belt was just not something I was prepared to do,” she said.
But sometimes a group of characters walks into your head and refuses to be ignored.
When you write, it’s because you can’t not write,” she said.
“They [the characters] just ganged up on me and they were like ‘do it!'”
A thousand things at once
The result of Roy’s two-decade break is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness — over 400 pages of exuberant polyphony.
The novel begins with the story of Anjum, a hijra: someone who identifies as neither fully male nor female.
One of the main characters identifies as hijra — a state-recognised third gender. (Getty Images: Sam Panthaky)
Anjum’s story is told in the sensuous, lilting tone that made Roy famous in the 90s.
But from there the novel breaks out in all kinds of directions, taking in the lives of a number of outcast and eccentric people.
Stylistically too, the book contains multitudes, from letters to abstract ruminations to sections approaching the political thriller genre.
Roy said it was the only ways she could accurately convey the sensation of living now.
“All our lives, we are never in a single moment at any time.
“You’re getting strange text messages on your phone, there’s TV going, there’s all kinds of things going on.
“It’s [life] all fractured, there’s never one feeling, it’s a thousand things at once.”
The conceit of fracturing might be the novel’s central theme: its characters are split by social and personal strata, whether it be caste, gender or religion.
“All the characters in this book are people who have some kind of incendiary border running through them,” Roy said.
“Anjum has the border of gender. Though she’s not a signifier of any communities. She’s not a sociological study of the hijra community or anything.
“She’s a character like the others, very unique, very individual.”
Roy insists this hybridity goes to the very heart of contemporary Indian culture.
“There’s all these languages that we live with all the time in India, nothing happens in one language,” she said.
“How do you find a way of absorbing those cadences and the wisdom of people who are thinking and fighting and praying in different languages?
“You can’t do it in some obedient way.”
Despite its formal experimentation and massive scope, the novel never really abandons Roy’s sensitive, altruistic and humane view of the world.
“Some people assume that the name of the novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is satirical, and that it’s really about terribly sad things,” Roy said.
“But it’s not satirical, because I do believe that the most radical thing the human race can do is to redefine the recipe for happiness that’s been handed down to us.”