“What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city?” says Roy. “Can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed? So the reader also has to deal with complexities that they are being trained not to deal with.”
Arundhati Roy is one of the biggest names in the literary world and usually people look up to her for her timely and bold statements made on contemporary issues. The acclaimed author and activist answers questions.
- With regards to your fiction, would you be able to describe the balance between research, autobiography and imagined worlds? How important is it to you?
I don’t do research. What generally happens is I begin to get curious about something for no reason and then I just find it impossible to contain and I’ve written nonfiction. But especially in the novel, these things just settle in you and you become like a sedimentary rock. The characters come by and it’s almost like you’re walking down the street and someone catches your eye and you meet them again and then you become friends. It’s a bit like that. One of the ways in which I write, especially when I write fiction, is just that I wait. And something just comes knocking at your door. You have to be open to it. You have to allow it in, more than pursue it.
I’m very much part of those worlds that I describe. So sometimes it might be really autobiographical and I don’t know. When you’re open to allowing these characters in, everything is autobiographical, no? Esthappen in The God of Small Things says: “If in a dream you’ve eaten fish, does it mean you’ve eaten fish?” For me, those worlds are all very osmotic: experience, autobiography, imagination, understanding. And that’s why it all needs to mix and settle and it’s not segmented.
- My friends and I often debate “the best Bookers”. Mine happen to be, in no particular order: Disgrace, The God of Small Things and Midnight’s Children. I’d like to think that you, too, have these “pub conversations” – so, what’s your favourite Booker novel, and why?
I don’t have these conversations, because I don’t feel like thinking about books in this way. Books are unique and so I don’t think of them hierarchically. I understand that people need to give prizes, but it’s so particular to you and I don’t even think of “Booker books” to begin with.
- You have been fiercely expressing your disagreements with the state, irrespective of political parties in office. Have you ever wished to go into electoral politics? If yes, why haven’t you yet? If no, why?
No. It’s such an important place and time in which to be a writer, where you’re not burdened by the idea of soliciting people’s support. Where often it’s so important to stand alone, to be a person who expresses themselves very clearly on certain things. So I can only see it as a great defeat if I really wanted to come into politics or stand for elections or ask people to like me or vote for me. It’s just not in my DNA to do that. I cannot even conceive of becoming a person who needed to change something about the way they were dressing or thinking or speaking to get someone to vote for me. To suddenly start going to a temple and pretending I’m really religious because I want to win the Hindu vote, I can’t do it! I’d be terrible at it!
- You once said: ‘Each time I write an essay I get into so much trouble I promise never to do it again.’ What was the last essay you wrote and did you get into any trouble?
Well, the last essay I wrote was actually about the trouble, it was called My Seditious Heart. But previous to that, I wrote a piece called Professor, POW about GN Saibaba. He is a professor of literature, paralysed in his lower body, and he was thrown in prison and sentenced to life for… I don’t know what all the reasons are, but he’s accused of being a Maoist and working against the state. He’s still in prison now and is in a bad state.
I’ve known him for a long time and when I wrote Professor, POW I was charged with criminal contempt of court. I have a long history of contempt of court, being accused of contempt of court – I’ve also gone to prison for it. So I had to appeal to the supreme court to quash it, which they have not done, but they have put it in cold storage. It’s so tiring, but it’s OK for me. Because of the work I do, I have lawyers who are friends. I have the money to fly to the other city where the appeal is being heard and hire a hotel and stay there. But let’s say you’re a young journalist or a young writer who doesn’t have that – what do you do? You’re finished! So the idea is: “Let’s make this an example, let’s break up the stride, then the mobs will come there and will shout at you.” It just goes on and on.
- How do you write the parts that make us cry? And do you cry when you read them back?
Writing and crying are things that people do differently. For me, I’m always writing: when I’m walking, when I’m shopping, when I’m thinking. There’s a processing that’s going on – and the heartbreak is close to the surface all the time. But there’s a difference between the retelling of a tragedy and when you sometimes don’t actually tell it, but what it reflects is even more tragic. So often when I think about things, yes, I do cry, but I shift between laughter and tears and anger. That’s what I meant about never stopping to be a child: you have to always be in touch with those feelings.
- What female writers have inspired and influenced you?
Oh, so many. Of course, I have read Jane Austen in the past but long ago. I don’t know if I’m inspired by her, but I’m maybe interested in her. There’s Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a great inspiration. The memoir of [Russian poet] Osip Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam [Hope Against Hope] – oh God, what a book, just incredible. And recently I read this book called Barracoon, it’s just come out. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and she transcribed a first-person account of the last slave, who was captured 50 years after slavery was abolished. He has a memory of the whole thing, of how he was kidnapped from his village in Africa – not kidnapped by white people, but by another tribe – and then sold into slavery to American slave traders. So it complicates the way you think about things.
- It seems that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness suggests it’s possible to live in a world that is carved out of, yet also away from, the degradations of a class- and caste-ridden (also ableist, homophobic etc) society. Is such a world possible only in novels, or do you think it’s possible in real life?
I don’t think that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness should be viewed as a manifesto, that it’s proposing an alternative way of living. It’s a story about certain particular and unique people who find their way in a unique way. By having these people, you are shining a light on what society is really like and the fact that you can’t ignore caste and gender and all of that. It’s really about that.
- What moments in your life give you solace?
The moment when I just put my cheek on my dog’s tummy. I have two of them, and one has a considerable tummy, but the other is slightly more delicate. Both of them used to be strays. I found them. One of them, her mother was killed by a car on the road outside my house. Her eyes were closed and she was so small and I had to feed her with a dropper and now she’s huge. The other one I stole. I’d see her tied to a lamppost night and day on this road, and I just took her. Later, I told the people that I’d taken her, and they said: “OK, we didn’t want her.”