Arundhati Roy invites discussion with 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness'
When Arundhati Roy's “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (Vintage) was published in 2017, it was her first novel in 20 years. But that doesn't mean Roy, a native of India, wasn't writing.
Roy, who appears May 7 at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series, focused her attention social injustice and environmental causes. In books including “Power Politics,” “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” and “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” Roy addressed problems in India that mirrored global concerns.
Roy is still best known for her fiction. Her first novel, “The God of Small Things,” won the Man Booker Prize for literature. “The Ministry …,” longlisted for the same prize, features two main characters: Anjum, a hijra (transperson) and Tilo, an architect who becomes an activist. But it's nearly impossible to encapsulate the novel's 440-plus pages in a single sentence or paragraph.
Roy took time to answer questions from the Tribune-Review.
Question: I'm always interested in the genesis of novels, how they begin, what inspired them. Is there any particular event or idea that launched “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?”
Answer: “The Ministry” was building up in me, like the map of a great metropolis in this part of the world — ancient and modern, planned and unplanned, but always with a form, even if an organic form — that inscribes itself on the surface of the earth. But yes, there was an incident that inspired me to begin writing. It is in the book, but it's not the beginning. It's the chapter called “The Nativity”—which is in many ways the nerve center of the book. There's a place in Delhi, called Jantar Mantar — an old observatory. The streets around Jantar Mantar have been claimed by various protest movements that would come to Delhi and virtually camp there. People from across the country. I have spent many days and nights there. Late one night, a baby appeared on the pavement. She created consternation. None of the great, wise, insightful and radical people there knew what to do with her. It made me think. And the story unfolded. Sadly, Jantar Mantar has been locked down recently. We are living in dangerous times.
Q: The characters in “The Ministry …” are colorful and memorable. Their personalities are vibrant and interesting, but they are shunned by mainstream society. Are you most interested in illuminating the lives of those who are ignored, or are hiding in plain sight?
A: It's a common misconception that all the characters in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” are people who have been shunned by mainstream society. But it isn't so. Some of them are powerful people, creatures of the establishment. One of the main characters, Biplab Dasgupta aka Garson Hobart, is an intelligence officer. Naga Hariharan, the son of an ambassador, is an important journalist with connections to the intelligence bureau. Major Amrik Singh is an officer with the Indian army. It was important to me not to write about any one particular class or caste but to create a universe populated by all kinds of people, as all universes tend to be.
Q: It's been over a year since “The Ministry … “ was published. Does the story still linger? Do you still think about the characters?
A: They are not fictional characters for me. They are — and always will be — a part of my world. I consult all of them on a daily basis. All the characters in “The God of Small Things” are always around me, too. For me, they are far more real than what people think of as “real life.” I have spent more time with them than I have with anyone in the “real world.”
Q: You've written about social injustice, economic inequality, environmental issues and human rights. Is the written word the most important weapon a person can wield when speaking out against the ills of the world?
A: I believe in the biodiversity of resistance. Some write, some fight, some fast, some march, some sing… why should there be only one way?
Q: In a world where there's so much turmoil, where it seems every day brings a new crisis, where do you find hope?
A: One of my last collections of political essays was dedicated to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason.” The two are not necessarily connected. I have often found hope in the darkest places. And despair in the most privileged and illuminated places.
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.