Arundhati Roy’s most recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is set largely in Delhi and Kashmir and weaves stories from some of the darkest episodes in modern Indian history. The following is an excerpt from her conversation over Skype from New Delhi during the International Conference of the Literary Society of Pakistan ‘Getting our Bearings Right: Literature, Society and Prosperity’, jointly hosted by the Department of English and Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue at the International Islamic University, Islamabad
I’ve heard the characters from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness often visit you. Are they still in touch?
Of course they are! Now they’ll never go away. Initially they would just visit, but then gradually they just moved in. Tilo is still writing to her doctor and Anjum is looking at all of you, assessing you. All the animals are here and Jannat Guest House is here, too.
Why does Tilo make the decisions she makes? For instance, choosing to live at Jannat with Anjum and Saddam Hussein et al.
She is somebody who thinks, who understands and who lives on the edge of many things, who has all kinds of borders and boundaries running through her. Eventually, as she says in the book, she just couldn’t live anymore at an address she ought not to be at. Somehow Jannat is that place where the borders of human beings and animals, of men and women, of life and death, of India and Kashmir, of everything, are porous.
At one point, Anjum asserts, “I am not everyone!” She proves that by building Jannat, by sheltering and protecting the marginalised ones. What makes her unique?
At first she says, “I am everyone.” When talking to the man who knew English, she says, “I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I am not Anjum, I am Anjuman. I am a mehfil, I am a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite?” And the time she says “I’m not everyone” is when they’re trying to persuade her at Khwaabgah to take anti-depressant pills. They say everyone takes them; she says, “I’m not everyone.” But there is no leader in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Anjum is a shelter, a person who — just like her understanding of Hazrat Sarmad — lives outside society’s normative definitions. Everyone converging in Jannat and its surrounding graveyard lives outside the grid that we in India, as well as you in Pakistan, live in: a hierarchical grid of caste, religion and all that. Jannat gives shelter to those who don’t fit into that grid necessarily and they are not necessarily always poor.
Dr Azad Bhartiya says capitalism is poisoned honey. How do you view present-day capitalism, which is now also termed surveillance capitalism?
When the German edition of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came out, I did an interview with a journalist who waited for me in the lobby of a Germany hotel with a big bouquet of flowers. When I arrived he made a sweeping bow and said, “Madam Roy, I am Azad Bhartiya.” I said, “Well, that’s nice, because I am also Azad Bhartiya.” All of us are, in a way, dreamers of some kind, but Azad, in his own way, has an understanding of what is called surveillance capitalism. In India we have the biometric Aadhaar Card in which everyone’s data is stored. One politician during [the last] elections told voters, “We know who votes for whom and therefore villages who have given me 80 percent of the votes will get jobs and upgradation, and those who haven’t voted for me, would be suffering.” We know now that Facebook, Google and our mobile phones are digital surveillance agencies. Edward Snowden has confirmed that. I’m sure you know that in Pakistan, too, all your phone calls, emails, everything is watched. We talk to the third listener when we speak. Dr Azad Bhartiya tells us that story in his own slightly mad way.
Mulaqat Ali believes poetry cures ailments. As a hakim, he writes verses instead of prescriptions. Does literature have the power to heal?
Mulaqat Ali uses poetry in the literal sense of poetry as medicine. He has couplets for every ailment and every political situation. But if one extended the meaning of poetry to include art, literature and music, then perhaps it’s our only hope now, because we see situations where facts and news cannot be trusted anymore. Although we cannot ever stop challenging false facts and fake news, through art we have to build our own vision of the world. Sharing stories is the earliest form of community building; even the non-fiction I write is often a form of storytelling.
The romance with resistance is evident in the real sense also, as Saddam Hussein dreams of avenging his father’s murder, idealising Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Like the other characters, Saddam has an incendiary border running through him. He is born Dayachand, in a family of chamaars [skinners] and watches his father — accused of killing a cow — being lynched by Hindu vigilantes. Saddam goes to Delhi and ends up in the hospital mortuary from where Anjum steals electricity for Jannat. They become friends. He goes by ‘Saddam Hussein’, but she knows he’s not Muslim. He shows her a video of Saddam Hussein’s execution he keeps in his phone. Anjum says, “Saddam Hussein was a bastard.” He says, “Maybe, but I want to be a bastard like him.” Saddam has converted to Islam and he doesn’t want to stick with the narrative of a good, helpless, Dalit victim. He dreams of vengeance against the policemen in whose station his father was lynched, but never realises that dream because he is too inventive to remain mired in that narrative. But it helps him motor through life with a wonderful subversive energy, moving from scheme to scheme to stay afloat in a world where the odds are stacked against him.
Why is it important to create and understand spaces such as Jantar Mantar?
Jantar Mantar is not a space I created; it’s a place in Delhi. As places where people could come to protest were gradually shut down, Jantar Mantar — until a few years ago — became that place where protests were allowed. All the great resistance movements went through it. Last year, the government shut it down. It was later re-opened by the courts. It was a very vibrant, exciting space. Now it’s a shadow of its former self, reduced to office hours and visits are allowed only with police permission. And of course, as in the book, Jantar Mantar has been taken over by right-wing protesters who have pushed the poorer people protesting dams, eviction, privatisation and slum demolition out of the picture.
Some would call The Ministry of Utmost Happiness multilingual because of your experimentation with language. Even English appears in variants. Why?
In Delhi, we live in several languages every day. The Hindu right’s crusade of one language, one religion, one country — Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan — is a fake idea. We are not that. We are an ocean of a people with thousands of dialects and languages; you can’t boil down our myriad cultural and actual vocabulary into a simple sludge. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been translated into around 51 languages. The Hindi translator had to retain the Urdu idiom in the parts about Anjum and old Delhi. Then there are places where you use different idioms of Hindi. Many characters in the book don’t speak the same language and often translate things inventively for each other.
Some critics read the novel as a book of hope, but then Tilo says, “What kills the mothers of disappeared ones is hope.”
These are categorisations which other people have to make of a writer’s work. It’s childish to categorise novels, saying this one’s about hope and that one’s about despair because novels are multifaceted and complicated beasts. Azad Bhartyia has a little thesis about hope — he talks about how in Jantar Mantar “they feed us little bits of hope through the bars of our cage.” One of my books of essays was dedicated to those who have learned to separate hope from reason. To me, hope is a complicated thing — sometimes corrosive and sometimes real.
Why is it necessary for writers to be bold and what is considered to be dangerous writing?
I don’t ever make rules for how writers should be. All they should do is write well, whether about something dangerous or whether about the private life of a goldfish. Writers and artists have a freedom that not everybody has. It’s a pity not to use it. For example, politicians and people involved in the process of asking for votes cannot afford to say something that they worry about as being unpopular. So who is going to say those things, those unpopular things that must be said?
What about the necessity of being careful when writing about Kashmir?
One has to be very careful here. Of course, I have been attacked; a Bollywood actor who is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party suggested that the [Indian] army use me as a human shield in Kashmir. But there are plenty of people who have begun to understand that you can’t have separate moral standards for yourself and for other people. I’m considered anti-national here, there are people who shout slogans that Arundhati Roy is a traitor, she is friends with Pakistan. My point is that if I were in Pakistan, I would be considered a traitor there, too. I’m seditious at heart.
The interviewer is Chair, Department of English at International Islamic University, Islamabad, and author of the novel Sasa
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 18th, 2019