Writers & Company

Arundhati Roy on love, war and the fragility of happiness

Indian writer Arundhati Roy joins Eleanor Wachtel to discuss The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It's the long-awaited second novel from the author of the Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things.
Eleanor Wachtel with Arundhati Roy in Toronto. Eleanor interviewed the Man Booker Prize-winning author for the first time in 1997. (Sandra Rabinovitch)

Twenty years after her acclaimed debut The God of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy is back with a new novel. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an ambitious work that explores gender identity, nationalism, Kashmiri independence, and many forms of both violence and love. 

In a 1997 interview, Roy told Eleanor Wachtel that she didn't see herself as a novelist and wasn't sure she'd write another one — a surprising claim from a 35-year-old whose debut novel would go on to win the Man Booker Prize, making Roy the first Indian woman to receive the honour, and sell more than eight million copies worldwide. She's spent the past two decades concentrating on political activism in India, writing books and making documentaries about the caste system, government corruption, environmental exploitation and more. Many of these themes find their way into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Roy spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto.

Incendiary borders

I see The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as a book about incendiary borders. India is a society which, when you view it from the West, appears to be anarchic and unruly. In fact, it is a society that lives within a very fine iron grid of caste, of ethnicity, of religion. And nobody is allowed to transgress the grid. There are 4,000 or more castes, and very few will marry outside of their caste. So each of the characters in the book has a border running through them — someone who is born a boy becomes a girl, a member of the untouchable [caste] converts to Islam, and so on. These borders challenge the strict little solitary cells in which people are placed and forced to live in India.

The trauma of war

All over the world, wars are happening that cannot be won or lost, wars that just destroy countries and destroy people. That's what's happening in Kashmir. It's the most densely militarized zone in the world, and that's gone on for 25 years. A whole population lives under the boot of the army, who think they have a moral right to do this, and they have no accountability.

I realized that you can't tell this story any way other than through fiction. It's not just a question of documenting the unmarked graves, or telling you how many people have disappeared, or describing through a human rights report the nature of the atrocities and torture. It's about what it does to the people on every side. What does it do to the Indians who see this on the news every day and are supposed to stand up and applaud for the great thing that our army is doing? How do we live with that horror that you're supposed to digest every day? How do we tolerate that and then speak out against any injustice we see being done to ourselves? These are the questions in the book, which are looked at from different angles.

Love and redemption

I think love is the only redemption we have. As a species, we know how to hate and how to kill, but how to love and whom to love and how to expand in the face of a challenge is difficult. Especially today in India where there is a government that has a manifesto of hatred. It has a very openly stated agenda of changing the constitution — which says India is a socialist secular republic — to make it a Hindu nation. So minorities are being hounded and pushed to the bottom of the food chain. People are being lynched in the roads openly. You hear this news every day. So one of the things that this book is about is how solidarities can be made. Happiness is a very fragile, momentary thing. How can you get together, rather than splinter, and agree to inhabit these little cubbyholes that have been prepared for you?

Arundhati Roy's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Sufi Bhakti" by Debashish Bhattacharya.