Arundhati Roy on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

7th Jun 2017

Arundhati Roy on stage
Image: Elke Desanghere, Penguin Random House
After a twenty year wait, Arundhati Roy has launched her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy describes the book as ‘osmotic,’ it is packed full of the characters, cultures, and contradictions of India. Once of its key protagonists is a hijra named Anjum, who we are told ‘lived in the graveyard like a tree’.

Speaking in London earlier this week, Arundhati Roy read from her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and discussed global politics and her own creative processes.

Taking to the stage dressed all in white with a jewel glittering in her nose, Arundhati Roy is not the bombastic figure that her writing makes out, instead through the applause she confided a sense of nervousness to the sold-out audience.

This was a home crowd however, and Arundhati Roy was quickly in her stride (and receiving public declarations of love). “Donald Trump is someone who has risen from the effluent of a system that has gone wrong,” she remarked when asked by the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead about whether Trump has any similarities to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Modi can’t be laughed at in the way Trump can, I certainly think he’s more dangerous.”

“The more you try to create a global market where people are supposed to want and like the same thing, the more people want to find ways of creating a community that is different,” Roy explained when asked about increasing polarisation in the world. “The only thing that flows freely across borders is money. People are turned into consuming markets.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Roy’s first novel was the Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things, since then she has published seven non-fiction books and become a major Left wing political thinker renowned across the globe.

The 1990s publishing success of God of Small Things and Roy’s rise to stardom coincided with India’s testing of nuclear weapons. Arundhati Roy told the audience of a choice that presented itself to her: would the feted face of ‘new India’ stay silent on the militarisation of her country and the threat of nuclear war, or would she speak out?

Arundhati Roy chose speech over silence, publishing The End Of Imagination, an essay deeply critical of the Indian Government. It was a move that turned the ‘fairy princess’ into a pariah in many quarters.

Since then, Roy’s outspoken writing and her defence of Dalit’s, Muslims, and the environment, has enraged those that hate her. She faces danger on a daily basis – from lawsuits to the threat of physical attack.

But when asked about her safety, she gently downplayed the threat she faces when compared to the murders and organised violence against Dalits and marginalised communities.

The main thing is you can’t let them win.Arundhati Roy is not on social media, but there is still a huge amount of bile directed against her online: “There’s an organised assault on the internet, especially against women,” she said. “You can’t get paranoid about that, the main thing is you can’t let them win.”

Does a writer as celebrated as Arundhati Roy ever suffer from doubt? “Whether you sell 17 books or 8 million, that isn’t the only measure of quality as a writer. The person you have to live up to is yourself,” she told the audience. “If you don’t doubt your ability it would be bad, but you have to move through the doubts.”

Arundhati Roy says she now considers “language as being the skin on my thoughts.” Describing her own journey as a writer she said: “At some point I encountered the physical sensation that I’d found my language, at some point language became my friend.”

“Writers spend a lifetime trying to close the gap between language and thought,” Roy continued. “The doubts, ghosts, and shadows are all part of closing that gap and being able to write what you think. The idea is to grapple with something. The ambition should be an artistic one.”

So does Arundhati Roy still believe another world is possible? On a quiet day, can she still hear her breathing? I asked her this once her talk had ended to a standing ovation that refused to end or let Roy leave the stage.

Arundhati Roy paused for a moment, “Well,” she said with a smile, “this book is another world.” And then she was gone, whisked away into a crowd of agents, publishers, friends, and well-wishers, off to capture yet more hearts as well as minds.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy was published earlier this week. Guest post by journalist and author Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion.