Arundhati Roy: In Conversation at the Brooklyn Public Library

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Arundhati Roy at the Brooklyn Public Library. Her first novel in 20 years is long listed for the Man Booker Prize, which if it wins will be her second. (Photo by Chaitram Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

May 2 is Read Across America Day, Theodor Geisel’s (Dr Suess) birthday,
an annual event on which everyone across the United States is encouraged
to read. This year’s event coincided with the appearance of renowned
author Arundhati Roy at the Brooklyn Public Library in conversation with her
editor, Robin Desser. She read from her book: The Ministry of the Utmost
Happiness. The library was filled to capacity with over 400 book lovers
attending.

In her introduction to the book she presented a short film, narrated by her
and prepared specially for her presentation because, as she explained
there are so many different settings (rural, urban, jungle, graveyard and
geographic regions) in the book that it would be difficult for the reader to
create the images by just reading the book.

Suzanna Arundhati Roy is an Indian author, actress, and activist on human
rights and environmental issues, known internationally for writing both
fiction and nonfiction genres. Her first novel: The God of Small Things,
published in 1997 won the Man Booker Prize. It became the biggest-selling
book by a non-expatriate Indian author. It was on the New York Times
bestseller list for 49 weeks and has since been published in 33 languages.
Released last year, her first novel after 20 years, The Ministry of the Utmost
Happiness is also long listed for the Man Booker Prize and The Hindu
Literary Prize. It was recently announced that it would be translated into
Hindi and Urdu. The book is one of the 12 novels selected from the 144
submitted to compete for the £50 000 prize.

She has already won Lannan Cultural Freedom Award (2002) for
advocating for human rights, the Sydney Peace Prize (2004) and the
Sahitya Akademi Award (2006).

The book has over twenty five characters. The setting takes the reader from
Delhi to Kashmir. It is about the lives and struggles of these diverse
characters – hijras, transgender, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, architect, a
freedom fighter, a member of the Indian Intelligence Service, a horse, a cat,
and even a dung beetle. “Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly,
rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they
live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love – and by hope.”

According to Roy, Anjum a eunuch who was born Aftab and Muslim moves
into a graveyard and lives this ravaged specter for a while, out grieving
everyone who comes to bury their dead, eventually she recovers and starts
enclosing the graves of her relatives and builds the Janath Guest House,
(paradise), and welcomes those who have fallen off the grid. And this is not
just, as some people think, just people at the bottom of the ladder.

The book is dedicated to the Unconsoled. She explained “it’s all kinds of
Unconsoled who show up, and find space for all their organs and their
bodies, in the grave yard. And truthfully I mean – I know that in this age of
fast food and fast consumption and fast reading it’s probably not the right
thing for me to say, but .. its the true thing that the ministry cannot be
consumed. It offers hope.

It takes a long time before you really meet the fish that swim at the bottom,
the fish in the middle and the Unconsoled, who come to the Janath Guest
House (the graveyard that is turned into living quarters), when you look at
who lives in that place, it’s a revolution, It’s a real revolution. So there are
these strange alliances between the living and the dead. Between human
beings and animals. Between those who need consolation and the shelter
that they find. But in a way it’s all of us. I think most especially those of us
who pretend to be really happy on Facebook.”

When Roy, an architect by training, talks about a real revolution, she is
talking about being involved and determined. She has always been on the
side of the “people at the bottom of the ladder” who have no voice. She
entered the forests with the Maoists Guerrillas, who former Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh described as the “biggest internal threat to India since
independence.” Roy was asked to mediate between the Maoists and the
government but she said she would not be good at it and declined. She
has also spoken out against the deadly attacks on Muslims in Gujarat in
2002 following the burning of a train car in which fifty-nine men, women, and
children (Hindu pilgrims) were killed.

She has protested against government corruption and against the rise of
Hindu Nationalism in India. She narrowly escaped sedition charges when
she voiced support for and campaigned for Kashmiri Independence and in
defense of Maoist rebels. She was the voice of the people against the
construction of massive hydroelectric dams in the Narmada Valley. She was
brought up on charges which were later dropped but was convicted of
contempt for remarks she made and which the judges of the Supreme Court
said were offensive to them. She was fined and sentenced to one day in
jail.

Roy admits that when she writes nonfiction she writes with rage. She
quotes James Baldwin in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – “They would
not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was
true.” Her works reflect that rage. Just read for example The Algebra of
Infinite Justice which she wrote at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, one
of five essays later included in Power Politics (2001); An Ordinary Person’s
Guide to Empire (2004) includes six more essays; and Things That Can and
Cannot Be Said (2016).

What’s next for Arundhati Roy? Will she write fiction again? She answers,
“See the best thing about writing is no one really knows. And honestly, in
this time, when things are the way they are, it’s difficult to really know. I felt
at my most vulnerable when I was in the last few months of finishing writing
The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness. Because the only way I could write it
is by telling myself: Just write it how you want to, and then don’t publish it.
But of course the writer’s ego does not allow that.

The last few months when I was about to finish it, was a time of great
student unrest. There were students who had been arrested, beaten up,
police entering campuses, and one night on the main news, the main TV
anchor was literally screaming: ‘Yeah but these are only students. You
know who is the one who started it? And this woman (Roy) – why is she
free? She’s written this. She’s said this.’ And it was the first time I just left
India, because I was so frightened of not being able to finish the book. But
then in a few days I went back, because I couldn’t be that person – who
fled. But I think in the next year or so things are going to be very, very, very,
hard in India.”

My conclusion is that Roy is going to remain in India. She is needed now
more than ever before. As she said, “— So I don’t think I can have plans – I
think I have to see what needs to be done and who one needs to do things
with. And then be prepared for whatever one needs to be prepared for.”

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