Arundhati Roy: Fiction, Prayer, and the Ministry of Utmost Happiness

New Delhi: Social activist Arundhati Roy gestures during a news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore.

“[Fiction] is a way of seeing. A way of thinking, it is a prayer, it is a song.”–Arundhati Roy, interview in The Hindu

“You know, Anjum, who was Aftab, or the book in general, is—you know, she’s not a signifier. This is not a sort of social history of the trans community. I mean, she’s a character, like many other characters in the book, very unique, very much herself. And when she’s born in the walled city and grows up, and then when she—she actually moves out of her home to a place close by called Khwabgah, which in Urdu means “the House of Dreams,” where she lives with a community of other people, none of whom is like herself. You know, even inside the Khwabgah, though there are many trans women, people who are—Anjum, for example, she’s a hermaphrodite, but there are others who are men, who are Muslim and don’t believe in having surgery, some who do. There are Hindus. There are Sunnis. There are Shias. So, they themselves are a very diverse community. But they look at the world and call it duniya, which means “the world” in Urdu, which is something else. But they have a history of being sort of inside and outside the community, which sort of predates the kind of Western, liberal, rights-based discourse, though, even in the story, as it modernizes, you know, there is that feudal story overlapping with the new, modern language and so on.

But actually, Anjum, though she does have this incendiary border of gender running through her—all the characters have a border, which is, for example, one of the—she moves into the graveyard, and she builds—eventually, she builds a guest house, called Jannat, which is the Paradise guest house. And one of the people who becomes a very close comrade of hers is a young man who was—who is a Dalit, who has watched Hindu mobs beat his father to death, as is happening every day now with Muslims and Dalits, because he was transporting a carcass of a dead cow, and so he’s beaten to death by people who call themselves cow protectors. And he converts to Islam, and so—and calls himself Saddam Hussein, because he’s very impressed by this video he sees of Saddam’s execution and the disdain he shows for his executioners. So Saddam has this border of caste and religious conversion—incendiary in India—running through him. The other major character is a woman called Tilottama from the south, and she is also a person of indeterminate origins as far as India is concerned. There’s Musa, who is now a Kashmiri, fighting, with the national border running through him.

So, it’s not conceptual. I mean, what happens is that India is a society of such minute divisions, such institutionalized hierarchies, where caste is a mesh that presses people down and holds them down in a grid. And so, all these stories somehow are about people who just don’t fit into that grid and who eventually create a little community, and a kind of solidarity emerges, which is a solidarity of the heart. You know, it’s not a solidarity of memorandi or academic discourse, but a solidarity which is human, which is based on unorthodox kinds of love—not even sexual love or anything, it’s just based on humanness.”–Arundhati Roy on her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, from Democracy Now.