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.

Vera Brittain: ‘Human Mercy Turns Alike to Friend or Foe’

Vera Brittain
My summer reading includes Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels set in England during and after World War I. Maisie is an intriguing character is an age when much is changing for women–as suffragettes they are taking to the Parliament their fight for the right to vote; at the same time, the war with Germany is bringing many women to a very different “front line.”

Winspear’s novels prompted me to re-read some of the WWI “war poets,” whose description of war’s realities make them anything but jingoistic. Below is a poem by Vera Brittain who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse and requested to be sent to France in 1917. She was stationed at 24 General Hospital at Étaples, where she nursed German prisoners of war. The poem below reflects her experience:

THE GERMAN WARD by VERA BRITTAIN

When the years of strife are over and my
recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks
away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising ‘mid the War-
time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded
lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-sus-
picious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured
breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary
tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds
and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered
on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through
the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form
of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her
smile,
And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin
expressive face-
The weariness of many a toil-filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with
nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness
would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to
friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping
nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their
lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotton when the
sound of War’s alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed
away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working
amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners
lay.

From Verses of a V. A. D. (August 1918)

For more on Vera Brittain, read Vera Brittain: A Feminist Life by Deborah Gorham