We speak with renown Indian writer Arundhati Roy on the rise of Hindu nationalism and the pressures she experienced as the “face of the new India,” which came at a time when the Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power. She has just published her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” It’s her first work of fiction since the Booker Prize-winning “The God of Small Things” published in 1997.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of India’s most famous writers, Arundhati Roy. Twenty years after her debut novel, The God of Small Things, made her a literary sensation, but she turned away from fiction, became a leading critic of U.S. empire, the wars in the Middle East, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, writing about them in nonfiction. Now Arundhati Roy has returned to fiction and has just released her second novel. It’s titled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Well, last week, Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with Arundhati Roy in our New York studio. I asked her how winning the Booker Prize—at the time, she was the youngest writer ever to win it—affected her life as a writer.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was obviously, you know, thrilling to win the Booker Prize. It wasn’t something that I had thought about as being even a possibility. But after that, it became complicated, because if you actually become very well known and then you—let’s say, you move to a place, London or New York, where lots of well-known international people live, then it’s a different story. But if you want to carry on living where you lived and being with your old friends, you know, all of them have to deal with the Booker Prize and the fame, and it’s really hard. But it’s OK.
But the thing that happened was that very soon after I won the Booker Prize, the BJP government came to power, did the nuclear tests. And I was, at that point, you know, on the cover of every magazine. I was the face of this new India. And then the new India, to my mind, suddenly turned ugly. The public discourse after those tests became overtly nationalist, overtly ugly. Things that could not have been said, even if they were thought, publicly were now acceptable. And if I hadn’t stepped off that train, I would have been part of it. I didn’t have the space to be neutral, or, as Howard Zinn says, you can’t be neutral on a moving train, but especially not if you’re suddenly famous, you know? So, I wrote “The End of Imagination,” which was the first essay, condemning the tests. And, of course, that was the end of my romance as the face of the new India.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember when you came to the United States, after writing one of your essays around the Iraq War. You were fierce in your criticism of President Bush. You held a news conference. And I can’t remember which women’s magazine came up to you after—or maybe I can—and said, “Can we just follow you shopping?”
ARUNDHATI ROY: Really? I don’t remember that. Really?
AMY GOODMAN: But what it means to be a kind of star like that, as you’re taking on these critical issues.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it’s—you know, the thing is that I’ve now been baptized in fire, you know, because I’ve had—I’ve had so much happen in the course of the political writing. I mean, just last—last month, based on some fake news in a Pakistani website saying that I had said something in Kashmir, a BJP member of parliament suggested that instead of the Kashmiri man, I should be used as a human shield in Kashmir, you know? So, but that’s all part of how they are with a lot of women who stand up to them. You know, there’s that whole thing going on. And so, but eventually it just makes you more—more sharp, I think. You know, I mean, you don’t—you know, people call me fearless and all that. I’m not fearless. I think it’s stupid to be fearless, really. You have to be extremely fearful, extremely knowledgeable about the possible consequences, and then do what you’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: People wrote in around the world when they heard you were going to be on. Abdullah AbduSalam in Nigeria wrote something that is very—sounds like it fits right in with what you’re saying, said, “I would like to ask Arundhati Roy how she copes with the hatred against her in India and how we can combat the tyranny of opinion in the world today.”
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, see, the thing is that, you know, the hatred is also a bit exaggerated, because they have these troll factories. You know, they have—they have—it’s a factory product, too, you know? So it exaggerates the extent. When I walk on the streets, I certainly don’t feel hated in India. But they would like to—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re revered, as well.
ARUNDHATI ROY: They would like to project it as such, you know? And there are many people in India who are standing up to what’s going on there, many people, people more vulnerable than me, too, you know? So it’s a remarkable country for that reason. You know, students, they were so much trouble in the campuses last year. You know, so I certainly—they would like me to portray myself as some lone warrior, the sole voice. That’s not true. I’m just one of many people who believe the things I believe, you know? I mean, many people don’t write the novels, but many people do believe what I—there would be something wrong with my politics if I was really just a lone person. I am in the heart of a crowd.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, it seems that with the publication of this book, you can expect only more fame, because the book is already due to be translated into at least 30 languages. And I want to go to what some of the reviewers of this book, who have suggested that there—there may be analogies between The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and other Indian novelists writing in English. But it strikes us that you may have a greater affinity to writers like the Uruguayan novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano, who died in 2015. Two years before he died, in 2013, Democracy Now! spoke to Galeano in our New York studio. Let’s go to a clip.
EDUARDO GALEANO: I didn’t receive a formal education. I was educated in the Montevideo cafe, in the cafes of Montevideo. There, I received my first lessons in the art of telling stories, storytelling. I was very, very young and sat at one table, neighbor of other table of people, old people, or more or less old, and they were telling stories, and I was hearing, because they were very good storytellers, anonymous. …
We have a memory cut in pieces. And I write trying to recover our real memory, the memory of humankind, what I call the human rainbow, which is much more colorful and beautiful than the other one, the other rainbow. But the human rainbow had been mutilated by machismo, racism, militarism and a lot of other isms, who have been terribly killing our greatness, our possible greatness, our possible beauty.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, who passed away in 2015. So could tell us—
ARUNDHATI ROY: Who I loved dearly, yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, could you tell us about him and the possible affinities between your work and his?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, Eduardo was a master of the shattered story, even though I don’t think he wrote fiction. As far as I know, he never wrote any novels. But he wrote a beautiful book called The Open Veins of Latin America. And he had that—I think, you know, perhaps he had that way of making realism magical without being a magical realist, you know? What a writer he was! And what a seer! Wonderful.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s on the back of your book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, that quote of yours: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Explain what you mean by “shattered story” and that quote.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s actually a little scribble in one of Tilo’s many notebooks, so it’s in quotes. But what do I mean? Well, I think what I mean is that the power of telling a story which is not a subject heading, you know, a story that is not afraid at looking at the connections, like Eduardo was saying—you know, what is—is there a connection between the new, emerging, you know, great economy, nuclear superpower, and patriarchy? Is there a connection between the rise of the Hindu right, what is happening in Kashmir, how women are treated, what’s happening—I mean, that we are a society that practices caste, which is the most institutionalized form of hierarchy? And yet few people write about it. It’s like writing about apartheid South Africa omitting to mention there was apartheid. But what is the connection between the way women are treated and all these things that I mentioned? If you write books where each of them is a subject heading, an academic piece or journalism, you don’t understand fully the rainbow that he’s talking, not a beautiful one necessarily sometimes. But each of—so that’s what I mean.
This is what makes up the air we breathe. And so, it’s a shattered story, but, actually, if you want to breathe in that air, you have to become everything, you know, and the creatures—and the fact that perhaps the most profound political education I received was in the Narmada Valley and the understanding of what big dams do to rivers, to populations, to fish. It was not just about human beings and progress and development, but, you know, a mind that looks at a river and thinks, “I must pour tons and tons of cement into it,” but how a river that belongs to a civilization, the water can be centralized, and then—then, once it’s centralized, it can be controlled, and once it’s controlled, it can be given to the hotel industry or to the golf courses, instead of to the people who lived and grew crops by its banks. And you can say that this is development, you know? So, you have to become that river, too.
AMY GOODMAN: You also take on many controversies, that may not be as controversial where you are, but you come to the United States. Abortion is a centerpiece of a Republican plan to dismantle women’s healthcare, particularly focused on Planned Parenthood. There’s an abortion in this book.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, there’s a—but that’s—I mean, it’s not controversial in India. But it’s always interesting to see how, you know, the same people who are happy to bomb whole countries to smithereens, to massacre people, to destroy whole populations, suddenly begin to talk about abortion in this way, you know? And it’s the same in India. I mean, I remember watching people demonstrating outside the Irish Embassy because an Indian woman who could not get an abortion had died in Dublin. And they were the same people who are celebrating the massacre of women in Gujarat.
Yesterday, by the way, in the Brooklyn Academy, you know who was present? The daughter of the Ehsan Jafri, the member of the Legislative Assembly who was hacked to death in 2002 Gujarat. His wife, Zakia Jafri, has spent all these years in court after court trying to get justice. Nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: And she was at your reading last night—
ARUNDHATI ROY: She was, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Explain the significance of that, and, you know, leading right up to President Trump meeting Prime Minister Modi on Monday.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Ehsan Jafri was, obviously, a Muslim, but he was a trade union leader and a former member of the Legislative Assembly in Gujarat in 2002. And when the—post the train, the burning of the Hindu pilgrims on a train, when the mobs decided that collective punishment of the Muslim community was the answer to that, and started to massacre Muslims on the streets, rape women and so on, something like 60 people sheltered in Ehsan Jafri’s very middle-class home in a housing colony in Ahmedabad, hoping that, you know, because he was a politician, he would be able to save them. A mob gathered. Ehsan Jafri made 200 phone calls, to all the politicians. The police came and went. Nobody did anything. He came out of his house to reason with the mob, to ask them to at least spare the women and children. They hacked him to death. They killed him, and then they killed everybody else. And then the killers boasted about this on camera, right? And his daughter was there at the reading yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was Modi’s role at this time?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time. So he was the man responsible for law and order at the time. And when he was—and then he—of course, it was very close to elections. You know, most massacres in India are very close to elections. And they—but, you know, they polarized the vote, and so he won the elections. And when he was campaigning for prime ministers, Reuters asked him whether he regretted what had happened under his stewardship in Gujarat in 2002, and he said—I mean, I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Even if I was driving a car and a puppy came under my wheels, I would regret it.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, one of the things he said is, “I feel sad”—he’s quoted by a British author and TV producer, saying, “I feel sad about what happened, but no guilt. And no court has come even close to establishing it.”
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, so the point is that it’s not about—it’s not about legal—I mean, if you cannot establish a hands-on, legal link that you’re really involved in any of it, but you were the chief minister, you know, you do have a moral responsibility. I mean, it’s not about just—you know, legal recourse has never helped the onset of this kind of majoritarianism and fundamentalism.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Arundhati Roy, author of the new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. We go on with that interview, and we brought you Part 1 last week. To see it all, you can go to democracynow.org. Arundhati Roy has written The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her second fiction book, her second novel since 20 years ago, when she wrote The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy is traveling the country. On June 27th, she will be at Town Hall in Seattle, and, on June 28th, at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco.