“How to tell a shattered story by slowly becoming everybody. No, by slowly becoming everything.” That’s the line that stuck with me from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the latest book by one of our favorite guests, Arundhati Roy. Roy’s strength as a writer — and what she does that so many of us struggle to do — is weave many stories into one fabric, without diluting the integrity of those stories. I’ve spoken to her often about her writing on capitalism, nationalism, solidarity and resistance. In this conversation we’ll talk about all those things again, and visit her new novel against the backdrop of anti-Muslim violence and landmark changes for queer people in her home country of India.
Laura Flanders: You dedicate your book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to the unconsoled, and I believe that we are unconsoled in this moment. But I do worry that we in the United States, as you’ve alluded, become inured, become maybe muddied in our seeing, in our thinking, because there’s so much coming at us at all times. Insofar as you have a take on what’s happening here, where do you think we are? And then obviously I want you to talk about home and where India is, because India we barely see at all.
The thing is, people spend so much time mocking Trump or waiting for him to be impeached. And the danger with that kind of obsession with a single person is that you don’t see the system that produced him. You don’t see that, obviously, there was something about those eight years of Obama’s presidency that created Trump and if we just keep obsessing about this one person without seeing what would happen … what would happen if he wasn’t there tomorrow and Mike Pence came? Would it be better? You know? The kind of havoc that has been created in the world when I think about it now, between Europe and America increasingly, the simple truth is that these economies can only function by selling the weapons that they manufacture. Weapons which you cannot even imagine that the human mind can conceive of and they are doing the selling and we’re doing the buying.
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To keep that economy going, you need a world at war, or almost at war, or just about to go to war, whatever it is. Forget the past, but just look at it from 9/11 onwards. How many countries have been destroyed? Europe is now in chaos also because of the refugees and so on. But what is creating it? How is it possible to continuously believe that you can destabilize country after country after country and anything good is going to come of it?
Is India destabilizing or stabilizing in a scary way?
India, it’s hard to say. This year’s going to be very important here.
Because the elections are coming next May and we’ve had a situation where somehow, since 1925, the goal of the Hindu nationalists was achieved in 2014 when Modi came to power with this absolute majority. In a way I was grateful for the absolute majority because there wasn’t anyone else to blame. There isn’t anyone else to blame for the chaos that has been unleashed. But what is very worrying is that, again, I keep saying you have to look and we have to find ways of keeping up our understanding of what’s going on. Two years ago Modi appeared on TV at 10 o’clock at night and announced that 80 percent of Indian currency was illegal from the next morning. That was like taking a baseball bat and breaking every single citizen’s spine.
They called it “demonetization.”
That’s right. We don’t even have a word in any Indian language for it. But then when you do that, regardless of the economic implications, what you’re doing is you’re sending a message saying, “I can control you at all points, every single one of you.” Now there’s another huge thing which they are trying to bring into legislation called the Aadhaar card where every citizen’s private information, biometrics, all of it is going to be put on a unique identity card. Now, as you know, these databases are being hacked. People’s private information is being bought and sold. Information is gold now. That is a form of surveillance and control that is there forever. Once they’ve got it there, you can’t undo it.
So, these are things which are impossible to wrap your head around. You have the whole new media now. For example, I’m not even talking about Facebook, I’m not even talking about Twitter. I’m talking about a messaging service called WhatsApp, which is very, very big in India. And at one point all of us used to use it because it’s encrypted and the information [is] not available to the authorities. But now you have these kind of WhatsApp farms where fake news, fake videos, and videos that are meant to create communal conflagration are deliberately being sent around. So you have a situation where the only way now that Modi is going to win the election again, is to create massive communal strife between Hindus and Muslims, and so on. Or what they call a limited war with Pakistan, as you know, both are now nuclear neighbors. But the systematic sort of administering of hatred, a manifesto of hatred, is the basis of these people.
We wonder about that here in the US, too. Once that hatred has been unleashed, is the individual required, if Modi doesn’t get elected or doesn’t get an absolute majority in 2019…? Is that the end of it? I mean, there was an eight-year-old girl kidnapped, raped, and murdered, Asifa Bano, recently. We can talk about who did it, et cetera, but what killed her? How do you reel that back?
The thing is that there are so many different kinds of rape, right? You might have a group of … [rapists who kill] a child, but do they then have huge processions [of] people supporting them? Do they have demands that they be released or that the investigation doesn’t continue or that the investigation is handed over to people whom the majority community “trust”?
As happened in this case.
Yes, as happened in this case, but it keeps happening. I mean, there was another person who was arrested for raping, a sort of god man. There were massive protests in his favor. There’s another god man called Asaram Bapu. He was convicted of rape. There had to be security alerts in three states because it was now a question of people supporting him. You see? It’s not just that one community rapes and the other doesn’t. It isn’t that. I’m talking about the public support that comes out. And then there’s sort of [a] ritualistic, almost satanic element to it. It isn’t just rape and kill, but there’s something so terrible about it that you wonder, what is it? What is it? And you read it. I mean she’s one child, but it’s happening all over now. And sometimes I wonder, is this something that requires the sacrifice of the most beautiful thing, which is a little girl? Is there something more to it than just carnal lust and brutality?
Is there? How do you see it?
I don’t know. Because we are living in this world of feudalism and all kinds of strange beliefs. I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. I don’t know how to think about it. None of us know. We are all unable to understand how things have come to this.
Except you are able to talk about it because this entire book is you talking about it.
True. It’s me thinking about it, mourning about it, and then finding how much beauty still does exist in the saddest places. How much strength and power still exists. I have in the last 20 years spent time in what people would consider to be the darkest and most hopeless places, but they have not been dark and hopeless. There are people struggling against it, fighting against it, speaking against it. And I don’t mean in a shallow sort of sloganeering way, but as a way of life. As a deep, dense understanding with poetry and music. Each of these things has such a deep history. The poets that ordinary people in the book recite, love, and whose shrines they go to, to lay flowers. You look at the power of that. People don’t forget their poets, however much violence is done.
Is that what brought you back to fiction?
What brought me back to fiction was just that I had become, as I keep saying, like a sedimentary rock. I have these layers and layers of looking at things. In non-fiction, I have argued, I’ve fought, I’ve driven myself, and other people, crazy. But the complexity of it — the humor, the love, the maverick-ness, the poetry — all of that was accumulating too. I’ve been writing it for 10 years. I was not interested in writing just about one particular class. Just this whole ocean of languages, beliefs, religions, intimacies and anarchies. The fact is that we are facing majoritarianism, which is actually bordering on fascism — not European fascism, our own variety of it. Yet India is a land of minorities. A land whose people are divided formally into castes, religions and ethnicities. People look at India and think it’s … archaic, but society lives in a grid. This book is about people who somehow are off grid and through that off grid-ness, you shine the light on the grid and you look at it, wonder about it.
Maybe we put our hope in the wrong places. Are we wrong to put our hope in democracy, elections?
Well, right now at this point in time, I am not one, though I have been one of those people who has all this time said how little difference there is between the various political parties. But today in India, we are facing a situation where if the BJP comes back in 2019, I don’t think there’s going to be anything left of what we thought of. With all its flaws, it’s not that you’ll be voting for a friend, but just for the enemy that you want to have. So I don’t think we can afford to leave any spaces unchallenged and unfought, including the elections. But if all of us think that by defeating Modi or by impeaching Trump things are going to be OK, we got to have some extra iodine every night.