Arundhati Roy was “woke” back in 1997, a full decade before Erykah Badu made the term a part of pop-culture parlance. To be woke is to understand and fully engage with the rumblings in your self, your community, the wider world.
Roy has often said that she knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of five, when she wrote of her teacher, a “terrifying Australian missionary”: “I hate Miss Mitten. Whenever I see her I see rags. I think her knickers are torn.”
The outburst made it into her first, outrageously bestselling novel, in which Miss Mitten makes a brief cameo as a “born again Christian” who sees Satan in the eyes of the twins, Rahel and Estha, and comes to a satisfyingly sticky ending.
The God of Small Things, set in Ayamenem, India, in the 1990s and 1960s, captured the gulf between Touchables and Untouchables, the iron grip of the Love Laws, the high pitch of communist clashes, the fragmenting of old histories and the building of new ones for tourist consumption, seen through the eyes of the twins, first as children, then as adults. Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, will be published soon, almost exactly 20 years after her first.
Ministry is set partly in Delhi, which has been Roy’s home for much of her adult life. She’s said that she’s lived with the characters in this book for close to 10 years. One, Anjum, is a hijra (a transgender person who is born male), who shifts from the House of Dreams to make a home in a graveyard, with a fluctuating set of friends and fellow homeless people as company. The other, S Tilottama, shares many of her dreams and hopes with a Kashmiri activist Musa Yeswi. The unexpected appearance of an unclaimed infant, a baby girl, connects them and others in the search for places of safety and of love.
Many years ago, I’d spent an afternoon listening to Roy talk about her life, her writing and her politics. Her fiction and her considerable body of non-fiction — essays, broadsides, deeply emotional polemics — might draw from different wells, but they all touch on “power and powerlessness”. That’s what The God of Small Things was about, she told me. That was also the insistent focus of her essays on big dams, nuclear weapons, globalisation, unjust trials in the Indian political system. “It’s not different subjects,” she said, “they’re all the same subjects.”
For a brief while, after she won the Booker Prize, she was India’s newest golden girl. On Desert Island Discs recently, Roy was not nostalgic for that time at all. “I was being marketed as this new product of the global India,” she said. In 1998 she wrote a take-no-prisoners essay critical of the nuclear tests: “My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.” And “the fairy princess was kicked off her pedestal”, she says.
Many Indians are uneasy with or dismissive of Roy’s fierce stances — “India has no option but to colonise itself,” she said in 2014, critiquing the bloodshed that accompanies a certain model of development. When many openly say that freedoms should take a back seat to “national pride” and endorse a monocultural Hinduism, her ability to be the burr under their saddles is deeply resented. But she’s hard to rebut — she’s always lived in India, can’t be termed an outsider, and has often said that her writing comes from love, a “huge affection” for the country itself.
Re-reading The God of Small Things, I realise how much of India’s present-day violence she’d captured back then — the police handing out savage beatings with “efficiency, not anarchy”, the world divided into Touchables and Untouchables, a complex heritage reduced to “toy histories that rich tourists came to play with”, the thin line dividing normal lives from broken ones.
Roy’s fiction and her considerable body of non-fiction might draw from different wells, but they all touch on “power and powerlessness”
Almost all the beauty and richness in her fictional world comes from nature, small creatures, fleeting moments: “a drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway”; “a bird in flight reflected in an old dog’s balls”; “darter birds on the tops of trees, drying their sodden wings spread out like laundry against the sky”.
It’s not just the beauty of her language that makes her such a powerful writer. Roy doesn’t use the word “activist” about herself, pointing out in an interview that writers have always written about the societies they lived in, often trenchantly. She sees it as her job to report on the “non-citizen”, the person who lives in the cracks of the modern world.
The last word of The God of Small Things is, famously, “Tomorrow”. Two decades on and Roy’s novel has lost neither its power nor its ability to shake readers out of stale ways of seeing the world. When it was published, there was some hope that we’d see a change of direction, a less ruthless future, a movement towards greater justice. Instead, in the decades since, India and much of the world has seen turbulence, the devaluing of universal human rights, the return of medieval cruelty, the flicker of future empires and future colonies.
There are so many writers who have risen to the challenge of writing about these times; of them all, I find myself anticipating Roy’s Ministry, with its ironic promise of utmost happiness, the most. I’m not sure she’ll have hope, or a new, happier “tomorrow” to offer us, but she is so good at capturing the richness, and sweetness, of life even as things fall apart.
Nilanjana Roy is the author ‘The Wildings’ and ‘The Hundred Names of Darkness’ and lives in Delhi. @nilanjanaroy
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.