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20 years after The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

IN THE PINK: Arundhati Roy, photographed in a quiet corner of Delhi, to which she retreated often while writing her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Photographed by Rena Effendi)

IN THE PINK: Arundhati Roy, photographed in a quiet corner of Delhi, to which she retreated often while writing her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Photographed by Rena Effendi)

by Daphne Beal (VOGUE)
On the top floor of a small building on a quiet lane in central Delhi, the writer Arun­dhati Roy greets me at the door of her apartment, accompanied by two eagerly barking dogs, whose names, she tells me, translate as Mrs. Filthy Darling and Beloved of the Earth. “Filth and Dirt,” Roy says cheerfully as she welcomes me into her large, sunny kitchen and starts making coffee in an Italian moka pot—“It’ll be weak, South Indian–style, OK?” she says with a laugh.
It’s been fifteen years since we first met—I came to Delhi in 2002 to write about Roy’s fearless political activism for this magazine—and at 57, she seems virtually unchanged. Her curly hair may be grayer (“Gray pride,” she likes to joke), but her wide eyes, lined lightly in kohl, remain merry, and her easy laugh is the same. She’s in a fine mood, having been up much of the night overseeing “the comma wars” between her American and British copy editors at Knopf and Penguin UK over the proofs of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first since 1997, when The God of Small Things was published.
To say Roy’s latest venture into fiction has been long awaited is an understatement. An instant best seller, The God of Small Things—which Junot Díaz calls “one of the single most important novels written in English”—won the Man Booker Prize and quickly went on to become a global literary phenomenon. After working on the new novel for ten years, last August Roy texted her British agent, David Godwin, with one word: “Done.” Godwin got on the first plane to Delhi. He was nervous when she handed him the manuscript. “But then I read the opening,” he says, “and thought, Yeah, we’re back.” When The Ministry of Utmost Happiness comes out this month, it will be published in 30 countries.
From the novel’s beginning—“She lived in the graveyard like a tree”—one is swept up in the story. “She” is Anjum, born a hermaphrodite in Old Delhi, who, after being raised as a boy named Aftab, goes to live as a woman in a nearby home for hijras (the South Asian term for transgender women). Headstrong and magnetic, she becomes the spokes­person for the hijra community. But after barely surviving a Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, Anjum renounces everything to set up a solitary new life in a cemetery, where she builds a guesthouse among the gravestones that gradually becomes home to a colorful cast of characters.
More than 400 pages long, The Ministry is a densely populated contemporary novel in the tradition of Dickens, Tolstoy, and García Márquez. If The God of Small Things was a lushly imagined, intimate family novel slashed through with politics, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, though primarily set in Delhi, encompasses wildly different economic, religious, and cultural realms across the Indian subcontinent and as far away as Iraq and California. Animating it is a kaleidoscopic variety of bohemians, army majors, protesters, police chiefs, revolutionaries, and lovers. “She has the instinct of sympathy for the underdog,” says Roy’s friend the writer Pankaj Mishra. “It’s a rare gift. She’s always with the people who are powerless.”
With her exquisite and dynamic storytelling, Roy balances scenes of suffering and corruption with flashes of humor, giddiness, and even transcendence. In one poetic passage a baby is found “on the concrete pavement, in a crib of litter: silver cigarette foil, a few plastic bags and empty packets of Uncle Chipps. She lay in a pool of light, under a column of swarming neon-lit mosquitoes, naked. Her skin was blue-black, sleek as a baby seal’s.” To read the book is to hear Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, and all kinds of English, and to be flooded with impressions of India right now. As Díaz says, “If you really want to know the world beyond our corporate-sponsored dreamscapes, you read writers like Roy. She shows you what’s really going on.”
It’s hard to imagine Roy’s new novel existing without her nonfiction. “I’m pretty sure that I’m fundamentally a fiction writer. Nonfiction is the fretwork,” she says. “Politically, whatever positions I’ve taken, I’ve taken. That was a march. This is something else. This is a dance.”
Despite her numerous circles, Roy sees herself as a creature of solitude. “The most un-Indian thing about me is how alone I am,” she says. She keeps a place to write in the winding alleys of Old Delhi, about a half-hour’s drive from her apartment. “Don’t call it a writing studio,” she says as we head there one afternoon. “That sounds so New York. Call it a refuge.” Leaving the car at Turkman Gate, one of the original portals to the old city, she pulls me deftly through an oncoming barrage of auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and cars. “These streets are in me, and these goats,” she says, as we pass one dressed in a burlap sack eating from the gutter.
On my last visit to Roy, I find her at home in a meeting with a young leader in the Dalit-rights movement. The Supreme Court has met to say it will discuss Roy’s case in a month’s time but later postpones it. (“The process is the punishment,” she says wryly.) And she is about to go to the London Book Fair to give a reading from The Ministry to 1,000 Penguin UK employees at the Barbican Centre, to deliver 26 carefully marked proofs of the book cover to her publishers with all her notations, and to meet with her many translators to discuss the nuances of the prose. “You end up thinking in so many languages and dialects,” she says. “We are living in Babel now.”
(-Excerpt from Vogue, magazine, June issue)

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