Arundhati Roy comes to Oxford

Posted on June 16, 2018 in News & Reviews, Oxford

Booker-prize winning author Arundhati Roy discussed her latest novel at Oxford Town Hall earlier this month, in an event organised by Blackwells. In conversation with Dr Faisal Devji, Fellow at New York University’s Institute of Public Knowledge, she spoke about the themes of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and her inspirations behind the novel.

The event began with a short video showcasing quotes from the book and a backdrop of locations in India to demonstrate the settings of the novel. This was then followed by a discussion between the author and Dr. Devji, as well as readings from the novel and time for questions.

Arundhati spoke about her views on fiction versus non-fiction, having now only written two novels and multiple political essay-type books. She views fiction in its traditional sense as somewhat restricting in what it can give to the reader.  Therefore, she explained, she tends to root her fiction in real-life situations occurring in India, her home country. She said that even if a topic is difficult reading, as her newest book may be with its focus on war and political unrest in Kashmir, the reader can still get lost in its allure as they might in a new city. This suggests Arundhati’s aim in her novel is to couple the tragic and traumatic reality of what is happening in India with the beauty that still exists in the many-faceted country. Her lyrical, rich and descriptive style of writing in this book demonstrates her ability to do this effectively. For example, much of the book is set in a graveyard, and she at times presents this traditionally desolate setting in a beautiful and poetic way: “She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches. She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.”

One question from the audience perhaps voiced what was on everyone’s minds; given the 20-year gap between The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, how long will we have to wait this time for Arundhati’s next novel? Arundhati explained that with all of her books, including her fiction, there is a time and intricacy that goes into them. She talked about how for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness she ‘made’ the language, creating it from scratch and considering the many languages of India in its development, rather than simply ‘taking it from a shelf’. She doesn’t force herself to write and cannot predict the timeline, but said instead that she writes when she has something to say.

The book’s central story of Kashmir and its difficult situation is something which Arundhati believes could not be adequately conveyed through reports and facts. Instead, in order to share the true story, she sees fiction as a superior tool as it allows the real and terrible experiences to be shared through the eyes of her characters in a more human and relatable way. While some authors may intend their fiction as a form of escapism, Arundhati instead uses it as a way of exposing the stark realities of what is happening in the world and immersing the reader into that reality.

The award-winning author went on to speak about the breaking of boundaries and fluidity of identities exhibited in the book, for example, with her characters experiencing different variations of going against what they are traditionally supposed to hold allegiance to. Transformation manifests in the change of names, religions, nationalities, genders and castes, and this provides a rich tapestry of rounded character stories and what many will view as very contemporary themes present in today’s society. Interestingly, the theme of breaking boundaries is something Arundhati herself seeks to do in surpassing the borders of what fiction is expected to do, so boundarilessness is a concept that is close to her heart.

Arundhati also spoke about the fact that she is often called an activist writer. Instead, she sees herself as someone who cannot help but write about what is happening in her home country and taking its politics into account. In this way, real life experiences are a central inspiration to both her non-fiction and fiction.

All we can say is we hope Arundhati Roy continues to shine a light on the life and times of India and its people, and that she continues to write what she feels she needs to say. Hopefully we will not have to wait too long for her next novel!