“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke…”
As I was waiting for the evening to begin, I read a few of opening lines of the novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and I was blown away by the beautiful, flowing language and the imagery created by so few words. The night ahead suddenly held so much more promise.
The event began with a short film, a composite words scrawled across the screen, and passages read aloud by Arundhati Roy herself, over the backdrop of landscapes of India. This film gave you a glimpse into the world and characters she has created, and it made for an intense experience. It was immersive, uncomfortable, deep and engaging, and certainly gave a taste of the novel to be discussed later in the evening.
Roy then proceeded to read a substantial passage live, perhaps to give the audience a feel of the book. As this evening took place on publication night, no-one would have read it (besides perhaps a few honoured critics) so this was necessary to truly encapsulate the novel and be able to understand where she was coming from as she wrote the book. She was a joy to listen to; if you enjoy listening to audio books, I urge you to purchase this one. Roy reads it herself, and her voice lends itself beautifully to her rich, flowing prose. She also said that as she was recording it she noticed facets of the book she herself previously hadn’t noticed or given a second thought to, so it would definitely be one way of further examining the novel.
The conversation itself twisted and turned in many directions, emotional and political as well as literary. It has been nearly 20 years since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was published, for which she won the Booker prize. Although she has written many non-fiction works, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness marks her first return to fiction in that time.
Roy said the first wisps of characters appeared to her like smoke about 10 years ago, slowly gaining substance and shape over time. Often they appeared on her coffee table she said, and wouldn’t leave her alone, so she had to write. She compared the characters in her novel to Billie Holiday, which sets the tone for the novel quite assuredly. Billie Holiday, for those who are unaware or unsure, was a jazz singer in the 1930s and 40s known for her slightly sad and meaningful blues music.
Roy said herself that she never felt that she was obligated to write more novels or more fiction, instead wanting to make sure that whatever she wrote was in the correct format. She did not want to write a novel that should have been a political essay for example. She explained that this book is intrinsically linked to the city of Kashmir, and you cannot use reportage to explain or convey the life of the Kashmiri. A novel gives you the outlet to write about the daily lives of people living there.
Kashmir, she goes on to say, is a nerve-centre, where brutality is faced from all angles. The army there have become an administration, and every movement of the common people is observed by this army: there is no escape and one is always a target. This elegantly described in the novel:
“In every part of the legendary Valley of Kashmir, whatever people might be doing- walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home- they were in the rifle sights of a soldier. And because they were in the rifle sights of a soldier, whatever they might be doing- walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home- they were a legitimate target.” (p347)
This is also echoed in the repetition of the image of a cinema hall, now an interrogation hall, but actually a torture centre. Roy explains how you see and hear of it from different angles throughout the novel: you see the outside, hear about it in a conversation, and see the inside lobby…
Despite this gritty and often graphic portrayal of life in Kashmir, Roy insists that she does not write novels to raise awareness. Yes she may have aims or goals when writing her essays, but she holds no such immediate goals for fiction. She does however go on to say that her writing is art, and is it very political, at least to her. Not in the sense of electoral politics, but instead the politics of daily lives, and events which effect people on a personal level.
Speaking of politics, Roy was asked whether she was considered a cultural ambassador of India. She laughed it off immediately, saying she was “on no pedestal” and “represents no nation”. She believes she was on the ‘list’ of possible ambassadors in the 1990s, but was quickly dismissed when she wrote her essay The End of Imagination condemning the nuclear testing taking place in India at that time.
Roy was quite diplomatic when faced with many political questions near the end of the evening, preferring not to speak for others living in Kashmir. Instead, she recommended researching for one’s self the feelings of those living under the army administration in Kashmir, and that she is sure anyone who did so would find “rage” there.
When asked of her inspirations, Roy mentioned Kipling and Shakespeare, and also kathakali dance, which was portrayed in The God of Small Things, and is a way of portraying god and religion through dance (so I have come to understand. Please correct me if this is incorrect).
The presenter of the evening (whose name I am sorry I have missed from my notes) said she found the novel to be somewhat of a mosaic; lots of fractured pieces coming together to make one big picture. It was also compared to the big television arcs of today, where tiny details don’t make much sense until a few episodes later. Roy agreed to some extent with the mosaic metaphor, but said that unlike television which is written in a linear fashion and could in theory keep on going, her novel is circular and keeps moving around and inward until the conclusion is eventually reached and all things come together. There is a quote from the back cover of my edition which lends itself to the mosaic metaphor quite beautifully:
“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”
I hope to finish reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness soon, and I shall post a review as soon as I am able.
It was an enlightening evening, and I took away many things to think about, as well as a book to sink my teeth into. One resounding thing that will stay with me as a budding writer is Roy’s description of writing fiction:
“It’s a prayer, it’s a song. It’s a universe I’m trying to construct.”