Arundhati Roy’s Fascinating Mess

Being an activist and an artist is trickier than it sounds.

Shyama Golden

On the night she won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy had a strange and frightening dream. She was a fish being ripped from the water by a bony emerald hand. A voice instructed her to make a wish. Put me back, she responded. She knew she was on the cusp of cataclysmic fame, she later said an interview. She knew her life would explode—“I’d pay a heavy price.”

She has. It is almost impossible to see Roy clearly through the haze of adulation, condescension, outrage, and celebrity that has enveloped her since the publication of The God of Small Things, a gothic about an illicit intercaste romance in South India. She was feted as a symbol of an ascending India, paraded along with bomb makers and beauty queens. Much was made of the author’s looks—she was named one of People magazine’s most beautiful people—and lack of literary background; there was titillated interest in her days living in a slum and working as an aerobics instructor. Praise for her novel was extravagant—she was compared to Faulkner and García Márquez—but it was also frequently patronizing. “There is something childish about Roy. She has a heightened capacity for wonder”—this from one of the judges who awarded her the Booker Prize. (Meanwhile, a writer who had judged the Booker the previous year publicly called the book “execrable,” and the award a disgrace.)

Roy appeared to want no part of any of this. She chopped off her hair after the Booker win, telling The New York Times she didn’t want to be known “as some pretty woman who wrote a book,” and donated her prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a group protesting the construction of a series of dams that threatened to displace millions of villagers. She turned her attention from fiction to people’s movements all over India—Kashmiris resisting the Indian military’s occupation, tribal communities fighting to protect their ancestral lands. She decried India’s nuclear testing (a source of much national pride at the time) and became an outspoken critic of America’s war in Afghanistan. She was praised for her commitment and derided for her naïveté, and faced charges of obscenity and sedition (later dropped). She was invited to model khakis for Gap (she declined) and to march through the forests of central India with Maoist insurgents (she accepted). And now, after 20 years, she has finally returned to fiction with a new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

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Is novel the right word, though? I hesitate. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, hulking, sprawling story that it is, has two main strands. One follows Anjum, a hijra, or transwoman, struggling to make a life for herself in Delhi. The other follows Tilo, a thorny and irresistible architect turned activist (who seems to be modeled on Roy herself), and the three men who fall in love with her. But as was true of The God of Small Things, there is more than a touch of fairy tale in the book’s moral simplicity—or clarity, if you’re feeling charitable. Roy will say of a character, “He was a very clean man. And a good one too,” and he is swiftly, unequivocally pinned to the page.

The world she conjures is often brutal, but never confusing or even very complex. Manichaean dualities prevail: innocence (embodied by puppies, kittens, little girls) versus evil (torture, torturers, soldiers, shopping malls). If this tendency felt less troubling in her first book—think of handsome, heroic Velutha, the untouchable, and his foil, the almost comically evil Baby Kochamma—it was perhaps because the narration was trained so closely on children. Given that the central characters were a pair of young twins, Rahel and Estha, it felt natural that the world would be read this way.

Yet to simply find fault with the lack of psychological shading would be, I think, a genre mistake. Roy’s indifference to precisely that problem suggests that something interesting is afoot. Consider the book’s dedication—“To, The Unconsoled.” Note the cover photograph, a grave, and the setting: The story begins and ends in a graveyard. More than a novel, this book wants to be an offering. It isn’t concerned with the conventional task (or power) of fiction to evoke the texture and drama of consciousness. Instead, it acts like a companion piece to Roy’s political writings—collected in books such as The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2001) and Walking With the Comrades (2011). It tours India’s fault lines, as Roy has, from the brutal suppression of tribal populations to the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.


Just about every resistance movement is embodied in a character, and the lives and struggles of these characters intersect. The queers, addicts, Muslims, orphans, and other casualties of the national project of making India great again find one another and form a raucous community of sorts. And this novel—this fable—is as much for them as about them; it commemorates their struggles and their triumphs, however tiny. You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit. A kitten, about to be drowned by a group of soldiers, bares her fangs, unafraid to take on the Indian army. At night, a dung beetle lies on his back in the graveyard, pointing his feet to the sky, to help prop it up should it fall. Even he is given a name: Guih Kyom. Even he does what he can.

“I’ll have to find a language to tell the story I want to tell,” Roy said in an interview in 2011, as she discussed returning to fiction. “By language I don’t mean English, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, of course. I mean something else. A way of binding together worlds that have been ripped apart.” As it happens, she didn’t really settle on a new way of telling the story—this novel shares the same playful, punny argot of The God of Small Things (more on this later)—but she tries to pull all those worlds into an unwieldy embrace.

It may seem like the pamphleteer has subsumed the novelist. But Roy’s enterprise is less dutiful than it sounds. There is no grudging marriage of art and politics in her work; as John Berger, one of her longtime interlocutors and a formative influence, wrote, “Far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics.” Roy’s work conveys a similar spirit. She is a great admirer of the world. Her strongest writing is always at the margins of the main story—the pleasure of finding “an egg hot from a hen,” or this passing detail from The God of Small Things: “A thin red cow with a protruding pelvic bone appeared and swam straight out to sea without wetting her horns, without looking back.” From the fine-grained affection that stirs her imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.

This is the literary tradition that Roy belongs to—and that was intimately transmitted to her by Berger and her other great friend, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (she has called him her twin), for whom the great tragedy of humanity wasn’t that we die or suffer or make each other suffer. It was that we forget. And because we are so prone to forgetting—because it is so easy to make us forget—we accept the conditions of our suffering as inevitable and cannot fathom alternatives. (“The world, which is the private property of a few, suffers from amnesia,” Galeano once said. “It is not an innocent amnesia. The owners prefer not to remember that the world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.”)

Like Galeano’s Mirrors, an ode to “human diversity” in which a history of the world unfolds in 600 short stories, Roy’s novel is a compendium of alternatives—alternative structures of kinship, resistance, and romance. Anjum lives in a multigenerational joint family of other hijras; together they raise a child. Later, she and a few other characters move into a graveyard. They sleep between the headstones, plant vegetables, create a new kind of human family that can obliterate the divisions between the living and the dead. Roy has imagined an inverse of the Garden of Eden—a paradise whose defining feature, rather than innocence, is experience and endurance.

And what better place to set this graveyard, and this book about forgetting, than in Delhi, Roy’s home for much of her adult life. It’s a palimpsest of a city—occupied continuously for at least 3,000 years, surviving and absorbing the Mughals, the British, the refugees after India’s partition from Pakistan. A city whose own founding myths tell of amnesia, and of the power of texts to resist it. As one story goes, Brahma the creator god suddenly forgot the scriptures. He performed various rites and austerities and plunged into one of Delhi’s rivers. During the monsoon, the waters rose and flung up the sacred texts onto a riverbank that is still known today as Nigambodh Ghat, “the Bank of Sacred Knowledge.” Even the gods may be wired to forget, but we are also wired for narrative, to build what bulwarks we can.

In this context, any notion of a fissure between art and activism would seem absurd. To be both artist and activist, to expend oneself in both places, on the page and in the world, is the duty of the writer. It is to be “integrated,” as Vivian Gornick described Grace Paley; it is to be “a writer in the most comprehensive sense,” as the biographer Richard Holmes wrote of Shelley. But to live and write with the consciousness of this integration is trickier than it sounds.

To so confidently believe oneself to be on the right side of history is risky—for a writer especially. In that balmy glow of self-regard, complacency can easily take root. And good prose demands a measure of self-doubt—the worry that nags at a writer, that forces her to double back on her sentences, unravel and knit them up again, asking repeatedly: Is this clear? Is this true? Is this enticing? This book has a slackness to it that suggests Roy has abdicated some of these anxieties.

Roy has said that she never revises her books, that her essays and fiction write themselves, and that she rarely takes edits. I’ve always interpreted—and enjoyed—such statements as a bit of swagger. It’s dispiriting to see that they might be true. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is plagued by almost rudimentary errors: There is near-total confusion about point of view. Messages and morals come ponderously underscored. The two central stories never convincingly come together. In the absence of psychological development or real suspense, chapters end with portentous rhetorical ellipses. Worse still, the creation of characters as stand-ins for causes results in formulaic depictions of the very people she is trying to humanize. Anjum, for example, never becomes more than her “patched-together body and her partially realized dreams.”

The voice that carried The God of Small Things emanated from the characters. The elasticity of language, the silliness and sappiness, felt very much like the expression of the twins. It captured their way of being, of merging with each other and the world. Here that voice feels distracting, imported from a different universe. I thought often of Walking With the Comrades, Roy’s account of traveling through the forests with Maoist insurgents. She was full of admiration for their discipline, for the care they took of their woods and of one another. She was awed by how everything in their world was “clean and necessary.” Something of this aesthetic stole into her style in that book. Roy trusted the reader enough to just point the camera, to let us see what she saw: “Three beautiful, sozzled men with flowers in their turbans walked with us for about half an hour, before our paths diverged. At sunset, their shoulder bags began to crow. They had roosters in them, which they had taken to market but hadn’t managed to sell.” Details gleam (a woman’s anklets shine in the firelight) and horrify; she hears the story of three Maoist girls raped by the army: “ ‘They raped them on the grass … But after it was over there was no grass left.’ ”

The epigraph of The God of Small Things is a line from John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” What’s disappointing about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is that it can feel like a collection of so many single stories and stock figures—heroic martyrs and tragic transgender characters. Roy has a ready response to the criticism that she isn’t an especially subtle writer. She cops to it directly: “I want to wake the neighbors, that’s my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes.” I remember something Cézanne supposedly said: “I know what I am looking at, but what am I seeing?” Roy is a champion at waking the neighbors, at getting our attention, and as an offering, this book is a beautiful act of witness. But harnessing our attention—getting us to see as well as to look—that is perhaps a different, and more intricate, matter. It’s a matter of tactics, a matter of art.