‘Fiction takes its time’: Arundhati Roy

When Arundhati Roy completed her new novel, her first in 20 years, she told her literary agent, “I don’t want all this bidding and vulgarity, you know.” She wanted interested publishers to write her a letter instead, describing “how they understood” her book. She then convened a meeting with them. “OK,” her agent prompted afterwards. “You know what they think. You’ve met them. Now decide.” 

“Oh no,” she told him. “Not yet. First I’ll have to consult.” He was puzzled. “You consult me, right?” “No, I have to consult these folks. You know, the folks in my book.” So the author and her agent sat together in silence while she asked the characters in her novel which publisher they liked the best. When Roy announced their choice, her agent pointed out that his bid was half what other publishers were offering. “Yes,” she shrugged. “But they like him.”

Seeing my expression as she relates this, Roy starts to smile. “Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.” They’re always with her? “Oh yes. As soon as I shut the door, it’s, ‘So what did you think of that person? Idiot, right?’” Will she ask them how this interview went after I leave? She looks surprised I’d need to ask. “Yes, of course.”

To many of Roy’s literary admirers, her work over the past 20 years has been something of a puzzle. Is she really a literary figure, or was her first novel a sort of fluke? Roy was 35 when she published her debut, The God Of Small Things, to rapturous acclaim. A semi-autobiographical tale of an Indian family fading into decline, fractured by tragedy and scandal, it won the Booker prize, sold more than 8m copies in 42 languages, and transformed an unknown screenwriter into a global celebrity, tipped as the new literary voice of a generation. In the 20 years since then, Roy has published dozens of essays and non-fiction books, made documentaries, protested against government corruption, Hindu nationalism, environmental degradation and inequality, campaigned for Kashmiri independence, Maoist rebels and indigenous land rights, and featured on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. To her political fans, she is the radical left voice of principled resistance; to her critics, the worst sort of adolescent idealist: unrealistic, self-indulgent. She has faced criminal charges of contempt and sedition, been imprisoned, and fled India briefly last year in fear for her life. She has not, until now, however, published another word of fiction.

In 2011, she hinted at a second novel under way, but as the years passed and none materialised, for some it became increasingly implausible to consider Roy a literary writer at all. Where the voice in The God Of Small Things was subtle and allusive, her non-fiction writing and political activism have often been criticised as strident in tone, and simplistic. I hadn’t been sure which voice to expect when we meet in a London hotel to talk about the new novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.

Roy is swathed in pale pink linen, draped around her upper body like a sari over rolled up jeans, open-toed sandals and bright red nail varnish; she moves with arresting grace, and speaks softly. At 55, she retains an impish air of ingenue about her, and the quiet mischief in her smile suggests a certain pleasure in her own troublesome single-mindedness; she likes to talk in elliptical sentences that often tail away into elegant gestures or playfully knowing expressions. On the question of whether or not she is a literary writer, she says, “To me there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.”

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