Why it took 20 years for Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy to release her second novel

Arundhati Roy's enduring popularity is a staggering display of what her eight-million-selling debut continues to mean to so many people – and a reflection of the excitement surrounding The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Author Arundhati Roy. Photo by Mayank Austen Soofi
Powered by automated translation

The queue of people waiting to meet Arundhati Roy for just a brief moment and have her sign her new book snakes through the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

The author has just spoken about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to a rapt audience of more than 500 people during a trailblazer event for the Manchester Literature Festival. It is also the last date of her English tour, during which devoted fans have travelled from around the country to hear her talk.

All this for a 55-year-old Indian author who has not published a word of fiction in 20 years, since the seismic The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997. Her enduring popularity is a staggering display of what her eight-million-selling debut continues to mean to so many people – and a reflection of the excitement surrounding The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

So why has a book she describes as a “sibling” to its predecessor taken so long?

"Well, just a few months after The God of Small Things won the Booker and I was on the cover of all these magazines, there was this change in India," says Roy. "It suddenly began to move very sharply towards what we have now: a Hindu nationalist government, nuclear tests and so on.

“The public discourse changed. What had become unacceptable to say in public became acceptable. I knew that I needed to do what I could do best, which was tell the story of those struggles through the essays I wrote.”

These essays, which were often critical of India’s ruling class, campaigned for Kashmiri independence, Maoist rebels and indigenous land rights. Roy was also jailed briefly for her campaign against the Narmada dam project, and has been charged more than once for her outspoken views.

It is fair to say that this vast melting pot of opinion, struggle and experience feeds into the many layers of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Anjum grows up as a “hijra” (hermaphrodite) in a battered community of like-minded people in Delhi’s old city. After witnessing a massacre in Gujarat, she leaves the community to live in a graveyard, where she builds guest rooms for all kinds of excluded, untouchable people.

It feels very much like a documentary collage of India, although Roy rejects any accusations of polemic.

"Fiction is not an argument, it's a universe," she says of the difference between her essays and her novels. "But it wasn't a question of finding the quiet times amid my essay writing to write The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I like writing in chaos. The book just took its time, that's all."

In a way, the 20 years that have passed without a new novel have not only increased the power of The God of Small Things. They have also made Roy more strident about what a novel can, and should, achieve. Because she stands apart from the bestselling mainstream – she leads a simple life, having given away much of the royalties from her debut – she is now able to write what she wants to.

"For me, novels are too easily domesticated, too easily categorised or themed so they can sell," she says. "But they should be like a city, not designed in advance, with old parts, new parts, blind alleys. So The Ministry of Utmost Happiness doesn't have a power unless it can connect nationalism and history, Kashmir, gender, violence – all of it matters."

Undeniably this mosaic effect is a structural risk. At the start, our sympathies lie firmly with Anjum, then she completely disappears as Roy takes us to Kashmir for a section that could almost be from a completely different book.

“I think you have a sense she’s going to come back,” Roy counters. “Sometimes, I just wanted the background to become the foreground. What has influenced me most is the Kerala dance form called Kathakali, which actually means ‘storytelling’. The dancer tells the story and then becomes the creatures, the rivers, the forest, the king. So it’s about being able to move from one gear to another.”

As soon as she started going to Kashmir, Roy knew she would struggle to tell the truth about the place in any other form than fiction.

“What does living there, in the most densely militarised place in the world, do to the mind?” she says. “That’s what interests me.”

So how does she think her new novel's critical view of India will be received in the country? After all, a case was filed accusing her of corrupting public morality with The God of Small Things, since when Roy has basically been in and out of the courts for her writing.

“There’s always a dance about how far you should go,” she says. “But it’s important that as writers we remain dangerous rather than bestselling, without being a martyr – to know how to live in society, to know when to speak and when to remain quiet.

“It’s the right time to publish this book in India, definitely. I just don’t know yet whether it’s the right time to be the author of it.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is out now