Source: The Nation
The writer discusses her new novel, love, justice, and Indian politics.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a formal departure for you. Your previous novel, The God of Small Things, was essentially about a family. By contrast, Ministry is a sprawling political novel: It addresses impunity, caste, institutional violence, the rise of Hindutva, the troubles in Kashmir. You allude to this through a funny in-joke: In “The Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children,” which your protagonist Tilo is composing, she confesses that she “would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which, even though nothing much happens, there’s a lot to write about.” But then she admits that this “can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” What are the challenges of dealing with this sort of subject matter?
Well, The God of Small Things is about a family, which has a broken heart at its center. It looks at the violence in the heart of the intimacy that is supposed to be the family. I think a writer’s relation to family is deeply affected by their life, especially their gender. For many privileged, upper-class, male writers, family is often a place of security and assurance—their mothers are doing what mothers do, and the grandmothers are doing what grandmothers do. Whereas, in The God of Small Things, the family is a place of danger.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness turns this inside out. Almost none of the characters have families in that conventional Indian sense. What happens in Ministry is that people bring shards of their broken hearts from all over the place and create a mended heart in that graveyard—in the most unorthodox way, with most unorthodox forms of love.
Of course, as a novelist, I never want to write about “issues” like “the Indian family.” What I want to write about is the air we breathe. These days, I feel that novels, I don’t know for what reason—maybe because of the speed and the way that books have to be sold—these days, novels are becoming kind of domesticated, you know? They have a title, and a team, and they are branded just like NGOs: you writing on gender, you writing on caste, you writing on whatever. But for me, the fact is that these are not “issues”—this is the air we breathe.
There’s a connection between the fact that, as Hindu nationalism rises, Muslims are being ghettoized in India. It began long ago, and the Muslim community has always been hostage to the politics between India and Pakistan, India and Kashmir. The Muslim community is literally being pushed into ghettos. People are living in graveyards. To the West, it sounds like magic realism, but in Delhi you see it all the time: people living amongst graves and over graves in the old city.
Fiction is the only thing that can connect all of this together. It’s the only thing that can show you the connections between people who all have incendiary borders running between them—borders of gender and caste and religious conversion; national borders like Kashmir; even between the state and the shambling inner life of a secret agent that does its dirty work.