Pictures by Aad Hoogendoorn
I visited the most recent Boek&Meester event with Arundhati Roy in de Doelen. Ernest van der Kwast interviewed the Indian author about her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Unfortunately, there were protests against Roy’s critical opinion and the evening had to be cut short.
Before going to the event, I’d already seen an article on Tzum about a Dutch-Indian group rallying against Arundhati Roy’s visit to the Netherlands. They were planning on demonstrating the evening, but instead showed up and heckled Roy throughout the evening.
There were twenty years between publishing her previous novel The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Throughout the evening, Roy explains that writing fiction for her isn’t a duty. She only writes when something important comes knocking at her door and never rushes herself while doing so. While she says this she gestures jokingly at her new novel. Writing non-fiction is different for her though. She sees that as an urgent intervention, something she writes with an anger to try and stop injustice. In the end, it is fiction that makes her the happiest, because she can create her own universe.
Then why does she write so much non-fiction? Roy explains that after the success of her first novel, she could no longer stay quiet. If she wouldn’t have commented on what is going on in her country, people would think she was a part of it, that she was condoning it. So she spoke up and never stopped writing about what she thinks is right.
In her home country, Arundhati Roy is considered anti-India by a large group of people. Ernest asked her if it’s true that she had to leave the country while finishing her book because it wasn’t safe for her anymore. The author laughs this off and says that this story gets bigger and bigger everytime she hears it. She did leave India while writing her book. Her novel was almost finished and tension was rising again in the country. She decided to leave so that nothing would interfere with her actually finishing the book. But after ten days in England, she went back again and finished it there. She writes in a small room, overlooking a busy street in India. She says she needs the noise and the chaos to get her work done and could never go on a peaceful writing retreat.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in Delhi, following a large and diverse group of people all living in the same city. What the characters have in common according to Roy, is that they all have borders running through them. Society in India is structured in a very strict way and all of her characters have been pushed out of this grid in one way or another. In the end, the novel is not just a mosaic of life in India, but also a criticism of the way society is structured. The country has been living under military occupation and she wants to write about what this does to people. Only fiction can show you the whole picture, instead of just focusing on one group or one situation, the way non-fiction often does. It’s about a very difficult situation and how this plays out in different ways.
Here, the protesters started to get riled up a little. They started yelling ‘Shame on you’ and shushing Arundhati Roy. Ernest does a good job of quieting the men down, but you can tell that the audience is a little tenser than before.
The conversation continues a little while longer and the men stay quiet, but as soon as the audience was allowed to ask questions, things went awry again. Many women who spoke up told Arundhati Roy how honored they were to see here and how much it meant to them. They asked her how she remained so lighthearted in real life and how she kept finding the courage to keep speaking out for what she believes in. Roy answered by quoting another author saying that you don’t have to sing sad songs sadly. She’s seen people live with their backs against the wall, but they can still laugh and joke. As a woman in India you might be expected to be frightened and silent all the time, but she refuses to do so. Concerning courage, she says that if you’re a writer and you retreat under attack, the ability to write is withdrawn from you. To remain free she has to speak up.
Both these answers got met with an angry response from the protesters, thinking that shaming Arundhati Roy was the best course of action. She laughed at them, sat back and waited for the noise to die down. Unfortunately, the audience questions were cut short and afterward, Roy couldn’t come out to sign books either. Both Arundhati Roy and Ernest van der Kwast responded gracefully to the disruptions of the evening, and I definitely think it’s a shame that many admirers of the author didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
Although these protesters definitely put their mark on this edition of Boek & Meester, it would be a wrong to let this overshadow a very interesting and inspiring evening. Roy has a very enigmatic presence, is quick to laugh and joke and is not afraid to speak her mind. I would have loved to hear more from her about her writing – she literally talks to her characters as if they are sitting next to her – and about her novels. I haven’t read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness yet, but after this evening I will definitely pick it up soon.