My Seditious Heart
By Arundhati Roy
Haymarket. 1,000 pp. $29.95
When Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” won the Booker Prize in 1997, she became the poster-child for an emerging power. Fifty years after India won its freedom from British rule, hers was a feel-good news story: a beautiful woman from a former colony writing in poetic English about family and loss. The novel, translated into more than 40 languages, was a sensation. Its dazzling prose, dripping with the humidity of its setting among the jungles, house boats and pickle factories of Kerala, assured future success. If she stuck to the recipe, Roy could have it all.
She had other plans.
Roy abandoned the success of “The God of Small Things” to become one of the most ambitious and divisive political essayists of her generation, charting the rise of unregulated capitalism, Hindu fundamentalism and American militarism in Iraq and Afghanistan. As politics became the subject of her language, Roy’s reputation shifted from beloved literary starlet to polarizing polemicist.
For many critics at home and abroad, Roy had broken a boundary between fiction and nonfiction, collapsing the finery of literature with the unmoored rage of protest. Roy didn’t care for that distinction. Writing, in either form, was her means to make sense of an unjust world. Whether she was attacking the privatization of India’s forests and rivers, or facing arrests and charges of sedition, Roy brought readers to politics with the same heightened attention to language and narrative. Her new collection, “My Seditious Heart” gathers two decades of her nonfiction writings, beginning after the debut novel and concluding before her return to fiction in 2017 with “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Flowing between the twin peaks of her fiction, the essays form the rivers of ideas, commitments and language that have shaped Roy’s imagination.
Roy’s first essay “The End of Imagination” was published in 1998 as she broke from her image as a national icon to condemn India’s first nuclear tests. As the country’s markets were opening to global investors, she describes how she couldn’t allow herself to be co-opted by a pernicious project.
“I was a front-runner in the lineup of people who were chosen to personify the confident, new, market-friendly India,” she writes. “It was flattering in a way, but deeply disturbing, too. As I watched people being pushed into penury, my book was selling millions of copies. My bank account was burgeoning. Money on that scale confused me. What did it mean to be a writer in times such as these?”
As she began writing against the government’s policies and corporate expansion, she became a thorn in the side of “New India,” airing dirty laundry that dared to highlight the rot beyond the glittering skyscrapers and glossy Bollywood stars of the world’s largest democracy.
In 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister and successfully pushed the country toward his party’s muscular Hindu nationalism. In December 2015, when I moved to New Delhi, posters of Modi and Indian flags soared above the traffic circles of the city’s colonial-era boulevards. Nationalism was in the air. Journalists who criticized the government were being trolled and attacked with virulent fervor. The lynchings of Muslims and student protests became a stubborn fact at the edge of the state-approved frame. Roy’s voice of protest felt absent from the public square. She had became a symbol of the “anti-nationals” that needed to be silenced as Modi set out to make Hindu India great again.
As I found myself unmoored by the sheer volume of unsettling news, I sought the refuge of reading. I rediscovered Roy at the small but perfectly curated bookshop in my neighborhood. Prominently featured in the entrance were the essays of Roy, published in slim volumes I’d never seen in American bookstores. Roy’s archive offered a way to comprehend the ascent of Hindu nationalism. Her dismissal from the ranks of approved writers had given her an even more powerful aura as the voice of dissent. As I learned one afternoon talking to the booksellers at the Bookshop this was also Roy’s bookshop. She was my neighbor.
One evening, I finally saw Roy at a restaurant in the neighborhood. I made the questionable decision to interrupt and discovered someone far warmer than her persona as a terrifying political activist would suggest.
A few months after we met, she returned to the public eye exactly 20 years after “The God of Small Things” with a new book. The novel’s arrival was a publishing event, featured in cover stories and magazine spreads across the world.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” follows a kaleidoscopic cast of characters who live together in a cemetery in Old Delhi, each broken by the indignities of gender, creed, caste and political violence, pieced back together by love across India’s lines. Sonal Narain at the Bookshop told me the publication of “Ministry” revealed just how famous our neighborhood author was. Readers who wouldn’t have been born when she came to prominence came to buy all her archives and could quote from her passages. I spent several afternoons at the shop discussing the experimental structure of the new novel and its haunting descriptions of Delhi. Even if she was loathed by so many, we formed a neighborhood ministry of devotees.
So much of what the novel explored was the violence against India’s minorities, the bleeding wound of the Kashmiri occupation by the Indian military and the daily indignities of caste Roy had been writing about in her nonfiction for decades. Some critics argued that the political overtones in the book proved that Roy’s activism had now fully colonized her literary imagination. She was an activist-writer now.
When I asked her about the accusations of being “angry,” she laughed. It’s an especially pernicious accusation against women writers who are expected to stay in their lane, she said.
“It’s like they’re saying, why don’t you whisper it to your grandmother in the drawing room.” Given the breadth of the violence underway, she said being mild-mannered was never an option. “Yeah man, I’m angry,” she said. “I’m shouting from the rooftops. What do you mean you want me to be? Reasonable?”
Of course, she was always a political writer. The surface beauty of “The God of Small Things” had simply been mistaken for the blunt violence of caste that was the novel’s actual subject. Similarly, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a poetic dramatization of India’s injustice against its minorities, dedicated to “the unconsoled.”
Earlier this summer, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government was reelected to office in a landslide victory. Last week, the government placed the democratically elected leaders of Kashmir under house arrest, blocked all communications and repealed the state’s semiautonomous status enshrined in the Constitution since 1949. After decades of trying to contain a Pakistani-backed insurgency, the Indian military response to the uprising has grown more unforgiving as the Kashmiri calls for freedom have grown more stubborn.
The relevance of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” reasserted itself. As India celebrated Independence Day on Aug. 15, Roy published an essay in the New York Times on what she describes as the “prison camp” that is Kashmir. It was a resounding return to the dance between her fiction and her nonfiction, powered by the injustice that fueled all her words.
I called Sonal Narain at the Bookshop. Even in central Delhi, a few minutes from Parliament where nationalism reigns supreme, the booksellers had sold out of their copies of “My Seditious Heart” and were waiting for their replenishment. The response was not unlike the frenzy following “Ministry” when a planned appearance had to be canceled after 20,000 more people registered to attend than the Bookshop’s single room could accommodate.
When I reached Roy at home in New Delhi to talk about the collection, she was noticeably somber. She was still trying to make sense of Modi’s reelection. She told me she feels the walls are closing in for writers and thinkers in India. But that won’t stop her seditious heart; writing has become her refuge.
“For me, now, the only protection one has is to travel and to speak, to build a protection of readers because things have become so difficult,” she said. “My readers are my protection.”
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.