Seven thousand, three hundred days. Twenty years. Judging by the response to the release of Arundhati Roy’s long-anticipated follow-up to her first novel, 1997’s The God of Small Things, you’d think it had been two hundred. Reviews of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are almost as ecstatic as the ones that accompanied Roy’s first book — and they almost always include a lament that it took her so damn long to produce.
The God of Small Things received a Man Booker Prize, bestseller status, and a whirlpool of accolades, but after its publication, Roy opted out of fiction altogether, pursuing a career as a political activist-cum reporter, unearthing the stories of society’s rebels and outcasts, advocating for a non-nuclear India, the independence of Kashmir, and criticizing prime minister Narendra Modi.
How dare she?
That’s the underlying question in nearly every interview with Roy that’s followed. Who wouldn’t give just about anything for a fawning debut New York Times book review, a public clamoring for the next book? Doesn’t she owe her readers another glimpse into her imagination?
Nope, says Roy. And if you haven’t been reading her other work, you haven’t been paying attention. “I’ve always been slightly short with people who say, ‘You haven’t written anything again,’ as if all the nonfiction I’ve written is not writing,” she told The New York Times’ Siddhartha Deb in 2014.
“The fiction just takes its time,” she said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around. The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.”
Roy’s so piquant on the page that her defiance of publishing norms—and her own readers—can be confusing. When she became famous, she didn’t retreat from the spotlight for the sake of her fiction. Rather, she embraced it. Today, Roy wields her celebrity just as sharply as her pen, and not everyone likes it.
Who drops a diamond into a lake and walks away? Who ignores a personal mine filled with literary gems? Who lets themselves be distracted by anonymous note-inspired trips to the jungle to hang out with Maoists instead of giving the world another book? What celebrity has time to read their anonymous mail, anyway?
Roy does, and she doesn’t care what you want.
Her outspoken politics have made her a polarizing figure in India, which she finally fled last year. Despite withstanding years of grinding lawsuits, she left at last after accusations of organizing a rash of student protests. And, as Joan Acocella writes in her review in The New Yorker, hatred of Roy isn’t limited to India:
Many people on the right hate her, of course, and not just for her skill in argumentation. There is a Jane Fonda-in-Vietnam element here: although Roy, unlike Fonda, grew up poor, to many she looks like a fortunate person. She may have sold cake on the beach when she was young, but that sounds a little bit like fun.
Just as there are no overnight successes, there are no overnight activists. Roy’s many crusades, are merely a continuation of who she was long before The God of Small Things.
Take the piece of writing that first made her name: Published in 1994, Roy’s review of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen is a study in scorn. Titled “The Great Indian Rape-Trick,” the writing is pure, outraged Roy, years before she burst out onto the international stage. Given that Roy’s own story is one of stigma and othering—after her parents’ divorce, Roy and her siblings lived in disgrace—she knows her stuff. “I detect nothing inauthentic about her humility or frugality,” writes Aitkenhead, “but that is not to say that Roy is wholly without ego.”
But why should she be? Must a bestselling female writer downplay her gifts or her passions? Roy is a firebrand who seems ready to live with the consequences of her actions, from her provocative trip to interview Edward Snowden, to her willingness to call the United States out for its political entanglements. She says things like “Democracy is the Free World’s whore.” She once called Gandhi the “Saint of the Status Quo.” She may even dare to make us wait another twenty years for her next work of fiction. And that is her right.
- Joan Acocella, “Arundhati Roy Returns to Fiction, in Fury,” The New Yorker, June 5 & 12, 2017.
- ‘Fiction takes its time’: Arundhati Roy on why it took 20 years to write her second novel, The Guardian, May 27, 2017.
- Arundhati Roy, “The Great Indian Rape-Trick,” 1994, Sunday Magazine (New Delhi)