Pen power: Arundhati Roy is in SA to promote her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. ‘My writing comes out of love, infinite kinds of love that struggles to survive in a bleak world,’ she says. Picture: CLAUDI MAILOVICH
Pen power: Arundhati Roy is in SA to promote her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. ‘My writing comes out of love, infinite kinds of love that struggles to survive in a bleak world,’ she says. Picture: CLAUDI MAILOVICH

There are many "amazing" parallels between India and SA’s history, and their current "oppressive" structures, says award-winning writer Arundhati Roy.

In India, she is best known for her essays about economic justice, warmongering, the environment, and much more. They are translated into many languages and distributed widely. Penguin India has collected her essays into a five-volume set.

In the rest of the world she is adored by millions of readers of her fiction. She made them wait for 20 years after The God of Small Things was published to international acclaim before she produced her second novel.

Roy, who lives in Delhi, has faced criminal charges of sedition following her call for Kashmir’s independence and been imprisoned for her advocacy.

She is in SA to promote The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a searing fictional examination of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, seen through the eyes of people cast out of the caste system. A parallel narrative about Kashmir’s struggle for independence is wrapped in extreme violence, with voices from both sides. She writes from all her characters’ hearts and makes a compelling case for political and human engagement.

At the heart of her second novel is Jannat Guesthouse, built by a Muslim hijra (transgender woman) in a graveyard, a place of refuge in a world gone mad, where young life is nurtured by the promise of a better world.

Roy says she dreams of building such a guesthouse and living there. But it is not yet time — there is work to be done, she adds with a wistful sigh.

"I couldn’t really write about Kashmir except in fiction — to describe how the occupation affects everything, even the air in that country," she says, explaining why she was compelled to write a second novel. "I don’t write with a utilitarian goal, writing is too exquisite for that. My fiction is not meant to explain political issues. There is no other reason for me to write – or laugh — except to protect something beautiful. My writing comes out of love, infinite kinds of love that struggles to survive in a bleak world."

She says writing about politics is something she has to do, for her own survival.

"India is an overt and covert apartheid society, and always has been. Fortunately, I was not born into the most oppressed community in this society, but outside the grid," Roy says.

"I have to try to figure out why our society is so divided, I feel I have no option. I also have no resting place, no community, no shared language of oppressor or oppressed that I need to understand. Once you inhabit a space like this, it becomes impossible to be an insider."

Forgotten activist

Roy says the story the world knows about Mahatma Gandhi is a false one. When he lived in SA, Gandhi wrote many newspaper articles that displayed his firm belief that black people were inferior to him and other Indians.

She says while the world celebrates Gandhi, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit (untouchable) lawyer who had conflicts with the Mahatma about equality of all people and who helped draft the Indian constitution — "which is far more progressive than society itself" — has been forgotten outside India. Ambedkar earned doctorates from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, was the first justice minister after independence and campaigned for human rights.

India goes to the polls in May 2019 and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party and many larger political parties are whipping up caste and racial differences to secure votes — a trend she has also noticed in SA.

"Caste is merely an ancestral occupation, but Indian politicians are pretending it is a racial grouping that should be banished to reservations or receive affirmative action," Roy says.

"Today, there is still severe violence in India when people marry outside their caste." She says the Dalits attempted to have their voices heard at the Durban conference on racism in 2001 but, like many other groups, did not succeed.

In India today the Baniya caste "to which [SA’s] Gupta family belongs, own all the big corporations and companies", Roy says.

"They are the bankers and the owners of corporations and media houses — just like white people in SA.

"Caste is violence, these differences are entrenched and aimed at keeping society’s hierarchy in place – not only overtly, but covertly as well.

"The elite castes are the state and they hold in their bodies the violence the state is prepared to inflict in Kashmir and the forests where the indigenous communities live."

Roy says India’s institutions of democracy have been corrupted. "The police force is the army and there hasn’t been a day that the army has not been active — inside the country and in Kashmir — since our democracy arrived."

She takes great pleasure in relating how the editors of most major newspapers — "all Brahmins, of course" — were duped in July by a small independent media house, Cobrapost.

Posing as a Hindu nationalist, a Cobrapost reporter contacted more than 23 editors and owners of media houses and offered to provide material to destroy opposition politicians and build Hindu nationalism, for a fee. Only two people contacted during the undercover operation declined the offer.

"The BJP has a fascist agenda, it wants to destroy the constitution and establish a Hindu republic. Everyone else will be a second-class citizen," Roy says.

"The tragedy of this is that these Hindu nationalists were not part of the independence struggle, no matter how much they try to rewrite history today.

"Now they are trying to create a new map of India based on one they inherited from the British Empire."

Roy says that the recent global coverage of violence against women in India is heartening, as are the rising voices of young women who will no longer tolerate the silence that surrounds abuse, rape and femicide. "I don’t have statistics to recite, but I know that upper-caste men, for example, have always preyed on women of lower caste," she adds.

"Millions of young women are being educated now, are entering the workplace and are following international campaigns against the oppression of women. Our young activists say only a small percentage of rapes are reported to the police."

She says the BJP party is challenging article 35a in India’s constitution that deems Kashmir an autonomous region in which only locals are allowed to own land. A referendum was required in the constitution India adopted after independence to decide Kashmir’s fate.

Like apartheid SA’s hold on Namibia and its refusal to grant it independence in the face of demands from the UN, the Indian army occupies Kashmir and the BJP would like it to be absorbed into India’s territory.

"We should be prepared for scorched-earth tactics in Kashmir should the government win this court case and the elections next year," Roy warns.

"The government would like to overwhelm its population, change Kashmir’s demographics to a Hindu state and then hold the referendum. If article 35a is struck down, all hell will break loose in Kashmir."

Roy says the nationalism being whipped up in India and many other countries is "a very particular corporate and global project. The intention is to hold the majority of people within the borders of their countries while cash flows across the borders with the utmost ease.

"They are engendering the kind of ethno-nationalism that led to World War ll."

She says she will continue writing her essays because the question shouldn’t be "can there be economic justice?".

"We need to examine whether we are moving towards it or away from it. Today’s economic order is a celebration of injustice.

"The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the enemy of the slogan ‘one language, one religion, one people’," she says.