I have often wondered whether we should never meet the writers whose books we love. Never watch them give lectures, never listen to them read, never talk to them except to spell our names for an autograph in a controlled environment where conversation may not serendipitously ensue. If we keep our heroes at a safe distance, they cannot disappoint us with the banal business of being people.
But part of growing up is accepting that everybody is people. And the thing with people is that they can be awkward and self-conscious, insecure and fragile, set in their immovable ways. Arundhati Roy is some of these things, but she is also funny and kind, affectionate and warm, with a furious brain and a laugh that makes her eyes all shiny. She calls me Nicey Mol, which gives me the giggles.
There is something of the child-woman about 54-year-old Roy: the sing-song voice and wilful curls of a precocious little girl, the way her tiny hands fly up to her face, playing with her hair, pulling out one coil and then another, messing it up some more. I know this tic because I do it too, as if a chaos of curls atop my head will cushion expectations of too much sensibility. Her eyes are heavily lined with kohl, and she watches me carefully.
Roy has 20 years on me, to the month, and a mind that’s only a few light years ahead. She’d won the Booker Prize when she was my age, a fact that annoys me no end. What have I done with my life? (This is the sort of thinking that leads absolutely nowhere, but I can’t help myself.) I read The God Of Small Things when I was a teenager, and it inspired me, like it did many of my generation, especially, to write; or rather, it gave me permission to write in an intensely emotional way that I didn’t know was allowed. It also let me use the word vomity in many sentences.
If you’d told me then that I would be lunching with Arundhati Roy one day, I’d have been like OMG/shut up/lulwut, only less coherently. I’m not intimidated by her as I expected to be, probably because I am in her home, which brings about an immediate sort of intimacy because she is everywhere in it. Roy lives alone, and is almost completely self-sufficient. Her flat is full of light and air, books padding the wall from ceiling to floor, one-off pieces of furniture that all seem to have stories inside them. She’s an exercise nut, so her stationary cycle actually gets used, as opposed to being a receptacle for laundry; this is a small miracle in itself. Her two stray dogs—bitches, she corrects me—Begum Filthy Jaan and Maati K Laal, are woofing and jumping on me, offering me their bellies. They have the most ridiculous ears.
Roy has ordered in chicken biryani, and I have brought cream buns from Wenger’s for afters. We sit at her well-worn dining table and she confesses to having a deep and abiding love for pickles. I eat some to be polite, and we chat about silly things, like her ‘deformed back’. It’s something of a running joke among her friends because she is petite but curvy, with a generous bum that swells from her slight frame. It’s nowhere near deformed, it’s sexy as all hell.
She owns her sexiness, fully aware of her body and how the clothes drape her, which is a pleasure to watch. But Roy is shy, too, and resorts to singing Beatles songs tunelessly during the shoot, trying not to be overwhelmed by the camera. I’m not surprised, because I know her without knowing her, for I have read her. That’s the thing about meeting the people whose work you love, though, isn’t it? They have shown you a part of themselves, and it’s too late to take that back.
I know Roy’s politics too, of course, don’t we all? I’ve read most of her essays, felt the rage that jumps off the page, my own blood running hot in response. I’ve wished several times that she were more... reasonable, less scathing. But it is only after meeting her that I realise she really doesn’t know any other way, and doesn’t want to. She doesn’t need you to like her. There are bigger things to talk about, fight for, fight against.
Not that you can help liking her. Not when she tells you she’s really a jock at heart. Not when she tells you what she calls the overmuscled men at the gym. Not when she patiently explains to you everything that’s wrong with the world as you know it.
Yes, at the end of all this, with the enduring taste of pickle in my mouth, I can confirm that Arundhati Roy is indeed people. But I suspect she may be the best kind.
Why are you on the cover of ELLE?
Greypride, man! It’s time for the cover woman. Time for Cinderella’s wicked older sisters who were too smart to go around wearing glass slippers, to come out and take their place in the sun. Why ELLE in particular? Because I have seen dark-skinned women on ELLE covers. I love that. I’m a black woman. Most of us are. Ninety percent of us are. This obsession that Indians have with white skin and straight hair makes me sick. We need a new aesthetic, and I’ve seen ELLE trying to do that. It’s wonderful. I’m here to raise a toast to that.
That makes me so happy. But aren’t you worried about how people will see you, whether you will be judged harshly, your credibility etc etc?
Ah! My credibility etc etc. Yes yes. But I decided to roll the dice. I want the world to know that inside this formidable, grey-haired, older woman there’s a ravishing, raven-haired, 22-year-old Object of Desire struggling to get out.
I knew it! Now, you have a book out next month, Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (Juggernaut) on your meeting with Edward Snowden.
It’s a small book co-authored by me and actor John Cusack, who actually came up with the idea of us going to meet Snowden in Russia. Snowden is extraordinary in many ways. I’ve never known anyone who can speak continuously in complete sentences the way he can. His is an amazing journey, from being a Bush supporter—pretty right-wing as far as I can tell, he signed up for the invasion of Iraq—to where he is now. We spent two days together, John Cusack, Daniel Ellsberg—the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, he’s known as the Snowden of the ’60s—and I. It was a fascinating, freewheeling conversation.
Could you get anything on record?
Snowden was okay about us recording, but later, when we sent him a transcribed and edited manuscript, he didn’t want it published. Maybe because there was a lot of banter, too many jokes. He’s in a tough place and needs to be careful. But that was the nature of the conversation. It was entirely irreverent. So unfortunately Things That Can And Cannot Be Said doesn’t have much direct speech from Snowden. It’s a great pity, because when he speaks about the things he knows—the internet, surveillance and how it’s done—he is jaw-dropping brilliant. Behind the jokes and lightheartedness, the book is a meditation on serious things: nationalism, imperialism, war, capitalism, corporate philanthropy, the defeat of communism… There’s a shocking section at the end where Ellsberg talks about how the nuclear arms race was based on information the US government knew to be false.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I’m pretty disciplined. Insanely so right now because I’m working on a new book. I write every single day, at home, at my desk. Sometimes the day goes by and I haven’t noticed. Suddenly I look around and it’s dark. The only light there is comes from my computer screen. Last week I burnt a boiled egg and the pan it was in. My kitchen filled with smoke. Then this week I jumped up in a panic to take the egg off the fire only to realise there was no egg on the fire. A bit mad all this.
The new novel! We’ve all been waiting. When will it be published?
Next year, I hope.
Twenty years after The God Of Small Things. What should we expect?
Anything but The God Of Small Things II.
Why did you decide to write it now?
I didn’t decide. It decided. I’ve been circling around it for years. I’m never in a hurry when it comes to fiction. I’ve done so much travelling and writing in the last 20 years that I feel like sedimentary rock, you know, so many layers of understanding, of things that cannot be expressed in any way other than fiction. You just sit there and all those layers of experience have to break down and become a part of your DNA, and then you sweat it out as prose.
Is your fiction autobiographical?
What counts as autobiographical? What counts as reality? Is something you imagined autobiographical? After all, you did experience it in your imagination… and that can be more real than reality? If you have an imagination that feels the pain or joy of others, is that autobiographical? I don’t know. Given the great debates about identity and representation, this is a huge question, of huge consequence to a writer of fiction.
What is your writing process?
I become a little incoherent when I try to talk about it, because I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing. The structural way in which my narrative unfolds is extremely important to me. It’s not just, oh here’s this fascinating story and let me just…tell it. I don’t write like that. But especially right now when I’m in it, I can’t really theorise about it, I find it quite hard to explain or understand. I will say that it’s very important to sit down and write, but I also think that the book is always there, you know? It’s like music playing in your head. There’s not a moment when it’s not there, when I’m not thinking about in one way or another. It’s a kind of obsession, I guess.
That does seem like an obsession.
When you feel owned by a story rather than you owning a story, you wait for it to let you know how it wants to be told; that engages every faculty of mine, and I am ceaselessly grateful for that. It’s a beautiful thing. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re writing something amazing—maybe not—but just that there is something in your life that can engage you completely. That’s a gift. There is nothing in the world that delights me, engages me and exhausts me more than writing fiction. But most of the time I feel my main job is to concentrate and let the book write itself.
How about non-fiction?
My non-fiction is always written with urgency and a fair bit of anger. Every time I write a political essay I say, ok, I’m not writing another one.
And then you write another one.
Yeah, it’s almost like something I always wish somebody else would write, you know. But I write it when I feel unable to contain it any longer, and then it just comes out in a rush. When I’m actually writing it, I can work 20 hours a day, with an insane kind of concentration.
You left home when you were 17. There was conflict with your mum?
It was impossible to live at home. At the time it was traumatic, but in many ways I’m lucky that I left home when I did. My mother is my creator and my destroyer. In her presence I’m chopped liver. She has created an amazing school, she’s changed the lives of her students. Generations of them. I admire her for who she is, but I have to be careful to not get burnt by that. We’re like two nuclear powers, we oughtn’t be in close proximity for too long.
Are you close to her now?
We’ve signed a peace accord, and it’s holding up. But if war breaks out, let me say clearly and unequivocally—I want her to win. I never want to defeat her.
It sounds like an extraordinary relationship.
It is, but it is not cute from any angle. Let’s just say she’s been very central to who I am, in positive ways, negative ways, every way possible. She’s an extraordinary person, but doesn’t have any of the motherly qualities women are supposed to have. And I don’t know if I admire her for not having them or if sometimes I think, ‘Why can’t you be a little less weird?’ But no, not really...
What kind of qualities?
The other day she called me and said, ‘I went somewhere and they asked me if I was Arundhati Roy’s mother, and I felt like I’d been slapped!’ Half of me was laughing when she said that and the other half was saying, ‘Come on, is it that bad?’
She’s also been very unwell all her life, you know, she has severe asthma. And someone who has asthma is controlled by their breath. And so was I—controlled by her breath. I grew up terrified that my mother would die on me. I watched every breath she took with terror and relief. I’ve spent a lot of time with her in hospitals. A few months ago, they told me they were putting her on a ventilator, it was that bad. And then she just bounced back, and now she’s running the show again. Her empire is back in her hands. So she’s Houdini, basically. An escape artist. My mother needs a book about her. By me. No one else can write it.
I’ll be reading that. Who are the other women who have shaped your life?
When my mother left my dad, she moved from Assam to Ooty. She had no money and was so ill, she would just lie in bed and not be able to get up. My brother and I were three or four. She used to send us into town with a basket and a note and people would put vegetables and things in it. And then this lady, called Kurushammal, just moved into the house and took care of us. We don’t know where she came from. And from then till about four years ago, she was with my mum. I went to see her recently, and we just hugged each other and howled. She did all the “normal” mother things for me. I loved her. She died a few days ago, she was 96. I am so glad I saw her.
Are you and your brother close?
Extremely. He lives in Cochin. He’s in the seafood industry. He’s a prawn-broker! But I can’t eat prawns. I’m allergic.
You live quite a self-contained life, no? Does it get lonely?
I am part of a very wonderful and strange community of people who all live alone. That must never be confused with loneliness. I have deep, enduring friendships. We’d walk to the ends of the earth for each other. So yes, I live alone but my life is full of love. My relationship with Pradip, my former husband, and my girls Mithva and Pia, who lost their mother when they were very young, remains wonderful. I live alone because I wouldn’t want to inflict my eccentricities on anyone else, nor would I want someone else to suffer the—often serious—consequences of what I write. If I didn’t want to live alone, I wouldn’t live alone. There’s no dearth of…
No dearth of? Finish that sentence.
Oh, ha! Ha!
Why do you fight?
Let’s just say there are people who find it easy to sidle up to power, and there are people who naturally have an adversarial relation to it, and I think that battle is what tilts the balance in the world. That’s the line behind which I stand. Many people have fought long and remarkable battles to create the freedoms we have. How can we concede those spaces? How can we think that some natural phenomenon has gifted us these freedoms? No! They have been wrested, one by one. I get so annoyed when I hear “cool” young women say ‘I’m not a feminist.’
Do not get me started on this.
I mean, do they know what battles were fought? Every freedom we have today, we have because of feminists. Many women have fought and paid a huge price for where we are today! It didn’t all come to us only because of our own inherent talent or brilliance. Even the simple fact that women have the vote, who fought for that? The suffragettes. No freedom has come without a huge battle. If you’re not a feminist, go back to into your veil, sit in the kitchen and take instructions. You don’t want to do that? Thank the feminists.
And freedoms can change.
It’s wonderful to see the emerging independence of women in India, but then there’s this dark undercurrent of conservatism running parallel to this revolution. Remember the women in Afghanistan? When we were growing up, they were doctors and surgeons, they partied and wore cool clothes. And now? We have to be alert to the dangers. We can be set back by centuries in no time at all.
How do you react to criticism?
I’m a very instinctive writer, and criticism of my writing for me is like people telling me my gall bladder’s a funny shape or something.
Ha. And your non-fiction?
With my non-fiction, it’s not easy to sift intelligent criticism from the knee-jerk idiocy and vitriol that goes around on the net. But I get the cut and thrust of it. People often say, “Arundhati Roy is a controversial writer.” It’s a way of not dealing with the argument. A more accurate statement would be “Arundhati Roy writes about controversial issues.” The controversy is there. Are dams good? Should we be privatising everything? Should the whole of Bastar be handed over to corporates? I write about those things, I weigh in, I take a position, but I’m certainly not creating the controversy.
Have you ever found merit in the criticism of your work?
It cannot and will never be my case that I am above criticism. These are things that ought to be debated, and there may not necessarily be a right and wrong to them. Perhaps the way my work has evolved is in some ways the true measure of my response to criticism. But I haven’t been persuaded to change my views on the big things.
Do you have to be very careful about what you say?
We are not a colony any longer, we are supposedly a free country, but can any of us say what Ambedkar said in 1936? Can any of us say, like he once did, ‘To the untouchable, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors?’ What would happen if we said that? I think we are in a very dangerous place right now, I think it’s important to be careful and thoughtful about what you say, but it’s very important not to step back. We really must speak our minds. Now is the time. Otherwise it will be too late.
What is a day in jail like?
Memorable. Despite my bravado, when the gates slammed shut behind me, it was frightening. I went in as a convict, not with a group of comrades as part of a jail bharo andolan. Freedom and incarceration are two separate universes. But one day in jail is no big deal. There are thousands of people in jail right now for crimes they have not committed. Poor people, Dalits, Muslims and in particular, Adivasis. We are a country at war against the poor and downtrodden.
Do you eat beef? I myself enjoy a good steak.
I eat beef. I eat pork. This food fascism in our country must stop.
You also go to the gym every day.
Yeah, every day.
Every single day.
Every single day.
See, this is a foreign concept to me.
Well I do have the genes of an addict, you know, my father was an alcoholic. I keep meaning to go lay a bottle of good whisky on his grave. Fortunately this may be how his addict’s gene is manifested in me.
Have you always been this way about exercise?
I didn’t have a tragic childhood, but I had a very disturbing one. I dealt with it by running. I ran and ran and ran. Around the house, around the school playground... I recently met my old PT instructor, Mr Selvapakiam. He would only train the boys in school, but I hung around him and he paid me some attention. I’m not some star athlete. I don’t go to the gym to suffer. I am suspicious of people who volunteer to suffer. I go for sheer pleasure.
You are not making any sense.
We are an old gang of friends and trainers, you see. There’s just so much love there. It’s the high point of my day, and it keeps me sane. It’s a place of love and friendship and laughter and sweat.
You used to be an aerobics instructor, no?
Yes, in my broke days. There was me and this other trainer, a beautiful woman called Sushma. She was a weightlifter, so strong and fabulous. All these lalajis would come to our class to see the women in gym gear, and we used to mess with them. Once this one guy got so exhausted, he lay down in the back of the class and I got nervous, I thought he had died. I saw the news report in my mind’s eye—Lalaji leching ke liye aaya tha, stretcher mein chala gaya.
Man, you need to be on Twitter. Why aren’t you on Twitter?
Because I’m hoarding myself. I’m trying to fold everything I have into a novel. I want to be a secret. I can’t disperse myself on Twitter.
Let’s talk fashion. You wear a lot of péro and Eka.
I don’t think of them as labels, any more than I think of myself as The God Of Small Things. I think of them as Aneeth [Arora] and Rina [Singh]. My friends. I’ve known Aneeth’s work for years, long before she called it péro. As soon as I could afford her clothes, I bought them. Some are more than 15 years old and I still wear them—they’re my best clothes, Aneeth’s and Rina’s. I think both of them are part of trying to craft a new aesthetic for us—the modern women of Here.
That’s a lovely way of putting it.
It’s very important. How do you make modernity out of a unique heritage in fabric and style? We’re not the kind of women who are about to go around in little black dresses (though I have nothing at all against them), nor do we want to only wear saris and salwar kameez, although I love wearing saris. So how should we dress? What should we wear? Clothes, the way I dress, it’s fun, it gives me a great deal of pleasure, and it’s political too.
When I was studying architecture it was a question that was constantly on my mind, this play between tradition and modernity. What should genuinely modern architecture in this part of the world look like? In my younger years all I ever wanted to do was escape the clutches of tradition and all that it had in store for me. Then you come up against the hideous monster of acceptable modernity and you turn and flee from that too. So what I wear, I think, tells the story of this flux. Style is important. Let nobody say it isn’t. Yes, it’s a slightly delicious excess, and I’m grateful I can afford it. Fortunately I don’t do the jewellery thing... my whole wardrobe wouldn’t cost as much as a pair of diamond earrings. My clothes are a lovely indulgence. And I must have some indulgences.
Was it a huge relief to finally have money after not having any for so long?
It was, to a point. But it took me a long time to come to terms with it. I felt extremely guilty and extremely complicated about it.
But why? You earned it.
Yes, but you think, there has to be a limit. I didn’t have those simple, happy, victorious, joyful feelings. You know, “I’m Miss Universe now, and I’d like to thank my mother and my agent and Jesus Christ.” It was a mindfuck for me, for a long time. Sure I needed to earn a little money, but what I got was just... too much. It wasn’t something that was ever part of my imagination, you know. That kind of fame, that kind of money. I mean, by my standards. For somebody who used to hire a cycle for one rupee a day to go to work.
You wrote a great novel.
I was thrilled when I won the Booker, of course I was. But I remember, the night I won I had this weird dream that a bony, emerald hand had reached into the water in which I was swimming—I was a fish, swimming with other fish—and the hand lifted me out of the water and a voice said, ‘I’ll give you anything you want, what do you want?’ and I said, ‘Put me back!’ I was terrified that my life would change… explode. And it did. I knew this militantly political person in me would have to come out, she would have no place to hide. I’d pay a heavy price in my personal life. That happened. But over time I’ve learnt how to deal with it and what to do with it, so now I’m not traumatised. But I was, I’ll admit.
And the fame? Do you find yourself accosted at airports?
Yes, it’s always done very respectfully, but it’s still exhausting. I don’t want to complain about it, but these days there’s this obsession with selfies, as if it’s everyone’s right to have a selfie with you. It’s an epidemic. Also there have been moments when I was scared. This JNU thing was happening, and the shouting anchors were shouting about me on TV... it can be dangerous.
Are you anti-national?
I’m on the A-list of anti-nationals.
Are you religious at all?
No, I’m not religious in the normal sense. But I’m not a hardcore Marxist who explains everything through class struggle either. I do believe that’s a very important way of analysing society, but I don’t believe that that’s all there is to it. I think I believe, like Proust, in the possibility of everything. I believe that everything, even inanimate things, have a spirit. The closest I’ve come to prayer is writing fiction. Just being able to lavish my attention on something and feeling grateful that there is something, that I have something that I can completely concentrate on and adore, that’s like a prayer to a higher power.
Does death frighten you?
Not death so much as illness and infirmity. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, around illness... other people’s illnesses. There’s a rocking chair here, it’s the most sentimental thing in my house. One of my dearest friends gave it to me. She died of cancer. When the cancer reached her brain and we both knew the end was near, I went with her to the hospital, to ask the doctor to tell us how the end would come, and how best to meet it. The doctor told her that her brain would shut down in a couple of weeks’ time. So the next day she came home to me for lunch and brought along this beautiful little chair she knew I loved. She said, “This is yours, I want it to be here. And right now I want you to sit in it and read a chapter from your new book to me, while I still have a brain. I want a bit of your book in me when I go wherever I’m going.” She died. And her death made death a little less frightening. I thought if she can do it, so can I... but illness is terrifying.
What should we all be afraid of?
Civil war. In 1925, an organisation called the RSS was created. Its only goal was that India should become a Hindu rashtra. Today that organisation is in a position to dictate government policy. Look what has happened in Pakistan when it declared itself to be an Islamic republic. It’s been torn apart by various people deciding what is “true Islam” and what is not. India is an even more complex and diverse society. Hindu rashtra will never be accepted in this country. If they push it down our throats, we will fall apart.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading a book called Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. It’s such a beautifully written book, it’s been years since I had to look away from a page because it was just too heartbreaking to go on. Give me beautiful prose and I’ll follow you anywhere.
Shakespeare, Kipling, Rilke… masters of sentences that can be sung. I’m a whore for beautiful prose. Prose that can be chanted. Almost any line of Shakespeare can still give me goosebumps. Or Nabokov. And John Berger, what a beauty. James Baldwin. Toni Morrison.
Essential reading for everyone?
In India I’d say it should be the writings of Dr BR Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule. I think caste is a cancer in Indian society. And unless we address it, we will remain a rotten society.
What do you think of Kanhaiya Kumar?
I don’t agree with much of what he says, but I love the way he says it. And I love that when he came out and gave that speech, it was exhilarating. It lifted a fog of fear that had fallen on so many people. I like his spirit. I don’t want everyone to march in line and say exactly what I say and believe exactly what I believe, you know. It’s what I call a biodiversity of resistance.
What can we do to change the world?
Find out where you fit in. The battles are ongoing.
Is there any hope?
I don’t think hope is necessarily moored to reason. Sometimes hope is a small thing. Sometimes I just look forward to the next sentence I write that I can be happy with. There’s the macro scenario—climate change, nuclear war and so on... and then there’s the micro scenario. When the bleakness of the big picture begins to get to me, I scale down, I become a frog trying to cross a highway full of trucks. It can be done. Look right, look left… Go! Go! Go! And live to fight another day.
Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (Juggernaut) is out in August
Photographs: Tarun Vishwa. Styling: Malini Banerji. Make-Up And Hair: Deepa Verma. Assisted By Devika Wahal
You may also want to read: Exclusive: An excerpt from Arundhati Roy's encounter with Edward Snowden or more from ELLE Book Club.
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