Delightful Listening: A Conversation Between Viet Thanh Nguyen with Arundhati Roy




THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION between Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel The Sympathizer (2015) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, and Arundhati Roy, whose latest novel is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), took place at the New York Public Library on May 3, 2018. To listen to the conversation, click here.

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ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you. I feel I must clarify this hooker that won the Booker business. What happened was that, at the time when I was writing about the big dams being built on the Narmada River, I criticized a Supreme Court judgment, and I was hauled up for criminal contempt of court, so I was facing a jail sentence. The judges kept throwing this essay that I’d written, called “The Greater Common Good,” from one lordship to the next, and they would refer to me as “that woman,” which is when I started calling myself the hooker that won the Booker. Eventually they suggested that I must apologize, or go to jail. And when I refused to apologize, they said, “But she’s not behaving like a reasonable man.” A “reasonable man” is a legal concept. That was sort of the genesis of this. I’m going to treat you badly, and read a part from toward the end of the book. The reason for this is that I’ve actually done quite a lot of readings, and now I want to read different parts, you know? This is … I mean, you saw the film. This part is set in Kashmir, and the chapter is called “The Untimely Death of Miss Jebeen the First.” [Reads an excerpt from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.]

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Thank you. Well it is a thrill and an honor to be here on stage with you. I’m one of your eight million fans. That’s the last book sales figure I saw for The God of Small Things (1997). I’ve been following you since that book came out, for the last 20 years, and I’m also a fiction writer but also a nonfiction writer.

I know that. Yes. And a beautiful fiction writer.

Thank you so much. I need to write this down so I can put it on the next book jacket.

Yes.

I do fiction and nonfiction, so I’m fascinated by your movement back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, and I also hope that I could become a writer who engages in politics as much as you do. I told you off-stage we were going to start with that but I didn’t know you were going to read this passage. I actually want to start with the passage and some of the things that were raised in the film you showed. That passage that you read was so beautiful but also obviously so sad at the same time. There’s a lot of death happening, there’s the Indian occupation of Kashmir, there’s the Kashmiri revolution against that, there is S. Murugesan, the Untouchable soldier, whose fate then becomes symbolic of so many of the different things that are happening to the people of India and Kashmir, different kinds of backgrounds — and I’m just wondering, I’m recalling a quote from The New Yorker review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where the reviewer compares you to Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie and says that you all use magical realism in order to depict the horror but not make it so tedious. Do you agree with that assessment of your writing?

No. I just can’t understand why people think I do magical realism. I don’t know where it comes from. I asked someone once, and they said, “You have a person who builds a guest house in a graveyard.” I said, “Do you want to see photographs?” I mean, people live in graveyards in India. Graveyards are obviously now ghettos — only Muslims bury their dead, and Christians, but Hindus don’t, and so graveyards are now … The Hindu right ridicules them, contests why they should be given this space, they should be forced to cremate their dead. I spend a lot of time, actually, in graveyards where people live. In fact, the cover of the book is a picture of a grave of an unknown person in the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. And for years and years, there have been two women who sleep on either side of this grave. I don’t know, perhaps the realism that we experience is magical for people who don’t experience it? But to turn that into a genre of literature is to deny our reality in some ways.

I think García Márquez said something of the same sort. He said this is the only mode we can use to depict what’s actually happening here. The fact you were focusing on graveyards in this passage reminds me of something else you said, where you were talking about how part of the novel is about graveyards that have paradises in them, because the guest house that’s built in this particular graveyard is called the Paradise Guest House, and some paradises have graveyards in them, and Kashmir Valley is one of these paradises. That summarizes or expresses one way in which I think your novel is weaving back and forth between these extremes of the paradise and the graveyard. Your calling as a novelist is to draw our attention to these graveyards, to all of the horrible historical events.

You know the other thing is perhaps there too, there’s a difference in perception. In the West, people think of graveyards as the place where the dead are interred, whereas in the graveyard in Delhi where Anjum, one of the main characters, begins to enclose the graves of her relatives, she turns it into the Jannat Guest House — Jannat in Urdu means paradise. And then in Kashmir, which is often referred to as Jannat, as paradise, because it’s so beautiful, it’s a holiday resort — and as I read it’s being covered by graveyards. There too, the dead — in fact, Musa, one of the characters, writes this letter to his daughter saying, in Kashmir, actually the dead are alive and the living are only dead people pretending. So there’s a constant sense in which the graveyard is not necessarily a place for the dead and the borders between the living and the dead are pretty porous in this book. They just move around like guests at a party in different rooms, they come and go. There’s a kind of communion that goes on between humans and animals, between the dead and the living and so on. A place that is so — in a way, your book, it’s about the horror of war and the aftermath of war, and the horror in this book is that it’s supposed to be peace. It’s supposed to be democracy. It’s supposed to be the way everything is all right, and all this is covered over. Even just the physical space there is so contested. There are places where there are people running tea shops in graveyards and cleaning the graves, serving the coffee, whatever. Every space and every person is so layered.

One of the things you said at the end of the film clip is a line from the end of the novel about becoming everything. There is a way in the novel in which you are trying to connect all these different aspects of life and politics in India, not just humans, not just people of different castes and backgrounds, or different political beliefs but also humans and the dead, humans and animals, humans and the environment, all of that. It’s part of what makes The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a really powerful novel, because there’s huge ambition in there to connect all these different things, and many writers don’t want to do that.

I think you have to make the effort to not connect them. The truth is you don’t have to connect them, they are connected. I think increasingly that’s the way people are trained, whether it’s academics or journalists, to mark off their field of expertise and then act as if that is something that functions on its own, whereas it’s not. Whether it’s caste, whether it’s gender, these are not subjects, this is in the air, this is what we breathe night and day. It’s extraordinary to me that many intellectuals, academics, writers have managed to, for example, just act as though caste doesn’t exist in India, whereas it’s the motor that runs society. But being able to silo these things and then endow chairs and have special sections about this and that, it’s a form of depoliticization, which is dishonest, really.

I hold an endowed chair. But I totally agree with you.

Sorry! I didn’t mean all endowed chairs are terrible. I’m just saying to separate these things into NGO headings or ways in which things are funded and therefore you just stop — like if you specialize in environment you are not supposed to know anything about caste or whatever it is. Whereas novels, the power of novels is that they do connect.

I totally agree, I think everything is connected, right? And I think it is partly a willful act for people not to see that, but it’s also what dominant society, dominant ideology encourages, whether in India or in the United States, where I think many people don’t want to see the connection between many different kinds of problems. And I identified with you as a writer because you are someone who has said that not seeing is not an option for you. I’m curious as to when that realization happened. Was it gradual or was there a sudden moment when you felt that you did see these connections that other people weren’t seeing?

In my case, the thing is I have a very peculiar background for an Indian. India is a society that from the outside, or from the hippie side, everybody looks at as anarchic, Bollywood, yoga, Gandhi, vegetarian, whatever. But in truth, it’s a very, very policed society. It’s a society that lives in the fine grid of caste and ethnicity and religion and all that. Like most of the people in this book, I don’t fit into that grid. My mother married outside the community then got divorced, and was not from a big city, so we grew up, my brother and I, in this little village in which The God of Small Things is set. It was made clear to me, especially to me as a girl, that no one was going to marry me, I didn’t belong there, blah, blah, blah — not asking me whether I wanted to marry them, which I didn’t, but anyway. So I grew up sort of on the edge, watching all this and trying to understand it at a time when I was very, very young. Watching my mother for example, who is like someone who escaped from the set of a Fellini film. At times she was very, very harsh to me and my brother, but because there was so much harshness directed at her for the choices she had made … And so, as a very young person, you’re struggling to understand things in adult ways, and of course you misunderstand things too. This began for me very early.

I think there was a moment where you were also talking about after you had graduated from college, I think, and then you had gone off to Goa with a boyfriend at the time, and you were poor, and that as a poor student and postgraduate, you really felt identification with people who were living in poverty. This had been something you had never left behind, never forgotten.

No. I was 16 when I stopped going home. I used to work and put myself through architecture school and then by the time I finished, in fifth year, I knew I wasn’t going to be an architect building houses for rich people. I became very interested in city planning, and at some point I gave up all of that. I used to earn a living selling cake on the beach, then I got fed up with that, came back, and I lived, even while I was in college, in a sort of squat within the walls of an old monument. To be in a city like Delhi when you’re 17, 18, on your own and you see how the most vulnerable survive and that becomes your basic premise of trying to understand anything. I used to live close to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, which is where Tilottama, one of the characters, lives. Every morning I used to have tea with all the beggars and derelicts and we all used to gossip about things. I used to cycle to work and every day, and they would be like, “So, you survived today.” The traffic was so bad! One of the greatest crises in India today is the fact people don’t know how to talk to each other. I’m not talking about language. I’m saying that when you see the World Economic Forum, the prime minister or the rich businessmen, you look at them and you know they don’t even know how to go to a village. They don’t know how to enter a house. The language doesn’t exist anymore for the powerful to speak to the vulnerable. When you listen to judges in court, you know they don’t understand how — if you go to a village in the forests of central India and you steal all the chicken and you shoot holes in the vessels, it sounds like a joke in New York, right? But there, it means you can just die of thirst because you can’t go four miles and collect water and bring it back. You don’t have shops to buy another vessel, but in the Supreme Court listening to the case of the mining companies versus these people, that’s a joke. Because they have forgotten what vulnerability means.

So this capacity for empathy, for great empathy for a wide range of people and a wide range of characters certainly marks your work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Something else you brought up in what you just said was your willingness to actually go out and talk to people. I’m speaking as someone who hates talking to people. I like sitting in a room writing. But you are someone who, besides doing that, also likes to go out and engage with people. It seems like one kind of writer is the writer who writes alone, and another kind of writer is a writer who writes in solidarity. I think that word has come up often in interviews I’ve read of your work, that you see yourself as being not just an isolated voice by someone whose fiction and nonfiction is not supposed to represent other people, not supposed to be the voice for the voiceless for example, but is working in concert with social and political movements. I don’t know if there’s a question here, I just want to point it out, that you’re a different kind of writer for doing that.

Well, it’s actually — I sometimes tell people I’m a social cripple. I can be here and talk to people but I find it very hard to go and have dinner with seven people or something. More than talk to people, I think what I like to do is to listen to people, because people forget how to listen. There’s something very beautiful about just listening. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a book that’s written in solidarity with anybody or any movement or anything like that. It is, to me, the fundamental desire of a writer to understand the terrain in which they write. I need to know it intimately, and for that I need to listen. So when I’m in Delhi, for example, nobody ever invites me for anything because they know I won’t go. No marriage, no dinner, no this, no that. No. But these journeys into the forest, the journey spending weeks with the Maoists, the footage that you saw of those women comrades — if the camera had panned a little more, I was there with them. Sometimes you come across the most unexpected things. There was a moment when all of us went to the river to bathe, so there were these armed guerrillas, there was me, there were women farmers, all bathing in the same river, and you think what a moment that is. Or late at night when everyone’s asleep, one of the comrades is busy on his solar-powered computer, so I asked him, “What are you doing?” So he said, “I’m writing a clarification.” Then he laughed and he said, “We could publish several volumes of clarifications.” So I said, “What is the funniest clarification you’ve ever had to make?” So he said, in Hindi, he said, [speaks Hindi], which means, “No, brother, we did not hammer the cows to death.” It was because one of the election promises by the man who was standing for chief minister. He said that if he won the election he would give every indigenous person’s family a cow. So when he won the election he was distributing these aged cows to people, so there were these cow contractors who were taking these old cows, who would bloody die on the way, and they decided the best way to get out of this tedious thing was to just say the Maoists killed them. So these guys from the forest are saying, “No, we didn’t kill them.” So the thing is, how do you understand the bizarreness of this place that I live in, all these languages, all this? It’s only through delightful listening. When people talk about free speech, some of us often say, “Free speech and fearless listening.”

Delightful listening. You delightfully listened to a whole panoply of characters in your book. That panoply of characters includes not just the revolutionaries and the freedom fighters and the downtrodden and so on, but also people who are not necessarily so nice. People like Garson Hobart and Major Amrik Singh. I don’t know if you want to tell the audience about these characters, but is it delightful to listen to people like that? Because I assume you have to all the time.

Oh, it’s fascinating. I mean Garson Hobart is a character, he’s called Garson Hobart because he plays that in Norman, a college play that they’re doing which never gets performed. His actual name is Biplab Dasgupta and he’s very much part of the Nehruian sort of upper-caste secular, fallen now, Indian state. And he’s a brilliant guy. So for me, writing Garson Hobart was like coming close to schizophrenia because he’s the enemy that you don’t want to have. He’s a brilliant guy, there’s no question of it, not easy meat. It was a game, in a way. He’s funny, he’s self-deprecating, and he has the expansive ability to wait that the state always has, to allow people to let off steam. It’s wonderful the way he’ll tell us about how Kashmir is managed, for example, that he says we deliberately took the decision that every time someone is killed, when these hundreds of thousands of people come out, let them come out, pull the army back, let them let off steam, and then they’ll all go home. The other thing he talks about is how, when the insurrection began and it didn’t have any leadership, how do you know who to watch? You fund newspapers against yourself and then the voices will emerge, then the resistance will have a face, then you’ll know whom to get. So he’s a pretty brilliant guy. Amrik Singh too. Amrik Singh is a captain, a major in the Indian Army, who then eventually has to flee, and guess where he comes? To the United States. He’s also a creation of the system. He’s not just a crazed killer, he’s someone who’s given the latitude to do that work. He plays, and then when they are few up of him they farm him off.

You’ve talked about how, in order to write your characters, you have to love all of your characters, which would include these two men who are scary, each in their own different ways. Major Amrik Singh because he tortures and kills a lot of people, and Garson Hobart because he seems to represent the security apparatus, the guy who’s not going to get his hands dirty but who’s observing everything from afar. Was it hard to love these characters?

Well, love is a complicated thing. When I say love them, it doesn’t mean love them like a lover, but love them because you lavish attention as a writer on them. That is the form of love a writer gives a character. So yes, it was very important for me. It would be silly, right, if we just loved the lovely ones. What would that mean?

Well, I wrote an essay for The New York Times a few months ago, where I said I have to find empathy even for Donald Trump. It was very hard for me to do, it still remains hard for me to do.

But maybe it would be too boring to have him in a novel, right?

You can’t beat the reality show that is the Trump presidency. But these two characters, I want to keep talking about them because I think they’re very interesting.

I like that.

They meet conclusions that are —

Could I read a little paragraph of Garson Hobart so that you know who he is? I’m sure I can find it quickly. Oh yeah. So this is Garson Hobart. He’s the only character who’s in the first person. He insisted on being in the first person. His suzerainty over me as a citizen. So he’s talking about the time when he was a student in 1984, and he says that, for a few days after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, mobs led by her supporters and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi.

Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lived were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city. From my window seat in a bus on a bright, beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. They pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South Africa–style with a burning tire while people stood around baying their encouragement. I hurried home and waited for the shock of what I had witnessed to hit me. Oddly, it never did. The only shock I felt was shock at my own equanimity. I was disgusted by the stupidity, the futility of it all, but somehow, I was not shocked. It could be that my familiarity with the gory history of the city I had grown up in had something to do with it. It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores — as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers — life went on as before. Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist — continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.

So this is even before he’s become a bureaucrat.

So part of the plot of the novel was that Garson Hobart’s Tilo and Musa, who becomes one of the Kashmiri freedom fighters, all went to college together. There’s a moment toward the conclusion of the novel when Musa and Garson Hobart actually meet, decades after their college years, and obviously they’re now on opposing sides of this political divide. Musa makes a prediction. He says, “What India is doing to Kashmir is going to lead to the self destruction of India.” And this thought stays with Garson Hobart. I’m wondering, is Musa deluded? Is that actually what you think will happen? The internal contradictions of India will lead to its own destruction?

In some ways, it’s already happening. India is a country, which from the day it became independent from British rule, August 1947, there has not been a single day when the Indian Army has not been deployed within its own borders against quote unquote its own people. Whether it’s Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, or Kashmir, or Punjab, or Gujarat, Hyderabad. It’s constantly at war. Again, if you look at who those people are, it’s always indigenous people, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits. There’s this very militarized upper-caste state at war. But now, what Musa is talking about is the fact that there are two conflicts this book has in it. One is the conflict in Kashmir and the other is the conflict in central India, which you saw, the battle against these big mining companies. The forests are full of paramilitary, and what has happened is very interesting. In Kashmir, which is on the border, the army for now close to 30 years is gradually becoming an administrative force, like the police. Corrupt, bloated, and in Bastar, the police are becoming like the army. Gunships, helicopters, grenades, bombing, burning villages, all that. So gradually every institution is becoming completely corroded, completely communalized, and this is what Musa is talking about, the fact that for the first time in the history of India, four judges of the Supreme Court came out and did a press conference saying that democracy is in danger. The four people you saw being flogged in the film, they were flogged two years ago. It led to a huge amount of unrest, and the people who flogged them have recently been released and they flogged them again.

They flogged the same men again?

Same men. One of the men committed suicide because he was so humiliated. The other three. The killers who were convicted and sentenced to death for the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat are all being released now, in time for the next elections. So you see, history books are being rewritten. Everything is slowly imploding in ways that come from being able to absorb this kind of violence while continuing to maintain the hypocrisy of democracy. There are other places where there is more violence, but they don’t pretend.

I couldn’t help, when I was reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, reading the part about the self-destruction and then hearing you talk right now, thinking, it could describe the United States in some ways, in terms of the erosions of democracy, for example, and the incapacity of the majority to see the things this country is doing, both internally within its own borders and externally, which is even more invisible to so many people in this country.

So going back to that idea of seeing and not seeing, there’s a lot of willful not seeing in this country as well.

I don’t spend much time here, but I can see some parallels, but at the same time I’d be wary of making direct comparisons, because in a way what is happening in India right now is something that was set in motion at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, you know? Now, from the 1920s, there’s been this organization called the RSS, to which Modi belongs. It’s an organization inspired by Mussolini and Hitler, openly. Modi and many of his ministers belong. It is the most powerful organization in India today. It has hundreds of thousands of volunteers. It is not the political party that makes decisions — it is this organization. It has compromised all these big institutions of democracy. What I see here is elite institutions unable to deal with a lunatic in the White House. You don’t have the protocols to take him out of that place. But all these elite intuitions are angry with him, whereas in India, the elite institutions are with this program at the moment. You’re seeing a situation where 150 million Muslims are being ghettoized, their economic base has been eroded. You’re seeing a very militaristic police society, you have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, where there are thousands of people in jail. I have never been so anxious about what’s going on there. We have elections coming up in a year and you can see that the government is trying to polarize, trying to create a situation where none of us really know how to respond, because whatever you do it deepens the polarization. Whatever you say, it deepens the polarization. If a man has been hacked to death and that video has been put up on YouTube, people are collecting money for the legal defense of the murderer. The little girl who was raped in Jammu. She was raped, she was held in a temple, she was bludgeoned to death, but it wasn’t just these five men who did it. There are thousands of people, including women, who are marching in support of that. That is the thing that one can’t wrap one’s head around. The rot that is setting in. You had to have lockdown in states because people are going to protest because the men who are convicted of rape are being supported by their followers. How do you think about that?

You’ve been confronting these political issues in India since at least 1998, when The End of Imagination came out, and you were dealing with India’s nuclearization. It’s been 20 years where you’ve been actively political as a writer, as an intellectual, as an activist. I’m just wondering if it’s exhausting. I think about something that Pankaj Mishra wrote in the Guardian. He was saying, well, people in the West expect writers from these so called Third World countries — I don’t know if India can even be called that, but non-Western countries, to be political. We look at other countries and we see these terrible things happening, and the West expects writers to be political, but Mishra points out, and I think he’s right, that in places like the United States and England, writers have the luxury of not being political. That’s a whole separate issue, but do you feel that this is something that you have to confront, this demand to be explicitly political, and is it exhausting?

No, not at all.

That’s good to hear.

It’s not exhausting, it’s exhilarating. It’s important to be in the world and it’s not as if I do it as a duty. When I want to withdraw, I do, as I did the last few years when I was writing this. It’s not all about current affairs. It’s about deepening your understanding. To me, it would be exhausting to keep quiet and to sit. It would be exhausting and it would be terribly boring. I was just speaking to some young students who asked me how they deal with the trolling and hatred that many of us have to deal with. I said, “Imagine if they liked me. How horrible would that be?” You’ve got to be up for it. I’m up for it. One is not trying to be cute. It’s exhilarating because, for instance, when I write the political essays, they are immediately translated into so many Indian languages. I remember when I wrote Walking with the Comrades, I finished copyediting it at midnight in the Office of Outlook, and I came to speak in San Francisco, and while I was speaking, people had already made it into a book and were distributing it at the back, saying, “With permission of the author.” I was like, really? It belongs to everybody. People ask me how do you get feedback for your work. I said, I just stand at the traffic lights. It’s the way it should be. An author and people, and it’s like a direct shot into the veins. There’s no arbiter in the middle. You’re not sitting around waiting for good reviews or awards or whatever it is. Those don’t matter that much.

I think someone called you a writer-activist in one of your interviews. I don’t know what it was, but you said no. You object to this term writer-activist because it seems to imply that a writer should not be an activist, and you’re identifying yourself as one of these writers whose —

I said that I wondered where this word activist came from. Like, who started it? Because there was a time when that’s what writers did. They engaged with society, they argued, they fought, they were political. This word activist is a slightly strange word, don’t you think? I said it’s like calling me a sofa bed or something. It suggests writers should be in some nursery playing with their stuffed toys while the real world goes to work.

You said there was a time in the past when writers on the average were more engaged than they are now, whether it’s India or the West.

I wonder what it is about, but yeah, sure, maybe at the time when our concerns were whether or not we would be beheaded we were more serious than when the concerns are whether or not we’ll be on the best-seller list, or you live between literary festivals and best-seller lists, or something like that. Where the market has begun to play a part in genres of writing, you’re quickly wanting to say what is this book about, can you tell me in three sentences, which shelf should I put it in, and so on. I had this very funny experience at a book fair in India, where The Algebra of Infinite Justice was in the maths section. An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire was in the travel section. Listening to Grasshoppers in the entomology section. The God of Small Things was in the religious section.

Maybe, on that note, if you want to take a question? Can’t beat that answer. Do you want to take questions from the audience now?

Sure. Of course.

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To listen to the rest of the conversation, click here.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His short story collection, The Refugees, is out from Grove Press.


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