Did you always intend to have a long gap before writing another novel, following your hugely acclaimed The God of Small Things?
I had no idea what I would do after I wrote The God of Small Things. I then got involved with writing non-fiction. I never felt I had any ‘duty’ to write another novel. I only wrote this one because it appeared in my life and it needed to be told. I didn’t have the kind of approach to writing whereby having written one book meant I had to write another. I was under absolutely no pressure from myself to write another one.
How had your approach to writing a novel changed over the intervening years?
Well there isn’t any standard model approach, the way you write depends on the story that you’re writing so I was aware that The God of Small Things is a story about a family with a broken heart at its centre, but this book almost turns that inside out: nobody has a family really, but they all bring together these shards of broken hearts. They are all people who have been somehow driven out of the mainstream, not by a person but by a system or societal pressures or whatever, and they bring together those shards and make a mended heart. Also, there’s a lot that’s experimental about it, which was very important to me. I feel that one of the reasons why fiction has lost its pre-eminence is because the system of marketing and presenting and cataloguing and synopsising has caused you to shrink into themes, you have to quickly tell somebody what your book is about. But I wanted to write about the air in the place that I live, and the air is full of these terrors, these very, very obvious political and economic wheels that are turning, but also the beauty that can be found in the strangest, most unexpected places. So to try to capture everything was my primary purpose, not specific subjects but the air in which all these things lived, as well as language and its cadences.
One of your characters says: ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody No. By slowly becoming everything.’ How far did this inform your choice of narrative structure, which juxtaposes and then brings together the story of the ‘outsiders’ with the voice of a political ‘insider’ (alongside, of course, all the many others who are given a voice in your book)?
I think there’s a big difference when you write a book in which you’re adding sequentially to the narrative and when you are writing laterally and gathering it with a structure in place. There’s nothing there which hasn’t been thought through. It’s not as if you’re writing a tv serial which you can just keep writing. There’s a meaning to the way it circles around. It’s like knowing a city really well and yet surprising streets appear, what they call in Delhi ‘unauthorised constructions’, unauthorised people who make appearances.
Did any of them surprise you yourself?
Yes, of course. That’s the important thing about writing. To me the biggest trap was to be that person who had written all these political essays and was now writing a book of fiction which was actually a political essay. But this is not that. Had I wanted to do that I would have written a political essay. It’s a game of control and unleashing control. To me one of the most important parts of this book is when it switches to the first person. It’s easy to create a straw man, but Garson Hobart is a very sophisticated, interesting, complex person who challenges the view of the ‘resistance’. He has a reasoned view for what he thinks. He is a man who speaks as the State, the person who has an overview of everybody’s life and yet he also is in a shambles in some way.
What fascinates you about the world of the hijra?
Nothing fascinated me more about the world of the hijra than, say, the world of the intelligence officer. India’s actually a land of minorities and everybody is excluding the others. And in setting up the Jannat Guest House, Anjum is the one who says everybody is welcome. It’s important to get past the idea of the world of the hijra as a very peculiar thing, rather than their human beings like everybody else, as diverse as everybody else. Anjum is not a signifier of all hijra. She’s a very particular person to herself and also somebody who’s been pushed out of even that world.
Jahanara Begum speculates on how not having a gender puts her child outside of language. Does the recent proliferation, if not explosion, of words around gender and orientation help to broaden the debate, or is there also a danger of trivialising it?
I think it’s important to think of language and how it limits people, but if all the many genders are locked into little silos, or if a novelist is then supposed to look upon each of those as a subject of research and not as a human being who shares the joys and sorrows of all humankind, it’s something to worry about. And it’s not just gender. In India it happens with caste, identity, religion, and the idea of searching for a way to be inclusive sometimes ends up being the opposite, but I think it’s important for language to accommodate what it has not in the past.
Of all the many aspects of politics and ‘progress’ over which your book expresses anger and dismay, perhaps the strongest feelings are reserved for the treatment of the poor, of whom there were ‘too many to be killed outright... their marriage certificates, their children’s schools, their lifetimes’ work, the expression in their eyes, were flattened by yellow bulldozers.’ The official line was ‘Somebody has to pay the price for Progress…’ Do you feel the current government is just as cynical? Is there any reason to feel optimistic?
It’s getting harsher and harsher. The attack on the poor is also a cultural attack. For example, if you look at Bollywood films in the 1970s all the heroes were people from the slums and they were up against the big landlords and so on. The films would be shown in huge, thousand-seater theatres that even the poor could afford to come to. Now you don’t have those theatres any more, you just have these multiplexes and the tickets are so expensive that a poor person can’t afford to come. So the movies are confected for that new audience and the poor have disappeared from cinema altogether.
The poor have disappeared from everything except maybe some NGO pamphlet where they all have to wear the same-coloured baseball hat with the logo of the NGO on it. I’m not talking just about India, I’m sure this is true everywhere in the world – the imagination doesn’t include them any more.
Miss Jabeen’s mother writes from the forest that anyone who is poor, who argues with what is happening is called a terrorist, or put into prison or is killed. The whole of central India is a police state and these are the poorest people in the world who are questioning the idea of progress that excludes them. Not only excludes them but pulverises them.
There is a lot of irony and humour in your book, especially when detailing the actions of those in power. Does humour help you temper your feelings of outrage and despair?
I personally know that in the places where I spend much of my time and my life and where the book was written, there’s so much humour even in the saddest places and especially among people who are fighting something. I find that people who have a slightly better life are quicker to be pessimistic. But there are places that are so bleak - villages where thousands of farmers have killed themselves but their wives are alive because they have children - that bleakness is not going to be mitigated by anything that easily. Obviously, if this novel was just about terrible things though, it wouldn’t work: there’s poetry, there’s music, there’s humour, there’s crazy humanity and I think eventually people who live lives within the machine of progress will still look upon the Jannat Guest House with some kind of envy: there’s life there, there’s something about redefining the meaning of happiness there. You’re not just a spoke in the wheel that someone else is turning.