Architectural insights with Arundhati Roy

“Studying architecture and understanding space, how has that influenced your writing and your literature and understanding that part how do you think language and literature can help us understand our space?, because living in South Africa as an Indian who studied architecture, the way I grew up at home and understanding the way I understand space in my community is very different to the way that I was taught, is very different to the way we practice which plays a whole different sort of friction in the work space. So how do we start taking that sort of anti-colonial aspect of, of how we live and translating it into architecture and space and also moving forward and progressing?” –  Question from audience

“So the question was about how architecture, the study of architecture affects the way I write and how the way I write could affect the way we look at space around us. You know when I studied architecture by the time I was in third year I began to be more interested in cities and the, you know we have the colonial part of the city, the medieval part of the city and the new modern part of the city in a place like Delhi and so my architecture thesis was about how cities came to be the way they are and what they do to those who live in it and the thing was how do the institutions in the city exclude the poor, you know. So there was a city for citizens and then there were the non-citizens who lived in the cracks between these institutions and I remember, of course I was like twenty years old then and facing a jury and telling them that you know that even the sewage system doesn’t belong to the poor because they shit on top of it and the jury was like that’s enough from you young lady.

So for me this is a fascinating, you know how architecture and urban architecture uses space to include and exclude. How that and if you read ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ you’ll see how, how clearly that happens in a city like Delhi you know and today you’ll see the “ghettoization” of certain communities so for example coming back to the colonial view of how I write, often, often particularly the critics in the West will call my work magic realism and I say just because it’s not your realism doesn’t mean its magic realism. So I said can we… give me an example from ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ of what you consider to be magical realism so they said you know like these people who live in grave yards and run guest houses. I said shall I show you photographs you know. I mean the cover of the book is a picture of a grave of a well-known person in the darga of Hazrat Nizaamudeen and there are two women who sleep on either side of this grave and have slept there for like 30 years. Graveyards are becoming the new ghettos in some ways you know, because obviously in India the Hindu community cremates its dead, they don’t have graveyards. Graveyards are Muslim spaces mostly or Christian spaces and the poor rule the graveyards and that is now an urban space you know.

So Anjun the character, one of the main characters in the book, she’s a Hijra, a trans women who, she’s also born to a Shia Muslim family and she and her more dangerous identity in India is that of a Muslim lady, she gets caught up with the Gujarat massacre because she’s a Muslim, escapes because she’s a Hijra and they believe that killing Hijras brings them bad luck and eventually she moves into a graveyard and slowly begins to enclose graves and builds a guest house there where she lives and she steals her electricity from the morgue because its right next to a hospital in the area and for this reason she has 24 hours electricity which even the poshest colonies don’t have because even the cities derelict get, have to have electricity so that they don’t… So these are ways in which urban spaces use you know what goes on around a mosques, what goes on in the communities that are being ghettoized… what goes on in the city that was built by the … for the British empire and so easily taken over now by the new rulers as if it was made for them and that’s part of how I write and part of why I believe that writing novels is a way of practicing architecture.”

(Image credit (left): Tanzeem Razak, 2018)
(Image credit (cover image): Mayank Austen Soofi)