To tell a shattered story: Kitaab review of The Ministry of Utmost happiness by Arundhati Roy

by Usha K. R.

The Ministry of Utmost happiness; Arundhati Roy; Penguin Random House India; 2017; pp 437

Arundhati Roy’s debut The God of Small Things (TGOST) was a dazzling first novel, part-autobiographical, a story of childhood innocence destroyed by a combination of deeply riven social mores and the machinations of a disapproving family. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, and it announced with a starburst that a major literary talent had arrived.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Roy’s second novel, appearing almost twenty years after TGOST. In the interim, Roy has written about the many grassroots movements and mass agitations in India, using her considerable polemical skills in arguing for the marginalized, the lost causes, consistently taking anti-establishment positions.

It seems but logical that Roy who has always held that her fiction and her essays are part of the same persona, should marry her skills and venture upon a polemical work of fiction, and that for its content, nothing less than the contemporary history of India will do. This is a novel which takes up, with righteous anger, a swathe of causes, from the “soft” social issues such as the plight of the hijras, or that of beagles dumped on the road by unscrupulous testing labs complete with tubes dangling out of their sides, to the “larger” political events and causes, including caste discrimination and violence, the Bhopal gas leak, anti-Sikh violence, the Gujarat riots, the rising saffron tide and cow vigilantism, the anti-corruption stir at the Jantar Mantar led by “old-man-baby-voice”, he of the “gummy Farex baby smile” — Roy’s sharp wit, observation and felicity combine in her pithy epithets for political figures — and finally the burning cause at the heart of this novel – the ongoing political unrest in Kashmir.

It appears as if Roy has opened her third eye and subjected the nation to her searing vision; and here lies the strength and the weakness of this ambitious novel. While the sweep of issues that Roy tackles is impressive and even plausible, her storytelling engaging and multi-layered, the polemicist wins over the writer of fiction — she sees everything in black and white – and red. The intimate anecdotal narration which we saw in TGOST takes second place – and for a historical narration of the kind The Ministry aims to be, Rushdie had his foot in the door first with Midnight’s Children.

There are two parts to the novel. The first part is about Anjum, a hijra or transgender, who grows up in the gullies of old Delhi – a life evoked with tenderness, humour and colourful detail – moves into Khwabgah, a transgender sorority house where she watches planes flying into the twin towers on television and thinks of it as a hex by a fellow sister, but learns better about the world when she takes an untimely trip to Gujarat. Anjum finally moves to a graveyard on the outskirts of Delhi where she finds friends among similar outcasts of society, fellow sufferers and oddities, and where she builds Jannat Guest House, its spirit evoked by her salutation “Laal Salamaleikum”.

The second part of the narrative belongs to Tilottama, Tilo, the author’s alter ego, created with an inordinate amount of self-love. Tilo – whimsical, elusive faerie child – is loved by three men, her fellow students in architecture college, products of a liberal education, artful reflections of privilege in India, across caste and geography. Circumstances chart different paths for the three men, who are united only in their helpless love for Tilo – Biplab Dasgupta, toughened Intelligence Bureau officer, Nagaraja Hariharan, top-notch journalist, and Musa Yeswi, a gentle, serene Kashmiri, whom circumstances turn into a militant and who is Tilo’s true love. For strategic reasons, Tilo marries Nagaraja, only to leave him and travel the length and breadth of Kashmir, bearing witness to the people’s movement and the brutal counter moves of the army.

Roy evokes a poignant symbol of resistance — a boy is brought home “his fists, clenched in rigor mortis, (were) full of earth and yellow mustard flowers grew from between his fingers.” However, Roy’s monochromatic vision allows for only two sides, the good and the bad; one side is noble and blameless, and on the other side, even the children are not innocent. Despite Roy’s considerable story telling skills, the overkill in the narrative with its stock figures of fun, vilification and heroism turns wearying, making the reader long for the nuances of a plain old newspaper report.

Which brings us to the purpose of the novel. How to tell a shattered story, Roy asks in the course of the novel, and answers, “By slowly becoming everybody. No, by slowly becoming everything.” Perhaps a single, sweeping grand narrative with a smoothly interlinked plot, an organic conclusion, rounded characters, polyphonous voices and chuckling wit are the tools of a novelist who has come to terms with her vision and the world she has created, and left it behind. This is a novel of unfinished business, whose dedication reads — To the Unconsoled. In the world that Roy beholds and which she has evoked, utopia can only lie in a place like Jannat House, a people’s paradise built in the graveyard, a bottom-of-the-pyramid of disenfranchisement, a collection of simple, never-say-die people, the happy few, the band of brothers, who wear their wounds lightly, and where an Anjum and a Tilo can live side by side.

Usha K R writes fiction in English. Her novels are ‘Monkey-man’ (2010/ Penguin India), ‘A Girl and a River’ (2007/Penguin India), ‘The Chosen’ (2003/Penguin India) and ‘Sojourn’ (1998/EastWest Books). Her novels have been listed for several awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Crossword Award, the Man Asia and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. ‘A Girl and a River’ won the Vodafone Crossword Award, 2007. ‘Monkey-man’ was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012.

Usha K R attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2011. 

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