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.
Because I cannot dance like Nureyev, paint like Mehlli Gobhai, sing like T M Krishna but I can sometimes write from somewhere inside me that is me.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I have just this minute finished translating Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli by Baburao Bagul, from the Marathi. I hope to build another small linguistic bridge with my translation which is called When I Concealed My Caste and Other Stories.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I just wish there were something aesthetic about it.
Who are your favorite authors?
I am a different person at different times and each of these persons has a different favourite author. There is a Jerry who loves Agatha Christie and there is a Jerry who loves Vladimir Nabokov; there is a Jerry who needs a fix of Adil Jussawalla’s poetry and there is a Jerry who can mainline Moby Dick. There is the Jerry who would have loved to meet Charles Schulz and the Pinto who thinks Art Spiegelman is the mouse’s whiskers because the cats were Nazis. This is not a question that this Jerry, the one writing to you now, feels he ought to answer for there will be so many others shouting him down minutes later. (They’ve begun. Yes, P G Wodehouse. Yes, Coetze. Yes, Lessing. Yes, Pamuk. Yes, Rushdie. Yes, Ghosh. Of course, Kolatkar and Ezekiel. And Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhathi Subramaniam. Then there’s Sei Shonagon and Basho. Not to forget Wyslava Szymborska and Hergé. And the guy who wrote the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer? How’s that for concision?
Baaz by Anuja Chauhan
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins; 1 edition (1 May 2017)
Anuja Chauhan has emerged as one of the most reliable contemporary writers of pop-fiction in recent years, with her effervescent love stories being set against the back drop of cricket in The Zoya Factor or the great Indian election in Battle for Bittora, the third estate in Those Pricey Thakur Girls or as a middle-class drama for property in The House that BJ Built.
The latest to emerge from the keys of her laptop is Baaz, a roaring and riveting love story set against the backdrop of the 1971 war when India helped the Mukti Vahini in East Pakistan (Bangladesh at present) in their war for independence. India joined the war on 3 December 1971, after Pakistan launched preemptive air strikes on North India. The formidable Indian Air Force took control of the eastern theatre of war and eventually the Allied Forces of Bangladesh and India left Pakistan with no choice but to surrender in Dacca on 16 December 1971. The pro-Pak bias of the then US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was revealed when recently de-classified papers of the 1971 war describe how the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise had orders to target Indian Army facilities. Baaz draws its climax by citing an episode of the Cold War and makes it a delightful mix of patriotism, romance, drama, cold-blooded action and much comic relief amidst the gritty setting.
You’d pick up The Tree with a Thousand Apples by Sanchit Gupta simply because of the stunning cover art by Misha Oberoi. It helps that the cover has a sticker that announces that the script based on the book is longlisted at the Sundance International Screenwriters’ Lab 2017. But also, you can’t wait to get embroiled in Kashmir. There are too many displaced Kashmiri poets in town and you want to know more about a book that talks about the tormented land.
For the first sixty pages or so, you will be impatient. The introduction to the characters, Bilal, Deewan and Safeena goes on and on. You get no feel for the colours of the Chinars, you don’t shiver from the cold breezes, you don’t picture the wooden homes, their creaking stairs. You only understand that the Bhats and the Maliks are neighbours, you understand how Deewan can fight for Bilal, and that Safeena is beautiful and that her tears are like diamonds and emeralds. The story takes its own sweet time to take shape, and that could be a negative for the book.
But then the action begins and the Bhats have to hide in their neighbour’s home from the burning and the pillaging. It is here that you begin to worry, to care for the characters. You realise how young they are and how the innocence of the city is systematically torn apart.