Arundhati Roy: The Utmost Unhappiness of Being Indian

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Arundhati Roy’s second novel in twenty years retains her original magic even as it becomes an overwrought political project

WHAT MUST IT be like to be Arundhati Roy? People in power are accustomed to being loved and hated in equal measure. But what of authors? Aren’t they the ‘sensitive type’, rheumy-eyed, thin skinned and prone to bruising? Fifty-five-year-old Roy, it would seem, is quite unlike her tribe, and more similar, perhaps, to a rhinoceros beetle. In the last two decades, like the rhinoceros beetle (that is proportionally the strongest creature on Earth), she has never shied away from a fight, never scurried away from foes, and has only emerged the stronger for it. As a result, there are those who adore her and those who despise her, leaving few in between.

One can be sure that her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton), which arrives after a hiatus of 20 years, is going to be similarly received. There will be those who will genuflect before it, and others who spit upon it, while the book itself merits neither of these responses.

For fans of the phenomenon that was The God of Small Things, sure, the wait for a second Arundhati Roy novel has been long, even nerve-wracking. But The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does not live up to all the hype and hoopla that has accompanied its birth into this world. The noise surrounding the novel tells us a deep and uncomfortable truth—when it comes to fiction written in English, born in India, books and manuscripts are plenty, but occasions to celebrate are few and far between. Given the collective and synchronised ooo-ing and aaa-ing, one would imagine the Second Coming was upon us. Naturally, these expectations were pinned too high. No one and nothing can live up to such hyperbole.

What The Ministry of Utmost Happiness proves, beyond doubt, is that Roy is a fearless and fierce voice in today’s India. She is a voice that the country needs, one that is anti-establishment, anti-authority, and most importantly, anti-power. But the politics of Roy all too often overpowers the story, thus weakening its frame. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has flashes of brilliance and lines that will take your breath away. But at the end of the novel, you’ll feel it is less a novel and more a political project.

While fans will simper, grinches will holler over Roy’s politics. Considering her cachet, there will be those sissies who will latch onto the book. In a bid to claim their rare two minutes of fame, they will condemn the author in the most modish way of the day—by branding her an anti-national.

BUT ROY IS not an anti-national (whatever that means). She is simply pro outsider, pro disenfranchised, pro the sidelined, and pro the inconsolable. And that comes out most clearly in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where she locates the action in non-mainstream places (a graveyard in Delhi and the towns of Kashmir) and directs a cast of characters including hijras and ‘untouchables’. One of the lead characters of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Anjum, born as Aftab to Jahanara Begum. For the first few years, Jahanara Begum keeps secret her son’s ‘girl-part’, waiting for it to ‘heal’. But by the time he is nine and belting out Chaiti and Thumri in his ‘sweet, true singing voice,’ the jibes begin: ‘She-He, He-She Hee! Hee! Hee!’ One day, Aftab spots a ‘tall, slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick, gold high heels and a shiny, green satin salwar kameez.’ He soon realises that the woman he’d followed ‘could dress as she was dressed and walk the way she did only because she wasn’t a woman. Whatever she was, Aftab wanted to be her.’

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness invests in such characters, those who want to reinvent themselves and find their own truth; whether it is Aftab who becomes Anjum, or Dayachand the Chamar who works in a mortuary and calls himself Saddam Hussain, or S Tilottama, the girl from Kerala who is impossible to place. They all share the same need, to wrench themselves away from what they were born into and create a new selfhood, to find a vestige of justice.

It is as if she wanted this book to be not a great Indian novel but the only great Indian novel ever. One wishes she had cut a slice in order to talk of the whole, rather than spanning the whole, to talk of everything

Roy’s canvas, whether it is her fiction or nonfiction, has always been justice and not rights. As she says in an interview in 2015, “If you ask me what is at the core of what I write, it isn’t about ‘rights’, it’s about justice. Justice is a grand, beautiful, revolutionary idea.” The arc of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the voyage undertaken by her characters to grasp this grand and beautiful idea of justice, which might or might not exist.

Anjum settles into the Khwabagh (house of dreams) and becomes a ‘sought-after lover’ and a ‘skilled giver of pleasure’. However, she does not find a home here. She find solace only in Zainab, the child who she spotted on the steps of Jama Masjid, the child no one claimed, the child whose true passions is animals. Despite Anjum’s unwavering attentions, Zainab is prone to illness and spends much of her time wheezing in bed. To rid her of this sifli jaadu, Anjum embarks upon a trip to Ajmer Sharif with the elderly Zakir Mian, proprietor and manager of A-1 Flowers. On their return, they get caught in the riots of Gujarat and thus opens a new chapter for Anjum, which begins with teaching Zainab the Gayatri Mantra, a chant that no one knows at the Khwabagh.

Even if this is fiction, Roy’s denunciation of the Gujarat riots is absolute. She writes, ‘The Chief Minister with cold eyes and a vermilion forehead would go ahead to win the next elections. Even after the Poet-Prime Minister’s government fell at the Centre, he won elections after election in Gujarat. Some people believed he ought to be held responsible for mass murder, but his voters called him Gujarat ka Lalla. Gujarat’s Beloved.’

The horrors that Anjum witnesses in Gujarat—where ‘Newton’s Army’ shriek, ‘Mussalman ka ek hi stan! Qabaristan ya Pakistan!’—banish her into a graveyard. And it is here, with the dead and other ‘outcasts’, that she creates a new home for herself, christening it Jannat Guest House.

If the horrors of the Gujarat riot come alive through Anjum, then the savagery and insanity of ‘cow killers’ is exposed through Saddam (Anjum’s friend and fellow graveyard dweller), and the travesties of Kashmir are exposed through the triumvirate of friends Naga (Nagaraj Hariharan), Tilo and Musa (Musa Yeswi), who are college students in Delhi of the 1980s. Musa the striking-looking Kashmiri boy and Naga the breezy showman are both doomed to love Tilo, even as Musa grows into a Kashmiri separatist and Naga, a mainstream journalist. Over the span of 30 years, their lives will overlap in complex ways.

While at first you cheer on her characters, halfway through the book, they seem less human and more like placards for causes. The reader's empathy for the characters might be replaced by fatigue with the author's motives

Roy describes the insurrection in Kashmir in fevered prose, ‘Death was everywhere. Death was everything. Career. Desire. Dream. Poetry. Love. Youth itself. Dying became just another way of living. Graveyards sprang up in parks and meadows, by streams and rivers, in fields and forest glades. Tombstones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth.’ Despite the individual choices that they make and the paths they choose, they all seem like corks bobbing on the current of the times.

The God of Small Things (1997), winner of the Booker Prize, reeled in all the adulation that it did 20 years ago, because it told of social ills in small-town India in the lushest language. The Booker citation noted, ‘In magical and poetic language, the novel paints a vivid picture of life in a small rural Indian town, the thoughts and feelings of the two small children, and the complexity and hypocrisy of the adults in their world. It is also a poignant lesson in the destructive power of the caste system and moral and political bigotry in general.’

At that time, Roy was an unknown woman writer. For a generation of readers (and aspiring authors), the image of her beaming and clutching her first novel to receive the Booker—clad in a simple maroon silk saree and crowned by bolshie curls—became the image of hope. Here was an aerobics instructor and young actor from India who had pipped an established writer such as Jim Crace to win the most important prize in fiction that year. It was the perfect story—one where the outsider reaps the rewards.

The brilliance of the novel was that it was the first of its kind. Salman Rushdie had already impressed readers with a new playfulness of language, and Roy sped ahead with that baton. The text of The God of Small Things becomes Kerala during the monsoon—a landscape burgeoning and sodden with life. Riotous and abundant language replaces the sparseness of Western ‘modern’ prose.

NO ONE DOES SIMILES and metaphors like Roy. In a recent book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, author Ben Blatt looked for the specific words that authors use much more frequently than the rate at which those usually occur. Without access to Blatt’s technology and using simply the Control F key and following a hunch, one could say that ‘like’ is certainly one of Roy’s favourite words. It occurs more than 500 times in The God of Small Things, and usually to create similes that are audacious and revelatory. In a gentle sleight of hand, she even connects the twins of her first novel to the new born baby who appears miraculously at Jantar Mantar in her second novel by describing both like ‘baby seals’. Children come into this world in a similar fashion, but what this world bestows upon them is not always hope and justice.

In the last two decades, Roy has used this mastery over language to write with uncommon power on matters that concern her, and ought to concern us all. In her nonfiction too, she employs her similes to make people of personalities. Under her pen, they pop off the page. She describes Edward Snowden as ‘small, lithe, neat, like a house cat’. In 2011, she said of India’s middle class in an interview that the most successful ‘secessionist struggle’ in India is “the secession of the middle and upper classes into outer space from where they look down and say ‘what’s our bauxite doing in their mountains, what’s our water doing in their rivers, what’s our timber doing in their forests.” ‘The people of Kashmir,’ she writes (after the ‘secret and sudden hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru’), ‘have been locked down like cattle in a pen, once again.’

Over the years, by winning the hearts of anti-dam protestors, Azadi supporters and anti-capitalism hippies, she has rankled the establishment. She writes in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness of the amaltas flower blooming a defiant yellow each summer, ‘it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You.’ Roy’s nonfiction writing has been just like that, it has risen from the page with similar defiance and has looked up at the big and the powerful with the same insouciance. Her brazen disregard for the establishment bubbles forth in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She aims her guns at everything from the Emergency to Godhra to 9/11 to Manmohan Singh to the Bhopal gas tragedy to foreign journalists to Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal to Hindu glory to the Sikh riots to Naxalism. The allusion to real-time events and people is so furious and frequent that it risks leaving the reader dizzy.

That is when a reader wishes Roy might have done less rather than more. By packing in so much, it is as if she wanted this book to be not A Great Indian Novel but The Only Great Indian Novel Ever. One wishes she had cut a slice in order to talk of the whole, rather than spanning the whole, to talk of everything. While at first you cheer on her characters, halfway through the book, they seem less human and more like placards for causes. The reader’s empathy for the characters might be replaced by fatigue with the author’s motives.

But when Roy gets it right, she gets it pitch perfect. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally the story of Kashmir and the impossibility of victory for either side. The horrors that play out come to the fore in all their cruelty and worse still, their dailyness. As Biplab Dasgupta, Deputy Station Head, India Bravo (radio code in Kashmir for the Intelligence Bureau) says of Kashmir, ‘It made for a perfect war—a war that can never be won or lost, a war without end.’

When the Duniya risks coming undone, the only shards of hope can be found at Jannat Guest House. With the ‘stupidification’ of the world gaining pace, Roy finds that the ministry of happiness can perhaps be located not in the mainland but in the peripheries, in the spaces and characters who live beyond the city walls. To be Arundhati Roy is to find hope in these places.