Indian author Arundhati Roy catapulted to literary stardom in 1997, when her debut novel, The God Of Small Things (IndiaInk), was released to widespread acclaim. It went on to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize that same year and has been translated into more than 40 languages.
But instead of becoming a literary star by riding on the wave of her spectacular debut, Roy immersed herself in the political struggles of her time: the Kashmir independence effort; Adivasi, or tribal Indian, land rights; and anti-nuclear protests. She argues against US imperialism and the far-right machinations of the Indian security state. Now, 20 years after her debut, Roy has returned with her second novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.
After two decades of political activism, it would be wrong to expect Roy to remain an unchanged novelist. Indeed, the effects are everywhere in this second novel. The God Of Small Things is an elegiac, gothic story about family told in lush, descriptive language; the political hovers vaguely like a restless ancestral spirit over the personal. Ministry, on the other hand, is rife with all of Roy’s political preoccupations from first page to last. It is an attempt to make the political personal. In dedicating her book “To the Unconsoled”, Roy makes it obvious even before you crack open the cover that this novel focuses on the marginalised members of society: the outcasts, the oppressed, the stragglers, and all those who have been forgotten, deliberately so, in the quest for “India Shining”.
Ministry begins with the story of Anjum, an intersex person raised as a male who leaves her family and, after barely escaping a pogrom, sets up home in a graveyard. Slowly, over time, her residence becomes a guesthouse for other outcasts: Dalits, transgenders, sex workers, and addicts.
Though Anjum’s story begins the book, Roy’s narrative leaves her behind as it enters the main story centred on a woman named Tilo and the three men she’s known since university in 1984 and who orbit her universe: Biplab, Naga, and Musa.
Biplab works for the Indian government (and, despite Roy’s anti-national politics, is the only character who narrates from the first person); Naga is the cool guy who has jettisoned his former radical politics to become a celebrated human rights journalist, so blinded by the stature of his job that he doesn’t even know he’s being used as an intelligence asset by the Indian government; and Musa is an affable Kashmiri militant.
He’s also Tilo’s one true love, and it’s her relationship with him that takes her to Kashmir, subjects her to police interrogation, and sends her on a life on the run that inevitably ends with her finding a home in Anjum’s graveyard guesthouse. Both Musa and Tilo are idealised, but at least Musa appears as a person while Tilo appears as an archetypal Cool Girl With a Murky Past.
Ministry is a sprawling, ambitious book, and this review can barely scratch the surface of what it tackles: hijra (transgender) rights, Adivasi tribal land rights and the Maoist uprising, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption charade that leaves Hindu fundamentalism unquestioned, capitalism, gender oppression, and crucially, the war in Kashmir.
Roy also takes some delicious jabs at the upper-caste, upper-class Indian elite and their primary obsession: skin colour and caste purity. This is a book designed to irritate Hindu right-wing nationalists in India. It’s also a book that will irritate people who expect a conventional novel, one that will entertain them and give them a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.
But in a book rife with epitaphs from Jean Genet and James Baldwin, snatches of bawdy colloquial proverbs and rhymes, and bits of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry, there is no beginning and an end. Towards the end of the book, the lines of a poem reveal the central question: “How to tell a shattered story?” That this is included as a blurb on the back is both a warning and instruction to readers.
But Roy and her editors must have thought that in order to please her readers, they must tie up some loose ends and give the characters that dreaded requirement in fiction: “closure”. Thus, an abandoned baby enters the story, a Dickensian foundling whose presence ties several characters and issues together. In a book steeped in social realism like this one, the awkward thread of “one baby to unite them all” weakens the novel with its jarring note of magical realism.
While Anjum is the most endearing character, gifted with the best lines, it’s the central story about Kashmir that is moving and powerful, the story about a people who “were in the rifle-sights of a soldier” in every part of the Valley.
“I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” That’s a part of Tilo’s notes while in Kashmir, but it is also Roy anticipating her critics. In a sense, Ministry is an attempt to figure out what makes for good literature in our present time, a time with too much blood.
For this reader, it was absorbing and exhilarating, often devastating even when flawed and imperfect. The book is alive on every page. If this is what failed fiction looks like – attentive to the dispossessed, the marginalised, and the oppressed; fractured, broken, and sprawling – then I’ll take it over polite, well-mannered, perfectly-executed fiction any day.
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, contemporary fiction