The blurb to Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness offers a shrewd and potentially chilling lesson on the nuances of storytelling. Through a short poem written by one of the characters, we are reminded that a “shattered story” – laced with the subaltern experience – must be told in an inclusive manner.
This appears to be a workable formula to understand the complexity of Roy’s much-awaited second novel. Instead of “slowly becoming everybody” – by acknowledging people’s experiences and connecting to their need – we are encouraged to “slowly [become] everything” – by recognising the inherent value of a cause.
As a result, a restrictive view of empathy, fuelled by distance and bigotry, will not guide readers through such splintered tales. Every sound that emanates from these stories – whether it is the chaos on the street, the faint hum of a grasshopper or the wails of the white-backed vultures that are being wiped out by diclofenac poisoning – needs to be heard and understood.
Throughout the book, Roy has adjusted her lens to convey this effect. Her narrative begins with the plight of the dwindling white vultures and arrives at its stunning denouement through the perspective of Guih Kyom, the dung beetle. Following on from Roy’s debut novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is steered towards its logical conclusion through the small things that hold the larger fragments of the book together and prevent them from falling apart.
The book also explores the many layers of empathy by accommodating a whole spectrum of social and political voices that jostle for space throughout the narrative. The omniscient narrator often takes a backseat to allow them to tell their own story without any inhibitions. At times, letters, diaries and ‘found’ documents are also used to lend authenticity to these distinct voices.
Anjum’s story is told through her decision to cultivate a home within a graveyard. The decision is prodded by the desire to escape the political minefields of a changing and increasingly insular India. Like most of Roy’s characters, Anjum fearlessly crosses forbidden boundaries and embraces her status as a hijra in her conquest for happiness.
But these vestiges of happiness gradually begin to erode and the rhythm of Anjum’s life changes when she finds herself at the vortex of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Shaken with fear, she struggles to confront the terror and complexities bred by intolerance. Anjum moves into a graveyard to break away from a cruel world and embrace death.
As time goes by, the space she inhabits is transformed into a guesthouse where those who have been shortchanged by circumstances can seek solace in seclusion. Anjum’s graveyard begins to resonate with subaltern voices and becomes a refuge for the “unconsoled”. Everyone who moves into the Jannat Guest House – as the graveyard later comes to be known – has been checkmated by the social and political structures that exploit their desires and aspirations. Saddam Hussein, who is one of the first people to move into Anjum’s guesthouse, is originally a Hindu who recasts himself as Muslim after his lower-caste Hindu father is lynched to death for killing a cow. His new identity provides him a route to escape his brutal past and an opportunity to draw with his tormentors.
Tilo’s journey into the guesthouse shifts the axis of the novel. While Anjum’s story depicted how people’s lives are shaped by political turmoil, Tilo’s narrative marries the personal with the political to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish between both dimensions. Her story opens the doors and windows to the insurgency and struggle for liberation in Indian Occupied Kashmir. As Tilo moves in and out of Kashmir, she opens the portals to a conflict-ridden world. Her character becomes synonymous with the unheard voices from the troubled valley and she eventually carries with her the trauma of lost lives in Kashmir and the splintered tales of survival.
As the narrative unfolds, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness resembles a room with an echo – a point where the outer boundaries of personal conflicts intersect with a larger political strife. Like most political novels, it becomes a site for social criticism that could eventually stir a debate on the indifference we have shown towards India’s suppressed voices.
Roy’s analysis of India’s shattered story has led readers to assume that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an inherently political book that loses its integrity because its characters become mouthpieces for a cluster of socio-political causes.
The role of politics in a novel has been the subject of a lively debate. In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal has argued that any attempt to introduce politics into the novel is the equivalent of a gunshot in the midst of a concert. While it is unavoidable, it is believed to promote vulgarity and offers a skewed impression of characters and events to the readers. However, Orhan Pamuk believes that the idea of what must be represented in fiction appears to be vital “in poorer, non-Western parts of the world”. As a result, politics of some nature finds its way into the literary domain.
A similar logic applies to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Like most novels, it is political because it consciously selects a network of themes and ideas to the exclusion of others. However, unlike most novels from the Subcontinent that venture into apolitical territory to prevent a one-dimensional approach from holding sway, Roy’s second novel comes across as political because it represents the voices of India’s weak and marginalised segments who continue to struggle for justice – even when no one deigns to listen.
If we adopt a narrow view of the novel and its underlying purposes, it is nothing more than a literary instrument that tells us a convincing story. However, if the novel is to achieve a larger purpose and capture the mood of an era, it must represent and critique all aspects of social life – including the political realm.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News.