Coming out 20 years after her debut novel and nominated for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, which its predecessor won, Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness contains the accumulated wisdom of the writer’s years of political activism and writing about marginalised and oppressed peoples across India. The instant bestseller brings issues that are not talked about enough into the mainstream and forces its readers to re-examine their prejudices.
Excerpt: “It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.”
So proclaims the protagonist of Arundhati Roy’s new novel. She, ahijra of Shahjahanabad (a low-income Muslim neighbourhood in old Delhi), defies her parents’ expectations by deciding to live her life as a woman rather than the son that they had always hoped for. She defines herself as “born to be a mother” and that becomes the driving force of her life. When Anjum is born, her mother’s world view is challenged for the first time in her life. She realises that there are only two words to describe her child in Urdu and that “two words do not make a language” and she is silently terrified of how her child will be able to exist outside language. However, outside words, definitions and her father’s reservoir of Urdu poetry, Anjum is able to forge a vernacular and an identity all her own.
Despite the attempts of her community to mould her into the image of the only set categories of people that they are capable of understanding from the moment that she is born, Roy’s protagonist is one that firmly makes her own decisions and blazes her own trail. She finds an identity that she can live with in the Khwabgah – a house for hijrasin old Delhi. After experiencing the senseless mob violence of the riots in Gujarat, primarily targeting Muslims, following 9/11 first-hand, she can no longer accept the placid comfort of the sequestered Khwabgah, and feels that she must return to the “Duniya” – the Khwabgah residents’ word for the world that exists outside their doors. She does not end up living in a graveyard because she has been pushed into a place that houses the dead. She chooses to turn her family’s graves into makeshift houses and cobbles together a new family out of those who have been discarded by society – finding fertility in death and happiness in a graveyard of pain.
Anjum’s “tree-like” endeavours in the last phase of her life make her the protagonist of her own story and of many of the other characters’; her act of turning a graveyard into a commune for “falling people” is a “gathering” of lost souls and “the unconsoled”. She creates a space somewhere between the life and death and parallel to the Duniya, where the restrictions and oppression of the Duniya do not apply and where there is only room for happiness and love. By giving her protagonist complete agency over her own life, even in the most untenable of circumstances, Roy shows the world that people can rise above what they are labelled as and become what they truly are.
The choice of the word “ministry” in the title remains a thought-provoking one for the length of the story. Anjum’s “ministry” is one that practises the politics of inclusion, at a time when the rest of the world increasingly gravitates towards nationalism and identity politics, marred by the exclusion of minorities and people who do not fit into any predefined social categories. As the story progresses, its disparate characters and anecdotal fragments come together through a thematic continuum. It is as though the structure of the novel itself is making a statement about how all of us, though we may live in separate bubbles, are connected through our experience of the world. In many ways, this is a book about connections, between the past and the present, between people fighting for freedom (be they Kashmiris or Avadasi Maoists). And these linkages or “threads of light” are apparent to those, like Tilo (the second protagonist of the novel), who do not live their lives within a bubble. The poem at the end of the book suggests that Tilo – with her boundless empathy, consistent “insouciance” and reality-defying lack of prejudice – is telling this “shattered story” by “slowly becoming everything”.
The book wiggles out of traditional genre classifications the same way its character wiggle out of being defined and labelled by society. Can a book be called a novel when it so tactfully subverts realism – that genre defining trait that has come to dominate modern writing? The story lives somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Owing perhaps to the penetrating truthfulness with which Roy portrays her characters, I could not shake the feeling that some of them, if not all, are based on real people. And the enigmatic Tilo, with the heart of a poet, is an avatar for Roy herself. Though the plot may be fictional, the world of these characters is most decidedly not. And yet, every turn that these characters take is as nuanced and fraught with conflicting impulses as impactful decisions are in life. A prominent example of this is the transformation of Naga from a hard hitting deeply Marxist journalist to a mouthpiece for the Indian establishment. It almost seems as though he is not aware of how he is being cultivated by the state, just one of the ways in which the military controls the narrative.
Roy’s panoramic novel operates on multiple levels at the same time. The key events of different characters’ journey find thematic and tangible connections, leaving the reader with the feeling that there is benediction even in suffering. But hidden underneath the magical confluence of events lies a biting critique of the Indian military’s atrocities in Kashmir, the use of religious nationalism for political capital by the BJP and the media’s role in spreading propaganda that further endangers and side-lines vulnerable communities for the sake of ratings and state support. The modern media commercialises tragedy and rather than drawing attention to murderous state policies, uses blood and gore as shock value – feeding into the “film” that the state makes to cover up each heinous act of mass violence that it orchestrates.
Simultaneously, the book celebrates the Muslim culture of Shahjahanabad, the quiet resilience of the untouchables and lower caste Hindus through generations of humiliation and persecution, the life-affirming spirituality of Indian classical music and the hopeful faith of those who flock to shrines and embrace pluralist saints as emblems of hope in a polarised world. And, most importantly it brings together worlds from different planes of existence, like the one that exists atop a modern highway and the homeless people and vagabonds that live beneath it.
At a time when the BJP and Modi’s revival of the Hindutva tide in India seems to have suppressed all the liberal voices that once mattered, Roy proves that a voice that is true cannot be silenced. Resolutely opposed to war and placing all hope for the future in the hands of the very protagonists who are the unseen victims of wars and propaganda, Roy’s latest literary masterstroke will continue to find resonance with unlikely audience for years to come. For all its panoramic view of a society in flux, culturally and politically, the narrative criticises modern Indian politics through gut-wrenching portrayals of the effects of the self-serving policies of the state on real people and the way it makes militants out of otherwise peaceful Kahmiris, like Musa, Tilo’s charismatic lover. As she finds herself at the heart of the conflict in Kashmir, where the rules are simple and the battle lines drawn, there is no question which side she will be on. Because for Tilo, much like for Roy herself, it is not possible to be a bystander.
Although the news media, Indian and international, attributes the meteoric rise of Modi to his economic success in Gujrat as its Chief Minister, the book suggests that it was something far more sinister: Modi, referred to only as “Gujrat kalalla” in the book, fuelled the Hindu nationalism of the “saffron parakeets” that had been lying dormant in India through successive centrist governments. In the modern world, we tend to live in echo chambers, exposed only to views and perspectives that largely resemble our own. Ministry has the ability to pierce through these echo chambers and move audiences in a way that journalism cannot. In the chapters on Kashmir, we find stories that the state and the media attempt to erase from history and the human cost of a never-ending war. The only true victims of this conflict are the people of Kashmir, to whom that land truly belongs.
Those on the outside of a war have a responsibility to raise a voice for those who cannot and that is precisely why this book is important. In its multitudinous scope, the narrative has a view of India’s cultural history, modern political machinations and the way in which culture is appropriated by politicians, the corporate elite and the army for their own, often corrosive ends.
Given the rich variety of the subcontinent’s people and their history, which is so seamlessly woven into the story, Ministry shows its readers that the definition of what it means to be Indian is not monolithic. Roy’s book connects people, poetry and cultures and zooms in on those that are likely to be forgotten by history. As she reveals in the chapters on Kashmir, to be lost in the march of time is to “truly die”. Although she is perpetually labelled as anti-state, Roy’s narrative’s ceaseless wonder at the rich and diverse cultural history of India proves that she is anything but. The land that created Anjum, queen of her graveyard of lost things and falling people, is a land worth having hope for.
(Writer is a leading literary critic and freelance journalist)