A graveyard for the living

July 30, 2017

How does one read a book with such raised expectations? One reads it for the story, the urge to keep reading and by leaving the judgement part aside till the novel is finished

A graveyard for the living

How does one review a novel by the Arundhati Roy, her second in twenty years, the first being a winner of Booker Prize? Roy who has lived the last two decades as an activist, espousing a cause, fighting and writing for it and, in the process, drawing both criticism (for hopping from one cause to the next) and attention to the cause itself as intended. She has been both a hero and a villain in her country of birth. Her critics say the only thing she drew attention to was Arundhati Roy.

She did not stop writing in the last twenty years but what she wrote were mostly essays, that fell in the genre of ‘non-fiction’. These covered a wide range of subjects, beginning with India’s nuclear tests and Narmada Dam to Maoists and Kashmir and everything she considered wrong in the world at large. The essays were widely read and hers became a definitive voice among many other credible thinkers of our times.

How does one then review a novel written on the prodding of none less than John Berger who was a friend and admirer of Roy’s writing? The readers of her first novel must also have made this request to her as readers often tend to. But it took her some time to come back to fiction. Twenty years to be precise.

Was 20 years (a round figure) a mere coincidence or was it the publisher’s idea. The book, rather the idea of Roy’s forthcoming novel, was sold to the world through the usual publicity gimmicks -- her own interviews on the book, selective leaks, the characters being asked to decide what the book cover would look like. The author played along. The expectations were raised not just about getting hold of a copy but also about the story it contained.

How does one even read a book with such high expectations? With excitement for sure and a heady sense that it is being collectively read by so many across the globe. There is also apprehension as to what the author will pick from her activist life and what she will leave out. Will it be a political novel, but what novel isn’t political?

Arundhati Roy remains a master of language but in this novel the best use she has put it to is satire, pun and irony. Language, not meant to be static anyway, has changed in this book with her own displacement. The anglicised setting of the previous novel has been replaced with a localised, Urdu-ised idiom.

All this must have worked in reverse for the author too and with a lot more at stake. Will she be able to write a novel again and can she attempt to write something bigger and better than The God of Small Things, especially when there is a world out there to judge this one.

"She lived in the graveyard like a tree" is not bad for an opening line. Thereafter she carries you along, through the by-lanes of old Delhi and the bitter sweet tale of a hijra’s birth and growing up in a Muslim household as Aftab -- in a culturally rich milieu where Urdu language, dargahs, poetry and invective coexist. The journey of Aftab turning into Anjum is hurriedly told but in a manner that the reader is forced to love Anjum to the end of the story and ever after. This could be the singular contribution of the novel.

The story moves back and forth, between the past and present, like in her earlier novel, seamlessly, sometimes through recollection of memories.

To be fair, the sudden arrival of 9/11 on page 40, even if on the television screens of a hijra household, is a dampener of sorts. Thankfully, it lasts three pages and is put only as a reference of time, and a larger political context maybe, following which the story returns to our favourite Dilli.

It is India’s own political context where the author’s interest most certainly lies and it is laid down at a place called Jantar Mantar where in her own words "communists, seditionists, secessionists, revolutionaries, dreamers, idlers, crackheads, crackpots, all manner of freelancers, and wise men… milled around" -- all protesting for their rights.


Jantar Mantar is in a manner a microcosm of India’s fault-lines that not just affords the writer to comment on the state and society, it is also a scene of action for the story to progress. Still, the political reality in those few pages, the semblance of Anna Hazare and others, is too close in time and pronounced for it to remain fictional. Between different causes, fake and real, corruption and self-righteousness, a tight-arsed Gandhian accountant "in a one-to-one public face-off against an old, Old Delhi Hijra" there is enough commotion for a baby to be kidnapped.

I read in Ministry two separate novels, two stories, Anjum’s and Tilo’s, both beginning in Delhi. Tilo then goes to Kashmir and dwells there at length before coming back. Anjum too goes to Ahmedabad and Gujarat and returns transformed; within the city she makes the crucial decision of moving her house from the Khwabgah to the graveyard. It is in the graveyard that both stories, Tilo’s and Anjum’s, connect in the end, but it’s a graveyard that is more alive than the rest of the world, where people have no wish to die.

I am not sure if it’s the first time that Kashmir is dealt in fiction in such detail by a non-Kashmiri but it is definitely a position which is different from Roy’s own as an activist. It is as if she is using the cover of fiction to explain the complexity, a position that she could not otherwise adopt. Here is an insider writing from a vantage point. The details are disconcerting. As if she is looking at Kashmir from the outside -- from the points of view of the Indian state, freedom fighters, collaborators, ordinary Kashmiris, Islamists, secular fighters, businessmen, army, everyone.

Yet, clearly for her, the heroes are those defying the Indian state. It is seen in the steely resolve of Musa, the freedom fighter, when he tells his friend Garson, the minion of the state: "…but we have already won" and then, "One day Kashmir will make India self-destruct… You may have blinded all of us, every one of us, with your pellet guns by then. But you will still have eyes to see what you have done to us. You’re not destroying us. You’re constructing us. It’s yourselves that you’re destroying."

Arundhati Roy remains a master of language but in this novel the best use she has put it to is satire, pun and irony. Language, not meant to be static anyway, has changed in this book with her own displacement. The anglicised setting of the previous novel has been replaced with a localised, Urdu-ised idiom.

Having established Anjum, a hijra, as the main protagonist, this novel is all about characters who don’t lead usual, boring, humdrum lives. Of people who survive with and for their day-jobs, dreaming always of a secure future. Roy’s world is full of disempowered, exciting lives that have nothing left to lose or even gain. She shows how worldly success takes people’s idealism away and draws them to the dark forces. Far from judging them, she lets these characters or ‘collaborators’ come into their own in a cool manner. Yet, in her story, they end up looking like pygmies in front of the tall Anjum, Tilo, Saddam Hussain and Musa.

How does one judge a novel when the literary canons have fixed the test of time for that? Till the time that a work of fiction attains the status of literature, how does one read? Personally, I feel one reads it for the story and the urge to keep reading. You can perhaps judge it after you have finished reading, for the transformative effect it may have had, and how empty and sad you feel at being forced back into the real world. I for one kept living in the Jannat Guest House of that graveyard of Delhi and it lived in me long after I had finished reading.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness [A novel]
Author: Arundhati Roy
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Year: 2017
Pages: 356
Price: Rs931

A graveyard for the living