The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

It was a long and excruciating wait for the fans of Arundhati Roy’s fiction, dazzled by The God of Small Things, her Booker prize winning debut novel. It was not a literary hibernation as it is made out to be. Roy had never stopped writing. She was just delving into a different genre. She had turned her attention to people’s movements in India and published articles and books on political topics ranging from environmentalism to government corruption and land rights of tribal communities. And now after a hiatus of twenty years, the publication of her second work of fiction is taking the literary world by storm just like its predecessor. Everyone who has read it has a strong opinion about it. Most people either love it passionately or hate it vehemently. Some have gone as far as  comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez and La Condition Humaine by Malraux.  I fall somewhere in between the two categories of readers and have mixed feelings about it just like I did about The God of Small Things.

Roy’s lush and lyrical prose in The God Of Small Things instantly transported me to the personal and private world of Rahel and Estha’s Ayemenem in Kerala. I soaked myself in all the sights and sounds made alive by her sensuous imagery but the ending ruined it for me ( It’s not a trope I’m comfortable with) although I understand her reasons for concluding the story the way she did. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy of her new fiction at The Old Church in Boston earlier this year where she read an excerpt from her book and participated in a question answer session beginning with a quip :”There is a Hindu nationalist movement in India and I’m talking from the pulpit of a church.”

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The Hindu nationalist movement has been the butt of her criticism and the new novel doesn’t spare it either. In fact the fiction feels in parts like non-fiction. And therein lies the failing of what could have been a powerful work. It’s an ambitious but disjointed novel with a plethora of plots and characters- a kaleidoscope of a huge diverse nation with huge and diverse issues and she seems to have addressed them all- the caste system, Hindu- Muslim rivalry, the Kashmir insurgency , cow vigilantism, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Gujarat riots, the riots of 1984 to name a few.

There are two distinct plots: one, the story of Anjum, an intersex individual born as Aftab and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist presumably modeled after Roy herself. Anjum, is a Hijra ostracized by society for being neither boy nor girl. She eventually retreats from the ‘duniya’ or the outside world to live in Khwabgah ( dream house)  in the company of other hijras. She starts raising a child called Zainab,  has a series of surgeries and revels in her femininity by wearing sequined clothing, flashy jewelry and bold makeup. Eventually she moves out of the khwabgah and constructs a home on a graveyard aptly named as Jannat ( Paradise) Guest House as it becomes a sanctuary for other outcasts living on the fringes of society. One of them is a dalit ( ‘untouchable’ ) who assumes a Muslim identity by changing his name strangely to Sadaam Hussein after his father gets lynched by a crowd who accuses him of killing a cow.

I enjoyed the story of Anjum as it shed light on a community shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Hijras are cross-dressers, intersex and transgender individuals who make up what has recently been recognized as the third sex by the Supreme Court of India. The stereotypical image of a hijra is a somewhat aggressive and intimidating person who accosts you for money at traffic signals. They have been part of the subcontinent long before labels like transgender became de rigueur in the West. They have a paradoxical position in society- they are revered and considered auspicious and are invited to dance at weddings and bestow blessings on the birth of a child but at the same time they are discriminated against and are one of the most marginalized communities in India. The conflict within the hijras who defy binary constructions of gender is a metaphor for the religious struggle and identity crisis within India. As one hijra in the novel tells Anjum: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.” The novel could have been a brilliant one if only Roy had stuck to Anjum’s poignant story.

But the story abruptly shifts to Tilottama and the three men in her life who have all loved her at some point. Tilo, Musa, Naga and Biplab called “Garson Hobart”  have all known each other from their theater days in college. Years later their paths cross again. Garson Hobart is Tilo’s landlord in Delhi and later becomes an officer in the Intelligence bureau. Naga becomes an incendiary journalist. Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets her old flame Musa whose wife Arefa and daughter Miss Jebeen have been killed in a riot. Musa supports the separatist movement in Kashmir with the aim of overthrowing Indian rule. He butts head with the ruthless Major Amrik Singh, the Indian military officer who represents the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir in handling counterinsurgency efforts. The two disparate plots converge when Anjum and Tilo wish to save an abandoned newborn baby, Miss Jebeen the second.

Apart from the two plots, we have a dizzying number of secondary characters. To that mix, Roy throws in poems, slogans, songs, letters, entries from dictionaries, quotes and even a Kashmiri English alphabet and an entry from the Reader’s Digest book of English Grammar. She has taken many liberties with the writing style which would never be forgiven in a novice writer. To put it simply, there is more telling than showing. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the penetrating gaze of the omnipresent narrator ( the kind who interrupts the flow of the text with asides in parentheses) whose presence we never forget. Interestingly, there is one section in the book where Tilo remarks on writing a bad novel.  In The God of Small Things, I marveled at Roy’s striking and unexpected metaphors. Here the writing is visceral and raw especially when she depicts the chilling never-ending bloody conflict in Kashmir but we also have passages that are passionate and poetic:

Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the line of control … it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully and then put down their books and implements … they stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new pied pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give ever so slightly, … only then did they allow the rage and the shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The book is fittingly dedicated “To the Unconsoled”, The story begins and ends in a graveyard- the in- between world which seems to be the fate of many in India, hanging precariously between life and death. As Musa says, in India only the dead are living and the living are dead. The necropolis becomes a symbol of hope for the abandoned, the marginalized, the misfits in a country whose wounds are still festering. I found the book to be an engaging read in spite of the flaws. Kashmir is an emotional subject for anyone from the sub- continent. For me it was an eye-opening account of the atrocities but I can imagine it to be a frustrating read for people unfamiliar with the political scene in India as there are too many culture-specific allusions with no explanation.

If Roy had just stuck to the personal plight of Anjum and the story of Tilo and let the characters and the stories speak for themselves, it would have been a compelling read. But the digressions into diatribes about the general political scene in India make it read like a history text book or a didactic political pamphlet. I would have liked to see more of Roy the artist than Roy the activist. Her work is as fascinating, incoherent, chaotic and complex as the democracy she writes about. It makes me wonder then if she flouted rules of structure and narration to mirror the sprawling mess of the country. Her novel can be compared to the beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets she alludes to often. She has threaded together her own carpet made of many interesting and intricate motifs in eye-catching hues but in the end it makes for a very busy pattern.

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3 thoughts on “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

  1. I also had reservations about The God of Small Things and so haven’t rushed into reading the new novel. We were discussing it at book group yesterday and wondering about adding it to our list. In the end we decided against it which I think is interesting since it was with that group that I read the first one. We all seem to have some reservations.

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    1. “The God of Small Things” had a universal appeal and resonated with many readers around the world. “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” requires a thorough understanding of the political history of the subcontinent. Besides, there are many culture specific allusions with no elucidation which could be confusing to the non-Indian reader. Some reviewers have lamented that it’s “The Ministry of Utmost Boredom or Frustration.”

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