Let us begin in the most obvious way. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness we encounter the question: “How to tell a shattered story?”
The answer: “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”
To my mind, the only other writer who has attempted something as expansive (and carried it off as abundantly) as Arundhati Roy does in her latest novel is Walt Whitman – great poet of democracy, bard of an America being remade by civil war. In his verse Whitman becomes everything, embraces everything, and yet keeps a flame burning for justice and for the making of a better world. In Song of Myself he writes:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generation of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.
Concerned with those excluded from the duniya, with the lost, the unconsoled, with animals, with dung beetles, with the nature of life and death, and with the strange magic of the graveyard, the parallels between Whitman and Roy are many, and they are great. To tell the story of America in its infancy Whitman had to generate a new poetic language – free verse – and Roy does the same in Ministry.
We can call the language that she creates polyglotverse.
Into English prose goes Urdu, Malayalam, Kashmiri, Hinglish (our exact cadences), whatsapp-lingo, Indian bureaucratese, shayari, Hindi film songs, Shakespeare, the nonsense words of minds being lost, Bhojpuri folksongs, political propaganda, Sanskrit shlokhs, the language of YouTube, the choicest of Hindi’s magnificent cornucopia of gaalis – the language that we speak and hear everyday but rarely see in written form. While other Indian writers have done this, few have done it as inventively as Roy does.
Consider a description of contemporary Delhi where “the food shops were bursting with food. The bookshops were bursting with books. The shoe shops were bursting with shoes. And people (who counted as people) said to one another, ‘You don’t have to go abroad for shopping any more. Imported things are available here now. See, like Bombay is our New York, Delhi is our Washington and Kashmir is our Switzerland. It’s like really saala fantastic yaar.”
Needless to say, it isn’t quite.
The Ministry shows us that if it is the best of times, it is also the worst of times, but in a way that brings us happiness.
Reading a great novel that lays bare the horrors and hopes of our times should never feel like a chore, like something that must be done, like a virtuous act. The entire literate population of England waited with bated breath for new instalments of Charles Dickens’s The Tale of Two Cities, and if we pick up Arundhati Roy’s new book, whatever our political leanings, we won’t be able to stop reading either, so compelling is it to have a fierce, “generously angry” and ludic mirror held up to our faces.
Reading Roy’s fiction never feels like doing holiday homework. It also never feels like a one-sided political rant. George Orwell famously said in praise of Dickens that his writing was characterised by “unnecessary detail.” Roy’s writing is characterised by an overabundance of zingers. They come for everyone – predictably for those on the Hindu right, but also for communists, jholawalas, lefties of many ilks, righteous Delhi-educated Kashmiri heroes, the NGO set, the social-movement researchers, the stainless-steel artist brigade. And in the greatest dance-off in the history of letters (set sublimely to the song Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan) – the Chief Minister of Delhi himself, a “revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind.”
In Roy’s clear-eyed and ferociously intelligent worldview, no one is spared. She is always attuned to the macro-, micro-, mini- and midi- politics of any situation, any character, any moment, and sometimes it is the people who you would least expect who get the most savage treatment.
But the acerbity of Roy’s political eye is balanced by her all-encompassing, expansive delight in the world. She has said in a recent interview to Scroll.in that she finds something to be delighted about almost everyday in India, and it is this delight, indeed this love, that leaps across the pages of the book. Just as it is impossible to read Whitman without a broadening of the soul, so it is impossible to read Roy’s fiction without a widening of perspective, whichever side of the LOC you sit on.
What is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness about?
It is a book that is set mainly in Delhi and Kashmir. It includes a bloody segue in Gujarat, a short trip to Kerala, a heart-rending stop in the Dandakaranya forests, and it has the sense to avoid Kanyakumari entirely. It is a novel about India that always avoids the trap of the “Big India” novel. While it teems with actors, from minor to major, from human to vulture, the main lines of character and plot can be said to be as follows:
In Old Delhi baby boy Aftab is born with both male and female genitalia. His mother prays at the Dargah of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed (“Saint of the Unconsoled and Solace of the Indeterminate, Blasphemer among Believers and Believer among Blasphemers”) for the fortitude to love him, and this she is granted. As he grows up, Aftab, drawn to the feminine, and at war with a body that cannot contain her, eventually joins a gharana of hijras and makes a life with them, in a crumbling old home with a long old city lineage called the Khwabgah.
After arriving at the Khwabgah, Aftab becomes Anjum, whose deepest desire is to be a mother. This wish is granted when Anjum finds an abandoned toddler on the steps of the Jama Masjid who holds her finger and offers her her trust, making her body feel like a “generous host instead of a battlefield.” But motherhood is wrested away when Anjum, after traveling to Gujarat and living through the butchery of 2002, becomes a different kind of person, unable to live within the Khwabgah, and the security and constraints of an older hijra tradition.
In her 40s she moves out to a make a new home, and eventually a new world, in a graveyard that abuts a hospital morgue. There she constructs a new kind of gharana, consisting of the outcastes of society, both hijra and non. This graveyard-guesthouse is called Jannat.
Someone who eventually finds a home in Anjum’s graveyard-guesthouse is S Tilottama, an utterly non-conformist Malayali architect and graphic designer who since her college days in Delhi has been loved by three men: Naga, Musa and Biplab. This love quadrangle forms a significant part of the book, and it can at times be baffling. In ungenerous moments one wonders why one has strayed into a rehash of the plot of Haazaron Khwaishein Aisi.
Her entanglement with Musa (who is Kashmiri) leads Tilottama to Kashmir. The story of Kashmir fills many of the pages of The Ministry: pages that are at times more wrenching than can be borne; at times too styled like a wartime thriller to fit the tenor, ambition and scope of this novel. Roy has said that one cannot tell Kashmir’s story through human rights reports alone. As with all completely brutalised places, storytelling here is both an impossibility and a necessity. When writing about Kashmir, Roy is at her most devastating perhaps when she is at her quietest. The sentence that haunts me, amidst an unceasing depiction of grief and horror, is this one:
“In every part of the legendary Valley of Kashmir, whatever people might be doing – walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home – they were in the rifle-sights of a soldier. And because they were in the rifle-sights of a soldier, whatever they might be doing – walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home – they were a legitimate target.”
Tilo returns to Delhi after narrowly avoiding a terrible fate in Kashmir, while witnessing the terrible fate that is meted out to others there, particularly young men. Musa continues a heroic journey in the Kashmiri resistance after facing a terrible loss of his own. Set adrift by her extreme vulnerability after the events in Kashmir, and a series of subsequent events, Tilo (always politicised, at times walking dangerously close to madness) walks into Jannat.
Roy says she is present in each and every character in The Ministry. While I love thinking of her as Anjum and Saddam Hussain (a lovable terrific-trickster figure), her most obvious avatar is Tilo, who shares many lines of biography (Malayali, wild-haired architect, iconoclast) with Roy herself. Tilo is the path not taken, the route Roy might have walked had she not become one of the most important writers and thinkers in the world.
She is Roy as waif, Roy as damsel in distress, Roy who needs to to be protected by a well-connected man. I much prefer reality here – rather than the waif who turns to Naga for cover, Arundhati Roy has became the towering and seemingly fearless woman who gives all of us cover; who raises constantly the barometer of what can be said in contemporary India, so that we can keep thinking, writing, speaking and acting.
From where does Roy draw her sustenance? From where can we draw ours in dark times?
From her travels, from all she has seen and done over the last twenty years, Roy creates for us, as only a novelist can, the home of Jannat. This graveyard-guesthouse is a place that draws on everything in order to make another world possible in its little corner of Delhi – traditional, modern, elite, subaltern, secular, religious, popular, classical, sacred, profane, Marxist, believer, dead, alive, animal, human, male, female and mixed.
Jannat doesn’t feel like holiday homework. It doesn’t seem like a long-dead national integration propaganda video dreamed up by the Congress to create bhaichara among us. It seems like an instantiation of the world in which we live if we live in India, where to exist is to encounter difference. Roy provides us with a vocabulary for our everyday.
How all-encompassing is this place? Roy describes the many ways in which people come to be buried at Jannat:
“It was decided that there would be a double funeral that day…Saddam Hussain dug the graves. A stylish, Madras-checked shirt was interred in one. A pot of ashes in the other. Imam Ziauddin demurred a little at the unorthodoxy of the proceedings, but eventually agreed to say the prayers. Anjum asked Tilo if she wanted to say a Christian Prayer for her mother. Tilo explained that the church had refused to bury her mother, so any prayers would do…Once the pot of ashes had been buried and the grave filled with earth, Tilo closed her eyes and recited her mother’s favourite passage from Shakespeare to herself…Anjum wanted to know that the correct rituals were for the funeral of a communist. (She used the phrase Lal Salaam).”
Jannat is vast, it contains multitudes, and many contradictions. In India we are all shaped by some combination of things, some great mixing and churning. At the very least, if we are seventy of one thing, we are forty of the other. You could say this of most people in most places, but you can say this especially of this place. Most especially of this place.
I am half Malayali Syrian Christian and half Bengali Hindu (exactly the same combination as Roy). Because I still consider myself young(ish), I have not yet decided whether to go with the grave or with the flame. Thanks to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I do not have to choose. When my time comes, whether it is ashes or bone, Jannat is where I want to be interred.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Penguin Random House.
Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own.