Almost twenty years ago, I wrote about Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things (1997) as twinning desire and death, finding a politics in the ecstasy and agony of those who are prepared to die for desire, for love. Roy’s second novel has come to us after two tumultuous decades of many desires, many deaths, and many a death of desire in the worlds she – and we – have occupied, shared and imagined. This novel is located in the capital city of Delhi, but gathers unto itself many rivers, lakes, forests and towns, resting especially at Kashmir and Bastar, twin markers of India’s teetering democracy in our times.
This short rumination on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) will stay fitfully with only one protagonist, Anjum, and one spot on Delhi’s map, Anjum’s expanding home and guest house in a city graveyard, trying to trace a circle between Roy’s two novels via sexuality and death. I would like to preface it with the epigraph that the last segment of the second novel bears –
Then there was the changing of the seasons. “This is also a journey,” M said, “and they can’t take it away from me.”— Nadezhda Mandelstam
– connecting it with John Berger’s discussion of love, death and art in his essay “That Which is Held”. Berger, who was, not so incidentally perhaps, a beloved friend and intellectual sounding-board of Roy’s, spoke of hope and love as the seasons changed: :What is ahistorical is the need to hope. And the act of hoping is inseparable from the energy of love, from that which ‘holds’, from that which is art’s constant example.”
He then went on to say, “There is a question which finally has to be answered, one way or the other. Is art consolation or revelation?... ‘More permanent than anything on earth is sadness,’ wrote Akhmatova, ‘and more long-lived is the regal word’.” Surely it is not coincidental that Roy dedicates The Ministry of Utmost Happiness “To, The Unconsoled” and pits, with wicked irony, “Utmost Happiness” against the permanence of sadness that Berger invoked through Akhmatova, a sadness that she battles continually in this novel of grave pleasures.
Here is art in an anti-novel that knits grim political causes in the Valley of Death and the forests of Bastar with intimate stories of Hijras riding in a Mercedes Benz to a wedding through the streets of old Delhi, exchanging their signature clap with their community sisters who are begging at the traffic light, gawking through the car window at their resplendence.
Roy offers consolation to outliers who live and love under the shadow of pain, even knowing that they will remain Unconsoled. But The Ministry seems to uphold, finally, what Berger proposes: “And in the specific purgatory of the modern world, created and maintained by corporate capitalism, every injustice is grounded in that modern unilinear view of time, for which the only relation conceivable is that between cause and effect. In contrast to this, in defiance of this, the ‘single synchronic act’ is that of loving.”
It is surely poetic justice that The Ministry finds one of its significant “viable, die-able” locations in a graveyard. It is also fitting perhaps, in retrospect, that Ammu, lustrous protagonist of the first novel, had died at the “Not old. Not young” age of 31, for her (un)viable love for the god of small things; and that it was Rahel and Estha, Ammu’s dizygotic twins – returning briefly at the end also aged 31 – who surprised the novel with incest, and survived. In a peculiar way, it seems to me, the momentary coupling of the adult twins at the last breath of the first novel – not “in happiness but hideous grief” – remained suspended just beneath the skin of the second as it gestated, fomented.
And so here, at the end of a collection of writings spanning two decades bookended by Roy’s two novels, is a passing, fanciful thought: Rahel and Estha have floated to the surface again in The Ministry in the “Indo-Pak” transgender body of Anjum (formerly Aftab) the Hijra, who sets up home for the homeless among the lifeless – in a graveyard. They lived on there to be re-born in an avatar that completes the scrambling of genders they had begun as Ammu’s tiny twins, who felt themselves so amalgamated that they could not fathom why their sibling was called an “other”:
“As the door was slowly battered down, to control the trembling of her hands, Ammu would hem the ends of Rahel’s ribbons that didn’t need hemming.— “The God of Small Things”
‘Promise me you’ll always love each other,’ she’d say, as she drew her children to her.
‘Promise,’ Estha and Rahel would say. Not finding words with which to tell her that for them there was no Each, no Other.
An Each, and an Other, a girl and a boy grew up to break the Love Laws all over again just like their beloved mother Ammu, and yet in a vitally different way. Happiness, pleasure, grief, death and survival have met and parted, survived and succumbed like waves returning relentlessly to a shore in the chasm of time that has yawned between. As Roy has grown these twenty years – walking with comrades, running foul of the powerful, treading dangerous realms in fact, fiction and rhetoric – they coalesce in The Ministry taking forms that no longer rely on serial transgressions and small belligerent gods, but embody them.
Now the binaries are broken: between genders as much as between conflicting ideas of home and happiness. And a tingling awareness that all boundaries must collapse among – but not into – tombs, seeps out of this novel like a secret pleasure amid failure and pain, to wet our fingers even as we hold it, read it. “Failure,” writes Judith Halberstam in Queer Art of Failure, “goes hand in hand with capitalism. A market economy must have winners and losers, gamblers and risk takers, con men and dupes… this hidden history of pessimism can be told in a number of ways… I tell it here as a tale of anticapitalist, queer struggle.”
This could be Roy’s (failed, fruitful) attempt in The Ministry, to recount a tale of anticapitalist, queer struggle in an aspiring market economy poured into a conservative heteronormative mould.
Halberstam goes on to chalk-mark a space for this endeavour that could be their shared manifesto: “I tell it also as a narrative about anti-colonial struggle, the refusal of legibility, and an art of unbecoming. This is a story of art without markets, drama without a script, narrative without progress. The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”
Pleasure now lies in “other goals”, those that have stepped off the bandwagon. There is both innocence and experience in such a pleasure; there is bewilderment and excitement and solitariness; and in this art that makes failure a necessary bend in the road, there are clear portents that what we now have here will not quite subscribe to the novel form we may expect. If The God of Small Things was a novel that experimented with the English language as much as with breaking Love Laws, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an anti-novel that experiments with the prose genre of telling a story, because it is more than a story: it is a lived politics of dyads and dead ringers that not only cannot be narrated as a trajectory of events, but must also continually jump on and off the fiction trail, like a sharp-eyed, rebellious child who wishes for both imaginary escape and grim truth at once, and is precocious enough to straddle both.
It is a tale that pulls in two directions quite deliberately, in style as well as content: flirting with pleasures, real and imagined, even as sombre battle-zones emerge out of the surrounding air and spontaneously combust. It very consciously steers clear of the lyrical acrobatics of language that The God of Small Things drowned us in, which we never quite recovered from – because its ambient sound is no longer coterminous with the earlier tale of passion and longing. The Ministry, instead, swings us between two worlds that are powerless to connect, in lives that pick their carelessly careful way through small accomplishments and losses, both propelled by large dreams. That is why, perhaps, it brings us pleasures that verge on the magic-realist, of the kind that can put an insouciant Anjum down in a graveyard of a bustling, difficult city to build a guest house peopled by a bunch of maverick Hijras who had “fallen out of, or been expelled from, the tightly-administered grid of Hijra Gharanas”:
“Anjum called her guest house Jannat. Paradise. She kept her TV on night and day. She said she needed the noise to steady her mind. She watched the news diligently and became an astute political analyst. She also watched Hindi soap operas and English film channels. She particularly enjoyed B-grade Hollywood vampire movies and watched the same ones over and over again. She couldn’t understand the dialogue, of course, but she understood the vampires reasonably well.”— “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”
Exactly the sorts of pleasures, indeed, that can counter the “Utmost Happiness” to be disbursed by a Ministry; how contrarian is that, and how contingent.
Here is an anti-novel, then, in the spirit of Carroll’s Alice, or Desani’s Hatterr, but leeched of the glee of their mirror images and linguistic pirouettes: we have, after all, been there, read that. In The Ministry, tiny pleasures are inserted into the dour and dank of everyday skirmishes so skillfully and so tenderly that they are almost unrecognizable, while threats of penury, death and mourning hang over them remorselessly. It is not for nothing that Hijra Anjum and her Chamar home-and-graveyard-sharer Dayachand – who christened himself Saddam Hussain to signal his killer-ambitions – enter into the funeral parlour business, after all: death must be defied in every way possible, not least by facilitating a pretty end. And yet there is the unreality of holding on to each other that keeps life still faintly lit in the greyness of every dawn:
“‘Once you have fallen off the ledge like all of us have, including our Biroo,’ Anjum said, ‘you will never stop falling. And as you fall you will hold on to other falling people. The sooner you understand that the better. This place where we live, where we have made our home, is the place of falling people. Here there is no haqeeqat. Arre, even we aren’t real. We don’t really exist.’”— “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”
Perhaps there is a whisper here of what Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism”: ‘In scenarios of cruel optimism we are forced to suspend ordinary notions of repair and flourishing…Knowing how to assess what’s unraveling there is one way to measure the impasse of living in the overwhelmingly present moment.”
“When the sun grew hot, they returned indoors where they continued to float through their lives like a pair of astronauts, defying gravity, limited only by the outer walls of their fuchsia spaceship with its pale pistachio doors.
It isn’t as if they didn’t have plans.”— “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”
Such is the colour and stench of our pleasures, in this, the age and time of foreboding. Indeed, pleasures turn, as in a kaleidoscope, in fervent search of fresh designs, and bits of coloured glass splinter and splice our vision that is now, if largely muddied, still audacious.
Excerpted with permission from The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature and Cinema in India, Brinda Bose, Three Essays Collective.