Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Appropriately for a time when politics has been reduced to the bloody-minded project of othering, Arundhati Roy has chosen to begin her story with India’s original other, the hijra. Aftab is the son of a hakim who flees to a household of transsexuals in Old Delhi called the Khwabgah (literally, place of dreams; practically, bedroom), which is as old as Shahjahanabad. She provides one thread of the narrative, which intertwines with the horror story of Kashmir, told through the lives and deaths of its citizens. Indian-born confused nationalists who wanted to see Arundhati Roy tied to a jeep could now clamour for her to be spot-welded to a Hummer for affirming that in the end, “Kashmir will make India self-destruct”.
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But their excitement would be redundant, because this is scarcely prophecy. It is already contemporary nationalist history. The unbelievable cruelty and disrespect for life that was once Kashmir’s tragic monopoly has spread to the plains, where gruesome lynchings are now commonplace, and life is uncertain. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the present tense of cow vigilantes and pellet guns, and travels back to the Eighties, when India turned decisively towards riot politics with the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. From there, the story follows a trail of blood through Gujarat 2002 and Maoist insurgencies to the present, in which the state’s monopoly over violence has been outsourced to marauding gangs of thugs. And there are digressions into the Bhopal gas tragedy and other intervening outrages. Roy has not published fiction since The God of Small Things but this does not read like the work of the two intervening decades. Perhaps, fragments were written earlier around “found objects”, but the narrative is rooted in the present. It even includes the recent Srinagar floods and the spam SMSes from Thyrocare which bedevil every cellphone owner.
Indian readers will find themselves on familiar ground. There is the “summer of scams” in the second term of Manmohan Singh, who is cruelly pilloried as the “Trapped Rabbit”. Jantar Mantar sees the rise of Mr Aggarwal, a barely disguised Kejriwal: “a tight-arsed Gandhian accountant”, “a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind” minding a tubby Gandhian mascot who prophesies in a voice “like two balloons being rubbed together”. These lively passages may bring Roy reprieve. Those who would spot-weld her to a Hummer may be inclined to gift her a Jaguar instead, and install her respectfully in the back seat. There’s some present life regression, too: two lovers “secede”, not to a mobile republic but to an island of the mind. A cameo appearance by an Odiya named Golak who says “oozy for woozy” after a drop too many could be an artist friend from her days in the School of Planning and Architecture. The “geriatric army general, all moustache and medals, hired by studios to supply venom and stupidity” — we know him too well. And the landscape against which they stand is vintage 20th century Delhi, the city of Rooh Afza, Brylcreem, amaltas, sexologists in extravagant safas (such as prime ministers now affect) and kites wheeling in a limitless sky.
Amidst a horde of familiar faces and stock characters, this masked ball is fun for a while. But it palls when you can anticipate who’s going to enter stage left and stage right, and hey, there they are. It could be soul-eviscerating stuff for readers in Britain, who have only been exposed to images of Kashmiris blinded by pellet guns, and may not have encountered the mountain of paper and film on Kashmir’s uneasy relations with Delhi, produced by journalists, researchers, lawyers and activists over the decades.
But we read the Indian news. We watch Indian TV with the volume turned prudently low. We know of the crime against humanity that Gujarat hosted, and of pretty bungalows in Kashmir that were turned into torture centres. And we know something of the Intelligence Bureau, represented here by a Bengali officer who serves as a reliable sutradhar despite his alcoholism.
Our lives are etched against the surreally colourful backdrop of India’s search for unity and integrity, from Operation Blue Star to Operation Green Hunt and the flights of what Roy terms “saffron parakeets”, who go about disrupting courts and cinema shows, and set up a “parakeet committee of pedagogy”. The real thing is dire enough, and having to endure a fictionalised version of the news, including the usual capsules and explainers, exactly like in a newsmagazine, does become tedious. Besides, this ground has been covered piecemeal in numerous stories by excellent writers in India’s other languages, who are unfortunately less celebrated overseas than Roy.
But this John Pilger version of our reality endears by the presence of children and animals in every section, by the human stories, and the tiny, circumstantial details which give body to reality. Roy is a keen observer of everyday life in her city. She knits together living stories of the fortunate and the dispossed, of oppressors and oppressed. She uses real settings which few of Delhi’s citizens know of, like the old Muslim cemeteries behind the city’s Fleet Street where her leading characters find refuge, for living among the graves “made life less determinate and death less conclusive”.
It must be hard to write in the lyrical mode about a society which celebrates cruelty, but Roy has a stab at it, and draws blood. But the craftsmanship which won her a Booker falters. In the decades since The God of Small Things, which was technically flawless, her fiction seems to have lost out to polemic, and sometimes the story, baffled by its expansive cast and ideological burden, just wanders off in search of itself. The loose ends, and the effort to tie them up, are visible (Why bother? The messiness of reality is its charm), and the dreary housekeeping chore exposes the armature of the story to the reader. There’s a reason why diners in a restaurant aren’t allowed to see the kitchen. It isn’t always edifying to know how things are made.
Roy circles around the poisonous paradox which faces India: how do we keep calm and carry on in a society where arbitrary violence is not only permitted but celebrated? Why do we persistently believe in messiahs who would turn India into a demonic melting pot where swords are forged from ploughshares? And why is there no disquiet about our equanimity? How did we lose the ability to be shocked? Unhappily, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does not provide answers. But, it raises questions which should keep us awake at night.