The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy

Penguin Random House

464 pages

(A shorter version of this review is published in the Business Standard.)

 

In the same week that I began reading Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published twenty years after her first, I came across an old interview between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Paris Review.

He says, “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

The challenge faced by the novelist who inhabits a clamorous country going through interesting times: how do you make up a world that can compete with the truth? One way is to lie outright, become a fabulist – but lies are now firmly the preserve of the fake-news expert, not the novelist.

Before the book’s release, a story was circulated about Arundhati Roy on a news site notorious for its hazy grasp of facts. It triggered a familiar sort of controversy – the abusive outrage of online mobs as they zero in on the target of the moment, amplified by the bully-pulpit shouting of television anchors who can speak only in finger-wagging indictments. But the story proved to be a lie. Which raises the interesting question of whether the emotions felt by the outraged and the vengeful were also, then, a form of fiction.

For novelists, one approach is to form a defensive alliance with reality – relying on a truthful background, layering actual history with news headlines, doing deep dives into the antecedents of your (non-existent) characters, to create fiction. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness establishes itself in this camp with its first page, an elegy for the disappearing vultures, the “friendly old birds” whose passing, from diclofenac poisoning, goes barely noticed by people who have “so much else to look forward to”.

The first guide through the dense and teeming terrain of this 464-page novel is Anjum, who becomes Delhi’s most famous hijra over the years. Anjum, who starts out life as Aftab, settles into her identity through a long process of wanting, and false starts, placing the desire to be her truest self over the many denials she runs up against. Her journey as a transperson is unique, but it also holds up a mirror to the way in which migrants and outsiders, anyone who is supposed to stay outside the border or on the margins, make their way into the life of the city.

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In one of the many nested and overlapping stories that makes up this section, like a patachitra scroll unreeling the lineage, the landscape, the history that came before you get to the lives of the main protagonists, Ustad Kulsoom Bi takes new initiates from the Khwabgah, the House of Dreams where the hijras live, to see the Sound and Light show at the Red Fort (“so vast a part of the skyline that local people had ceased to notice it”).

At a particular point in the show, as Nadir Shah’s cavalry threatens the citizens of Delhi, Muhammad Shah the colourful responds by ordering the music to play on, women dance, and clearly audible, there is the “deep, distinct, rasping, coquettish giggle of a court eunuch”. This, to Ustad Kulsoom Bi, is evidence that the hijras are – even if for a moment – part of history.  “To be present in history, even as nothing more than a chuckle, was a universe away from being absent from it, from being written out of it altogether.”

In these first five sections, from Where Do Old Birds Go To Die? to The Slow-Goose Chase, the reader should, ideally, slow down her pace, fall into step with the incantatory, pata-chitra rhythms of Roy’s storytelling as she widens Anjum’s narrative to include so many other lives, some just a fingernail’s width, some unabashedly exotic, others compressed into beautiful potted biographies, preferring to leave them present rather than to write them out altogether.

Delhi can slip out of the fiction writer’s grasp, like a well-oiled wrestler who resists being pinned down. The most memorable Delhi novels are often neighbourhood-specific. Nayantara Sahgal’s writ ran from North and South Block to bungalow-Delhi, Krishna Sobti made Chandni Chowk her own terrain, Anita Desai’s In Custody and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi memorialise Old Delhi and Shahjahanabad, and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, often claimed only as a Bombay novel, is as much a Delhi book, capturing the slums, the demolitions, the colony of magicians and puppeteers that remains as threatened today as it was during the Emergency.

But while Anjum’s eventual home in a city graveyard — unprepossessing, populated by smack addicts, clots of homeless people, stray dogs – is an equally memorable location, Roy layers patches of the rest of the city in, creating a strange effect, one you encounter in only a few novels.

It’s part-collage, its own oddball Sound and Light Show, these vignettes set in the Ramlila grounds, Jantar Mantar, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the tiny dargah of Hazrat Sarmad, a particularly memorable walk in a later section through the Delhi Zoo. This part of Ministry is visual, tactile, almost architectural more than story-telling. If you slow down your pace of reading, it feels as though you’re walking through the book itself, stopping as different parts of the city and characters revolve before your astonished eyes, their history laid bare in slices, before you visit another space in the novel.

Anjum survives the Gujarat riots, in a short but chilling section, ripped from the news and from the memories of those of us who remember that time.  She and her graveyard guild have learned one truth: once you fall off the edge of things, you will hold on to other falling people. They take the story through the waning influence of the previous prime minister, the Trapped Rabbit, to the chest-thumping rule of the Parakeet Reich. The mystery of a baby – unpropitiously dark – who appears right next to the Mothers of the Disappeared, in the protest bazaar at Jantar Mantar, connects Anjum and her city with the other parts of the novel.

Three men with overlapping lives are linked by their differing relationships with the same woman – S Tilottoma, who has slightly slanting cat’s eyes, an inability to be placed by the usual Indian norms (“she didn’t seem to have a past, a family, a community, a people or even a home”) and who is by turns a delightfully enigmatic, or thoroughly exasperating, free spirit.

The men whose lives are intertwined with hers are also shaped by Kashmir and its tangled, bloody conflicts – “Garson Hobart”, the urbane government man, Naga, the narcissistic, charismatic journalist whose compromises place others in danger, and Musa, the earnest, idealistic Kashmiri who becomes a militant. Of the three, the one who acquires the most presence is Garson Hobart, whose tone – certain, sure that he’s on the right side of history, until a crack lets doubt in – is pitch-perfect. In the dirty war she describes, in unsparing, clinical detail, “Hobart”, whose real name is Biplab Dasgupta, feels like a character straight out of Graham Greene, haunted by ambiguities.

If this was all – a Kashmir story, held together by brutality and perhaps love, a Delhi story, told by an inhabitant so iconic of the city as to be a stereotype – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness would be a baroque and unsatisfying performance.

But the great pleasure of reading Ministry is its intricacy, the profusion of lives woven together into a massive tapestry. Some of the most striking passages are about what we used to call “sideys”, side-characters, or tiny sketches, from the origin of the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services (for the assistance of those whom the graveyards and crematoriums turn away), to the child Miss Jebeen substituting ‘Mataji’ for the chant of ‘Azaadi’ to make her mother turn to her and give her a kiss, to the rescuer-victim identities of an army officer whose story shapeshifts when he moves to Canada.

There are two striking mother-and-daughter pairs in the novel, both unconventional, both heartbreaking, and they give Ministry its strong emotional core. Overshadowed by the consecutive, necessary brutalities that riddle this story like old bullet holes once it moves to “another graveyard”, a world that you see alternately through rifle-sights and through the eyes of those on whom the rifles are trained, there is a taut section, The Tenant, which sketches women on the verge of breakdown.

 

 

Roy, for all her skill and years of practice as a polemicist, handles this subtly, not explicitly connecting the dots between a world gone crazy and women skittering over the edge of sanity. But perhaps the sanest response to an upended, unjust world is breakdown – skittering on the borderlands is one way of refusing to enter the cities of certainty, where the building of a new world inevitably means licensing the demolition crews to break down the old one, in the service of righteousness.

Many will read Ministry as non-fiction, seeking to outrage over the unsparing bloodiness of the Kashmir sections, or the capsule edits Roy offers on Indian politics and the rise of Hindutva. People who favour this approach read novels like test papers, with censoring grades to be handed out to writers – A+, D- or Fs for Fail. An aside to the outrage brigade: it’s often the most bitter critics who become the novelist’s best publicists.

If there is a guardian spirit hovering over Ministry, it is the ghost of the renegade mystic Hazrat Sarmad, beheaded for refusing to bow to the pieties of his time. Sarmad responded to his world with intimacy, and love, reverence and irreverence, rather than obedience and genuflection, and reported exactly what he saw – he was clearly a born rebel.

Ministry has another forebear, in Thomas Hardy’s novels – written in a similar vein of deep foreboding, his pessimism and disillusionment clashing with his awareness of the human urge to reach for lust and life.

The three final sections, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, The Landlord and Guih Kyom, teem with stories docking into some sort of harbour, with new characters, popping up even at this stage of the novel, with family life that brings together some familiar faces. Hope arrives in flashes, in a letter from someone who has not yet been mired in the tar of civil war long enough to let go of his dreams, in the freeing of a crow entangled in killing threads. It never stays long, but you feel its breath pass by.

These threads, bringing together the lives of those who fall outside the grand arc of official and unofficial histories, at first seem decorative. But it is these chattering, vivid marginal lives, not all of them human, and the brilliant digressions around ‘sideys’ that made this novel come to life.

Ministry is neither as polished or as whimsical as God of Small Things was. Less easily beguiling, more uneven, but layered, textured, dense, it has the solidity of a real landscape. Its worst flaws: some characters veer dangerously close to cliché, and the flavour of news reports, human rights reports – the handy explainer, the useful summary – works its way into the more ambitious sections.

Despite that, this is such a powerful second novel – an elegy for a bulldozed world, Roy’s instincts placing her once again on the side of the outcasts, challenging Delhi’s infamous ‘insider’ culture by foregrounding a far more interesting set of city insiders. She is one of the great memory-keepers of this age, whether or not you agree with her account-books, and Ministry will reverberate for a long time in people’s imaginations, transcending any debates that it might spark in the present moment.

At its best, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness can be miraculous, in its ability to evoke a thousand small acts of tenderness, and everyday pleasures. These are often all that people who are not warriors by nature have as weapons to defend themselves against a time of brutal certainties and rising rage. For all her dark materials, Ministry ends on a note of hope: you can almost believe that things might turn out all right in the end. Almost.