Twenty years ago—back in 1997—I was a first-year undergraduate studying English literature at the University of Dhaka when Arundhati Roy's debut novel The God of Small Things took the literary world by storm. Remembering the name, so talked about in the department lobby back then, I paid a visit to a local bookstore and purchased a low-priced edition of the Booker Prize-winning work. I loved reading this tragic, semi-autobiographical tale of a doomed South Indian family at that time. I wondered then when would I see another novel from the author, who was once, curiously, listed as one of People magazine's most beautiful people, and who, apparently, lacked a literary background! The wait seemed endless all these years.
June 8, 2017. It was Election Day in England, and I booked a ticket to meet and listen to Arundhati Roy talk about her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I was looking forward to enjoying an evening of some sort of entertainment and escapism. The event was planned at the historical Cambridge Union Chamber and I was aware the talk would also showcase a conversation between Roy and Dame Gillian Beer, the emeritus Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, who was the Chair of the Judges for the Booker Prize in 1997, the year in which Roy won. Pretty soon, however, I realized that there would be no reprieve from election talk as someone from the audience asked Roy to comment on Britain's left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's prospect of winning. She reacted with what seemed instinctive humor, joking that her knowledge of British politics was limited; however, she quipped that if he really won she would be delighted. I am, of course, well aware of Roy's radical left commitment to principled resistance, and of the fact that she has been writing fiercely in the intervening twenty years and publishing dozens of essays, non-fictions and making documentaries championing the rights of the subaltern, protesting against state-sponsored corruption, extreme nationalism, environmental degradation and campaigning for Kashmiri independence.
As I was cycling to the historic venue earlier, I kept thinking: what voice could I expect to hear from Roy now – the political activist or the literati? I had already started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and it was already apparent to me that unlike her first novel, this one is less focused on the personal and the private than on “the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.” Politics would be high on the agenda, I had concluded, as I approached the venue.
Nevertheless, Arundhati Roy claimed, rather categorically, in her talk that political activism was not on her mind while she was toying with idea of the book: “To me there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am.” She continued to mystify the process of writing, saying “I don't really remember [about how she began writing the book], and also that “the fiction just takes its time.”To answer how the characters panned out in her head, she said, confidently: “They just take their own course.” And, she said she had felt that she needed something atypical for her new novel: “a language to tell the story” which was neither English nor Hindi/Urdu, but something else that could help her “make sense of the world” by binding together “worlds that have been ripped apart.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness commemorates these worlds - the lives, struggles, and triumphs - of several of its characters, including, but not limited to queers, addicts, Muslims, and orphans. Even animals, such as a kitten, about to be drowned by a group of soldiers, ora dung beetle, Guih Kyom, are given agency by her. I thought that the statements she made during the talk, such as the one that she never revises her books, were a bit of swagger. But by the time I finished reading The Ministry, I must confess, I felt some unease about her deployment of point of view as a narrative device –the two central stories of the book, I feel, never comes together seamlessly; everyone in the novel seems restless from some terrible experience of loss; they are all constantly chased by memories and yet are all driven by unattained dreams. “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.” To me, several of the characters of The Ministry appear to have been transmitted there from the pages of Roy's non-fiction; they all make the reader feel that each one of them is worthy of his or her empathy. Her decision to bring in so many varied voices appears to me now to be completely political.
“I think my brain is only that of a fictional writer.”Roy's claim came alive when she was reading from the book – Chapter Two – Khwabgah – to the mesmerized audience:
They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum's life. The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body – eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes – with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered …
Roy's depiction of the life of the trans woman, or hijra, Anjum in the conservative Muslim quarters of Old Delhi, also comes across as fascinatingly original. Anjum, born intersexually as Aftab, wishes “to put out a hand with painted nails and a wrist full of bangles”, and eventually joins a hijra home. Roy conducts an utterly convincing novelistic census of the entire neighborhood: “I wanted to write where I'm just drifting around, the way I do in Delhi, in mosques and strange places.”
But later, on a visit to Gujarat, Anjum is attacked by right-wing Hindu mobs. “In India, everything is decided by caste,” Roy declared to us, “What I love about Anjum is that when she's caught up [in the massacre in Gujarat], she's spared because she's a hijra.” Another hijra points out to Anjum, “The riot is inside us.” Traumatized but in a show of single-minded determination, she sets up home in a graveyard; she meets her sidekick, a former mortuary worker Saddam Hussain, a man obsessed with “courage and dignity” “in the face of death,” traits that extremists in the country love to associate with the slain Iraqi leader. Anjum hates it when film-makers, NGOs and foreign correspondents try to feed off her tragedy and tries to distract them by saying: “Others have horrible stories, the kind you people want to write about.”
As a bit of film buff myself, I could relate immediately when Roy recounted how in 1970s Bollywood screenplays, there was always a hero of the downtrodden and who is no longer to be seen in present-day Mumbai films. In The Ministry, in a similar act of instinctive defiance, Roy's Anjum builds Jannat Guest House, bit by bit; – it is a home to an outlandish medley of the excluded: untouchables, Muslim converts, hijras and addicts. Anjum thus transgresses borders.
Running in tandem in The Ministry is another elaborate narrative, set in and about conflict-inflicted Kashmir where “Death was everywhere. Death was everything.” In Roy's depiction of Kashmir, there are relentless scenes of misery. Nevertheless, again and again beautiful images appear to refresh our perception of the world. While she was reading from these pages, we could sense the deftly situated pleasurable and unpleasurable images in her narrative – from the frightening military terminologies of the region to the natural landscape of “herons, cormorants, plovers, lapwings,” and the “walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards.”
Roy's designated protagonist in the Kashmir narrative is the enigmatic middle-class woman Tilottama, nicknamed Tilo, who shares some striking biographical details with Roy herself. In college for architecture in the 1980s, Tilo was close to three men — all of whom end up getting involved with the Kashmir conflict in the narrative.
I had a feeling that the Kashmir episodes have all the ingredients for a separate novel altogether. For Roy, however, these different strands are all congruent. Tilo connects everyone as Roy gathers her cast together around Zainab, an abandoned child. Tilo ferries the child and Anjum decides to adopt Zainab. To the Anjums – “To, The Unconsoled” (the book's dedication), the child is a renewed source of light to their Jannat Guest House, which now stands for alternative structures of kinship, resistance, and romance – all together an imagined inverse of paradise. Anjum, the unlikely hero of the downtrodden, exclaims–“'Come to Jannat Guest House', you know? Everybody's welcome!”Roy exclaimed with her characteristic smile: “She breaks it … and that, for me, is so sweet.”
Roy's fiction is moving, which is why for me, any concern of a fissure between art and activism in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness seems absurd. By the end of the talk, I had to raise my hand to ask Roy, “Do we have to wait for another twenty years to …? Before I could finish, everyone had erupted in laughter.
Manzoorul Abedin teaches Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is a Research Fellow working across several educational projects.