Where Reality Meets Fiction
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, ISBN: 9781524733155, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
“All our lives, we are never in a single moment at any time”- said Arundhati Roy in her interview with Patrick Carey for Books and Arts. As I came across this line, I thought it was more than true and also justified the way Roy writes fiction. Readers of The God of Small Things (won the Booker prize in 1997 and was sold more than 8 million copies in 42 languages) know that Roy has the power to enchant. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, for which she made her fans wait for two decades, is no less enthralling than the first one; but this time, Roy targets her readers' head than the heart.
It is no wonder that Roy, who has been among 100 influential people on earth on Time magazine's list for her passionate protest against all kinds of social injustice through a string of nonfiction writing including, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers and Broken Republic, would integrate real politics in her fictional world. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the book under review, shows the play of politics, love and religion, and spans from Old Delhi and the flourishing central India to the vales of Kashmir.
Throughout the novel, the readers will get salient criticism of Indian Politics. The third section, called “The Nativity” presents a glimpse of a fraud 'cult figure,' an old man claiming to be the leader of “India's Second Freedom Struggle.” He uses the same tactics of corrupted politicians who, with “the portrait of Mother India, a supply of national flags, Gandhi caps, banners” incite the new generation towards viciousness rather than any true ideal. The author shows how politics caters to every type of people in the country to keep them blindly content.
Terrorism, violence, unrest, political killings − all of these are scrutinized in the novel. It takes actual political examples for one to examine them through the most unbiased lens possible. To describe the kind of unrest the south Asian people live with, Roy writes: “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” (150). Roy redefines terrorism through numerous incidents which show killings and counter killings, betrayal of kinsmen, and apathy of the authority towards the truth and the blunt hypocrisy of the media. The readers feel staggered when Naga, an eminent journalist in the novel, interviews a Kashmiri militant named Aijaz, following the declaration: “Yes. I wanted to kill the murderers of my people. Is that wrong? You can write that” (228). Undoubtedly, Roy portrays a realistic and cruel world where people are dumbfounded by such blatantly horrific remarks. In a world ravaged by terrorism and anarchy, such remarks can only instigate more chaos. The stories of Maoists and Communists during 'Operation Green Hunt' are bound to bring tears to readers' eyes and at the same time make them wonder whether the tears are of grief, anger or frustration. In 'Guih Kyom,' Roy depicts the brutal rape and inhuman torture of a Maoist comrade Revathy by six police men, the consequent pregnancy, the indifferent treatment from her own party and her vulnerability as well as her devotion for her ideals. It strikes our sentiment and conscience equally.
Roy unfolds the dark ways how religion is practiced in Hindu as well as Muslim communities in India. It is mesmerizing how she manages to move us with such short tales like that of Saddam's. Roy juxtaposes two brief anecdotes in the section called 'Khwabgah,' one describing the rituals of Bakr-Eid in great detail where children learn “not to mind the blood” and some even are able to stamp their feet in red puddles and admire their “bloody shoe-prints.” Another involves the incident where a frenzied mob kills Saddam's father with cow bar and carjack for being a 'cow-killer' and then they “splashed through puddles of his father's blood as if it were rainwater” and “the road looked like a street in the old city on the day of Bakr-Eid” (89).
Anjum and Tilottoma are at the heart of the novel, preconceiving love through their existence and actions. Nagaraj Hariharan, Garson Hobart and Musa Yeswi are the three men whose lives revolve around S. Tilottoma in incredible ways throughout the novel. These three men, despite leading different lives (a journalist, a government official of Intelligence Bureau, a Kashmiri freedom fighter) met Tilo in their university years and could never get out of the loop of love. The readers are supposed to solve a puzzle of their relationship while they read, a riddle which cannot be solved until they are done with the whole book. On the other hand, Anjum is a hermaphrodite born in a reputed Muslim family in old Delhi who, along with his family had to endure public censure and insult until she left home for Khwabgah. The identity crisis felt by Anjum and the confusion felt by the society concerning her are dexterously captured in the first three sections of the book. Readers are bound to feel empathy while they go through Anjum's eventful life and her accomplishment at 'Jannat Guest House' at the end.
Readers of The God of Small Things know that Roy is a magician of words and her words seem to be flowing on a page. The same is true for this novel as readers would not only read the book but they are forced to experience it as well. The storyline is nonlinear which includes many nonfictional things like diary entries, dictionary entries, witness-testimonies and so on, and in turn, makes the reading a surprising experience for all avid readers. The writerly diction in the first three sections is full of captivating imagery. However, as the novel progresses towards different social and political issues, it seems less poetic and more specific.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a sequel of The God of Small Things and there is no point in comparing them. It is a distinct novel where the author blurs the difference between reality and fiction, leaving a trail of heartfelt emotions behind.
Khadijatul Kamini is a lecturer of English at East-West University.