Her first novel since The God of Small Things is both mischievous and outragedby Gillian Beer / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
Twenty years ago Arundhati Roy produced a first novel, The God of Small Things, in which caste and place controlled a tightly-woven and tragic love story whose cadences drew on south Indian speech. That won the Booker Prize and became a great bestseller, selling six million copies worldwide. Since then Roy has been engaged in political activism in her native country, always a thorn in the side of the Indian establishment that once fêted her. She has watched her country’s turn to Hindu nationalism with horror, and it seemed as though the injustices she exposed in her non-fiction might permanently divert her from novels. But it has turned out not to be so. Her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is larger, more complicated, more multilingual, more challenging as a reading experience than The God of Small Things, and no less immersing.
This intricately layered and passionate novel, studded with jokes and with horrors, has room for satire and romance, for rage and politics and for steely understatement. It’s a world where laconic asides destabilise our comfortable assumptions. The entire Indian subcontinent and its conflicted history over the past 70 years (and before that) are drawn into the descriptions. So are individual people in all their variety.
The chronology of the book twists, turns and overlaps, sometimes taking us forward in an aside, sometimes unfurling whole events previously only hinted at so that we now enter close into the passions of people who have previously seemed to be bit-players. The reader must keep her wits about her at all times. Memory and the future grid over each other. Following the track is hard work.
What is gained by this? These ellipses and delays mimic the ways in which in reality we come to know individuals and their life stories over time. They also serve as an analytical tool (often a savagely funny one) to demonstrate how events gain new meanings or are depleted by future happenings. Indeed, the constantly shifting focus of the stories asks: What is an event? Can we divest ourselves of the past? Isn’t it in the grain of the present? Isn’t it the propulsive energy of the present? And why are we in hock to the future?
That debate is not a matter for individual lives only. It is the great question here as national and international events topple on to each other: Partition, the Golden Temple massacre in 1984, the Bhopal disaster the same year, 9/11, Afghanistan, assassinations of the powerful, torture, the rise of the BJP and religious extremism, “martyrdom” of several kinds. Through them all run capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, the caste and class system, even the dairy industry.
Subtly fraying and colluding with all these systems is human survival and human affections. The outcasts and the many animals who populate Roy’s universe live in the cracks of this history, making their own tracks. The narrator watches Hindu extremists sardonically: “A parakeet committee of pedagogues was set up to finalise the process of turning history into mythology and mythology into history.” Bureaucracy is the agent of brutality and torture minces its way through menacing tea-breaks, as the characters discover to their cost: “Downstairs in the cinema lobby there was a torture-break. Tea was being served to the soldiers.”
But such an account of the novel, though accurate enough, may make it sound abstract. Instead, in the reading, it is exuberant, page-turning, and sometimes even frolicsome—though a frolic that can flip abruptly into something like despair. That’s because it is peopled by a horde of diverse people, each of whom is intensely valuable to the storyteller and to each other and becomes so to the reader. Like Dickens, Roy can plunge us into intimacy with a character within a few pages; she can also sustain the mystery of character across the entire span of the plot. The novel’s shape twists and turns and only at its ending do we understand how completely the start and finish match each other.
Late in the book comes an epigraph from the novelist James Baldwin: “And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” That’s the book’s paradox. Much that at first seems fiction turns out to be fact. Some readers will straight away be able to recognise the thinly-veiled politicians, such as the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose disguised satirical nicknames populate the novel. Equally, some figures who may seem fictions when first encountered, like Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, prove to be important sages in reality. (He was a 17th-century Persian mystic whose grave is now a site of pilgrimage in Delhi.)
“Like Dickens, Roy can plunge us into intimacy with a character within a few pages; she can also sustain the mystery of a character to the end”
The history with which this book is so fiercely engaged continues into the present moment: the Indian supreme court announced in April that 13 members of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including the serving governor of Rajasthan, have been charged with involvement in the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 by Hindu extremists, an event that precipitated murderous riots.
The stories in the novel lurk beneath 70 years of official documents. But stories are not just documents; they distrust documents. In his unfinished letter to his little girl written after her violent death, Musa the Kashmiri patriot writes, grief-stricken: “You wanted me to tell you real stories, but I don’t know what is real any more. What used to be real sounds like a silly fairy story now—the kind I used to tell you, the kind you wouldn’t tolerate.” The child Miss Jebeen the First (as she is called) insists on truth. The authenticity of this burgeoning, mischievous and outraged fiction is that it everywhere abuts actuality. It makes us as readers take part in what has been happening in the world.
All our interest and attention in the first hundred pages or so is on the community of hijras—the so-called “third sex” in India, neither male nor female—that the inter-sex baby Aftad, at first identified as a boy, grows up determined to enter. Is this community happy? No, declares Nimmo, one of the hijras he admires, because all the encumbrances and divisions that others experience as external are inside, endoubled: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us.”
Aftab/Anjum, a boy with girl’s genitals, who feels himself happy before puberty, becomes a woman with a doubled voice, becomes almost and entirely a mother. (That “almost” is a repeated point of contention throughout the book.) In the intricate wave-motion of the work’s revelations, Anjum is never quite forgotten and she will reappear in the book’s last section, set again in the graveyard of its first pages, a place now transformed by love. But for now she vanishes.
Then, sidling in after more than 100 pages, comes a new name: the publisher of a pamphlet by hunger-striker Dr Azad Bhartiya: “You see this English signature? This is S. Tilottama,” or Tilo. And soon we are away into a different set of characters: Tilo, the beloved, and the three men who love her (Naga, Musa and “Garson Hobart”).
Tilo will carry the plot and much of the insight, debate and allure of the book. Garson Hobart provides distance though he speaks in the first person, unlike the other main characters. He clarifies events because he is a cynic, and he misunderstands their meaning for that reason too, corrupted by his alliance with power. Long before we as readers are allowed to understand the inner lives of Tilo and Musa and their love, we have heard a bureaucratic account of what happened to them from Hobart (real name: Biplab Dasgupta). His public name is not his own; it’s from a play in which as students they all performed, in which he and Musa played gay lovers. He doesn’t know everything. He is often baffled by the residues of Tilo’s life that remain in the apartment he has rented to her: photographs and notes. Those residues alert the reader to piteous events beyond Hobart’s understanding, though some are riotously funny.
The work has further surprises to spring and they come often through poems, songs, and dreams, through quotations from Leonard Cohen and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Billie Holiday and Jean Genet and, once, Shakespeare. Roy’s hyperbole carries tenderness as well as devastation: “Tombstones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth.” Throughout, we need constantly to correct our knowledge. Documents of all kinds disturb the surface of the narrative: witness statements, translations, text messages, a specious asylum application, advertisements, legal notices, letters and the delirious utterances of Tilo’s mother written down by Tilo.
Names here are assertions and disguises, portable, transferable, often sloughed off. For some characters, new names are a way of evading the caste system, or gendered language. For some they are a way of staying alive or claiming power. They are often part of the book’s comedy. “Saddam Hussain,” the sunniest of young men and the eventual bridegroom in the happy ending marriage-plot, hides his tragic past by adopting the name of the Iraqi dictator, after looking at a video of his execution that shows Saddam’s courage only.
Topics and questions grind against each other in Tilo’s deadpan pedagogic book The Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children, one of the tour-de-force interjections in the narrative. This entry is headed:
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.
Q 1: Why is it not sophisticated?
Q 2: What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?
These are mordant questions: but this is also a work that knows happiness and how irresistible it is when it comes. Lyrical descriptions of Kashmir’s beauty are set in among the violence. A photograph of the simple Gul-kak (whose role in the plot is crucial) shows him “armed to the teeth”: “In each leather bullet loop there was a green chili. Sheathed in his pistol holster was a juicy, fresh-leaved, white radish.”
Thomas Hardy, writing about the appallingly hard life of labourers in Britain at the end of the 19th century observed that: “Happiness will spring up.” It cannot be commanded. Happiness is a debatable sensation and it is possible for a character in this novel to feel “a mad insurrection against a lifetime of spurious happiness.” Yet happiness is necessary if children are to thrive. Three girl children in succession and their multiple mothers “stitched together by threads of light” drive the plot. Children are rescued (kidnapped), adopted, refused, embraced. The relation of mother and daughter is at the book’s heart in the pained history of Tilo’s mother.
The novel’s form shares the pleasures of a detective novel, but with outcomes that make us quail. Full meaning is delayed and even then is conditional. But though we may be ignorant as we plunge through the novel’s events, our judgments as readers are rarely undermined. We read alongside the intimate and authoritative third-person narrator who doesn’t flinch from certainty. This gives an odd comfort to the novel. It prepares us for the turn to happiness at its conclusion.
Roy makes room for the numinous and her final pages dangerously conjure incarnation—“dangerously,” because it may too much console the reader. The book is dedicated to “The Unconsoled,” some of whose sorrows we now know. The conclusion cannot encompass all that has happened, but in the figure of the happily peeing child seeing the sky inverted hope is uncovered.
This is a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace, as well as being fuelled by savage indignation. It is also a work that feels dangerous to read, even to those far from the scenes described. There is no space left for easy objectivity in this challenging novel. That gives it its cutting edge.