Monday, January 08, 2018

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Procrastinated before I started on Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ (2017). Her debut novel ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997) bored me to tears, and I pegged her writing and stories to the genre that I don’t read. However the friends urged me to give this new book a chance. I did. While it rambles on with too many characters, and I don't un-enjoy it, but it’s still the type of genre I generally avoid. (Reviews here, herehere, and here.)

The book traces the story of Anjum, a hijra, a trans-woman who was born with both female and male genitals. She was Aftab, the long-awaited son from birth, till he chose his gender and underwent a not-too-successful operation to become a woman. We now trace her story from Delhi to Kashmir, her depression, and her current choice to live in a graveyard and building a shack of sorts named 'Jannat Guest Home' to leasing out space within, and welcoming people marginalized by society, the untouchables. Anjum's story happened against the historical and political background of the tumultuous events of the persecution of Muslims and Sikhs in the 1980s to early 2000s and the government's reprisal against Muslims.

I think what throws most readers off is when the book shifts over to an entirely new plot line halfway through before it weaves back to link Anjum's story with the rest. This new thread revolves around the 'Free Kashmir' movement, against the greater background of India and Pakistan's war for the Line of Control and the Kargil War. It shifts to a first person narrative. It now introduces Tilo's story, an architect turned activist, and some-time lover, freedom-fighter Musa. There's her ex-husband who's a journalist and informant for the Bureau, Naga and Bureau officer 'Garson Hobart' who really is Biplab Dasgupta. Biplab Dasgupta is also the narrator 'I' here, Tilo's one-time landlord. The plot lines finally coverged when Tilo adopted an abandoned baby girl and sought refuge at Anjum's Jannat Guest Home.

I read the book twice. Had to. There was too much information to digest. I don't particularly feel for the characters in this book. It's not their story they're telling, and yet it's everyone's story. It's almost as though the characters reflect a divided India. We readers, are but passers-by. The story starts and ends with the graveyard, an ironic reflection of where happiness is found for the outcasts and social misfits.

Arundhati Roy is a wonderful brilliant writer. Make no mistake. After the success of her debut novel and having it win the 1997 Man Booker Prize, she spent two decades avoiding the limelight and concentrated on being a political activist, advocating social causes and supporting the separating of Kashmir from India. In an interview with The Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead published on 27 May 2017, the author said,

From all the political and judicial animosity, I’d formed the impression that Roy must be some sort of persona non grata in India, but she says nothing could be further from the truth. In her daily life, she never meets anyone who regards her as unpatriotic. “No! Absolutely not. It’s the opposite.” This claim is difficult to verify or dispute. Thousands of adoring admirers gather to hear her make speeches all over the world, but when I ask where she feels the greatest sense of like-minded support, without hesitation she replies, “Oh, India. Without a doubt. I’m not some lone person. I function within a huge river and stream and a rising, rushing current of solidarity.”

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