The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is just the 56 year old Arundhati Roy’s second novel. Her first was the phenomenally successful The God of Small Things (1997) which I read years and years ago and of which I remember very little, and that probably wrongly – a train ride, a woman marries an untouchable, an uncle molests a child – but nevertheless I bought this one as soon as it came out last year and have been determined to read it ever since.
With only odd hours for reading, mostly standing out in the weather waiting for my truck to load or unload (tankers don’t require much physical intervention) I initially found that I was not remembering much more of the second than I did of the first, but around the 200pp mark it began to come together and I think now that I might have a handle on it, though a proper analysis would require multiple readings and reams of notes.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an intimate novel inside a great sprawling novel, a novel of India, not the India of our casual acquaintance, of tourism, and brief stories in the business and foreign news pages, but the unseen India of the poor, the homeless, of gradations of skin colour, of untouchables, muslims, trans-sexuals; a novel with not 1.2 billion characters but nearly, all the oppressed of India and Kashmir ground down by a monolithic and indifferent upper class and their violently out of control military and para-military forces.
The ‘outside’ novel contains the story of Anjum, a woman born with a man’s parts, a hijra, who leaves her muslim family to live in a refuge for other hijras and then in mid-life leaves the refuge to construct another, which grows into the Jannat Guest House, little cabins built of scraps over graves in a disused cemetery. During this journey she acquires one daughter, Zainab who prefers to be brought up by another hirja, Saeeda, and then later a second, Miss Jebeen the Second, and a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances from all the minority language groups in the sub-continent living on the streets and in the slums of Delhi.
The ‘inside’ novel is a love story, the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo) a young woman from Kerala in the south who is loved by three men whom she meets when they take part in a play as students. Arundhati Roy’s wikipedia entry says that she
“was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India [in 1961], to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother. For a time, the family lived with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.
“Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.
This is also more or less Tilo’s back story. The three men are Biplab Dasgupta who becomes a senior public servant in the Intelligence Bureau, and who sometimes gets to tell his own story; Nagaraj Hariharan, a journalist and for a long time, Tilo’s husband; and Musa (Commander Gulrez) a freedom fighter in Kashmir and always Tilo’s lover.
The story is told in fragments, some from the present, some from the past. Quite early on we see Commander Gulrez’ mutilated body displayed as a trophy by Major Amrik Singh, of the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir, but we also see reports of the murder suicide of Amrik Singh and his wife in America. We meet Miss Jebeen the Second before we meet Miss Jebeen; and we don’t meet the real mother of Miss Jebeen the Second until right at the end when she writes posthumously of her life as Maoist insurgent fighting to protect the tribes in the Bastar forest whose land was/is wanted by mining companies.
At one time Tilo must have an abortion and wakes in a government hospital to find a sick child in bed with her –
There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one – the war of the rich against the poor.
The power of this novel is in its depictions of poverty in Delhi; of the petty and not so petty tyrannies suffered by the many minorities; of the consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism for members of the 21 other nations who weren’t Hindu; Of the consequences of capitalism for people without capital, without recourse to justice – do you remember the Union Carbide disaster?; of the many individual acts of resistance, typefied by Dr Azad Bharatiya and his ten year fast; of the horrific violence in Kashmir; of the many, many individuals whom we get to meet and love as they pass through the Jannat Guest House; but above all the power of this novel is in the language, in all the Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Malayalam (and English) that washes over us.
Tilo ends up one of Anjum’s many friends, a Ustaniji, a teacher of children, in the Jannat Guest House in the abandoned cemetry. More than that I will not tell you, cannot without spoiling this marvellous story of love and war which unfolds unpredictably in all directions at once.
Jis Kashmir ko Khoon se sencha! Woh Kashmir hamara hai!
The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood! That Kashmir is ours!
Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2017. 445pp