The Poetic Realism of Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a picaresque tale of sorrowers but a saga of small-time renegades of fate who emerge as portraits each of a singular fortitude through the darkest hour.

Graveyard as jannat, or paradise. Credit: Andrea Kirkby/Flickr CC 2.0

The world is a sea in which one is lost. There are the waves forming against the sky and the dark currents that tug below, but from where is one drifting, to where? Even the planet, with its scientifically assured destruction, spins on but what of the sway of human doings? If today one were to ask, like Immanuel Kant “what can I know, what should I do, and what may I hope for?”, the answer would begin to find words only in a work of literature. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is such a work.

This book presents itself at first in extremities. The title announces the maximum quantity of an elusive quality, happiness. But the first sight is of death, a cool grave reposing under a recently plucked rose. The dedication is made out “to the unconsoled”, the kind of beings who endure in bereavement, on the edge between their life and someone’s death. For whom the rhythms of life hardly stop and who in turn refuse to get with it. The first words are “at the magic hour when the sun has gone but the light has not”, a teetering cusp from which come revenants of missing creatures.

Literary Sense

Arundhati Roy
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Penguin, 2017

At the end of the book we will wonder who has gone and who has not. These simple verbs enfold the whole of human existence, the hollow wisdom of eternal reality, of nothingness and of cosmic cycles. Ministry, instead, unfolds these extremities of living and being dead, and the story begins. Akh daleela waan, as the little Kashmiri girl Miss Jebeen used to ask her father Musa, “tell me a story, and can we cut the crap about the witch and the jungle? Can you tell me a real story?” But why does everyone want a real story, everyone who will be clutching this novel very soon? Everyone for whom daily news is already garish entertainment? And why would he or she want to read a novel?

Because the novel as a form of literature is always on the edge. Some say it is dead, and others that it is dying. But the history of the novel form shows that it has from the beginning practiced modernity, that is, to make sense of our time and its reality.

Sense should be understood in the way Wittgenstein used it in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Sense is the knowledge of how things are held together. When a person unfamiliar with a car explores it, each part accessible from the driver’s seat is available to her as sensations; the gear shaft moves, the round steering wheel can be twisted, the pedals on the floors can be depressed. But the sense of the car is found when these parts are grasped in their interrelation. Wittgenstein’s challenge to us was about the sense of the whole world, which he found to be unutterable: whereof one cannot speak….

There are indeed things in the world which do make sense—the oppression of the Dalits, the situation in Kashmir, the student protests, pogroms taking place in a series, the perilous state of the adivasis. Yet, they remain like the sensations of the components of a stationary car, without sense. Sense is the hinge by which things move about in connection with each other, the articulation in the joints of beings. Without it there is no action, no future. And sense is not given, it must be made. The Greek term for making was poiesis (as the one for nature was physis), and much more than poetry or making verses, as Aristotle knew, it was the poiesis of sense. The challenge of Wittgenstein’s silence is met in literature, for instance, in the poietic realism of Roy’s novel.

Poetic realism

Poietic, or poetic realism is the literary form in which the shattered and isolated domains of a world are shown to exist through the circulation of the oneness of their sense. Poetic realism composes an experience of sense as something arriving to the whole world from the future; it shows us this future looking at us, seeing us as one egg cracking open to give birth to our own future. In this groping for the jointures which the writer finds herself sharing with the world, she practices a rare art. It is the art of unfolding a sliver of space upon which one can leap from ‘today’ to ‘tomorrow’, instead of being guided from one room to the next in obedience to the masterplan of the Kafkaesque castle of the present. Only in having made this leap, which is also a cut in continuing time, can we look back and see – Here We Are! That is why we need fiction, since it makes a difference with what is already there by making a new sense of it.

The novel form is about being new, about renewal that comes with recognition, and about thus inventing the contemporary. This means fiction must go as close to reality as it can, to repeat it but with a difference. It needs the writer to retell the familiar by extracting her speech and style from familiar language – comfortable common sense, newspeak, soundbites, hate speech, identity talk, hashtags, NGO slogans. The sociolects of everydayness are fragments of ‘our time’. Reading Ministry gives us this to understand: that we are a shattered story since we don’t even know who this “we” is who rises and falls on the airwaves and in social media ratings. He or she is sometimes the consumer and sometimes the subject of the primetime news or the front-page when someone is killed. She or he could sometimes also be the killer, the hand in the mob. Sometimes all at the same time, since today words can kill and killings go viral.

Not only in India but in all those parts of the world in whose languages Ministry is about to be released, the recognition will come to its readers in a stunning instant that this fondly told tale is about us, all of us, everywhere. That it has touched too close to the unmistakable shards of these brutal days of profitable wars, corporate ethnocides, planned impoverishment, planned riots, punished food, punished love.

Refuse to get with it

In the novel, Anjum, a Muslim hijra discovers that the “Indo-Pak” war of gender that plays upon her body and in her heart and that she has learnt to live and love with, is also “Butcher’s Luck”: the hijra in her is spared by the superstitious Hindutva mobs in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom whereas the Muslim in her should have meant certain slaughter, the way her friend Zakir Mian was “folded” by the tips of the tridents. She leaves Khwabgah, harbour of dreams, where her community of famous Old Delhi hijras nurtured their traditions and pride in their Mughal ancestry, in order to dwell in a graveyard.

Dayachand, born in a family of sweepers and leather workers, helplessly watches his father beaten to death by cowkillers as he tries to hide in the holy mob and save his own life. He becomes a Muslim and takes on the name Saddam Hussain, inspired by the Iraqi dictator’s dignity in death. He dwells on the edges of the graveyard rendering his skills with skinning cows to the corpses that the upper caste doctors wouldn’t touch in the nearby morgue, and dreams of revenge.

Arundhati Roy. Credit: Penguin

Tilottama watches over and tilts in silence at her dying mother, Mariam Ipe, who can neither reconcile with nor disown the weight of her own caste-transgressing love, whose child Tilo is.

Musa buries his wife and little daughter Miss Jebeen, on whose shroud the guns of the Indian Army in Kashmir have left a rose-shaped spot of blood. A trap closes around him—to become a militant or else an informant—and he sits down to write a letter.

‘Garson Hobart’, the intelligence officer who grasps the rationale of the state and that it is implemented in houses of torture trading with terror, drowns in alcohol unable to cure himself of his love for Tilo, who is the refutation of all he espouses. Having given her up a long time ago out of the pragmatics of caste and region, he spends his days of early retirement nursing his increasing second thoughts even as he increasingly discovers Tilo’s entanglement in the Kashmiri struggle.

And yet, Ministry is not a picaresque tale of sorrowers. It is a saga of small-time renegades of fate. In a skyline of giant hoardings from which mythicized ‘mass leaders’ address craftily televised crowds, these little characters—Anjum, Tilo, Saddam, Musa, Miss Jebeen, Azad Bhartiya, Revathi, Mariam Ipe, Payal “the night mare”, Sultan Bewakoof the rooster, the laboratory dog, crows, the dead white-backed vultures—these women, men, hijras, trans, animals emerge as portraits each of a singular fortitude through the darkest hour.

Roy’s work of fiction summons these shards upon which the readers’ pre-understanding shall flounder, cut and bleed. Through them the novel fulfils its creative covenant in a simultaneous act of destruction, since poiesis cannot be won without wreaking its own havoc. It blasts a passage through the pigeonholing language of think-tanks reports, of the research theses on intersectionality and new poverty. It digs a route to freedom from the anthropologies of compartmentalised lives. They are renegades of prescribed and described identities. A bewilderous band of rebels from duniya, the unconsoled who insist in the graveyard, our paradise. They are expressions of other possibilities of ‘us’ unleashed by the novel.

The triptych form

Ministry resists giving itself to synopses. In a certain way all great literature does. It is not a story which one can finish telling in one way and then another way. It can only be read. With each reading new connections arise—between characters, events, homes, institutions, genders, matter— and the poietic-realist form of this demanding novel begins to appear. Embracing the shattered everything in its attentive sweep, it refuses the form of the miscellany, the chronicle, the elaborate parody, or even the fragmented epic studded with mysterious caesurae. It takes instead the complex, simultaneously enticing and unsettling form of a triptych.

Hieronymus Bosch : Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights. Credit: Wikimedia

In a triptych painting, three panels are separated by their frames and yet thoroughly connected by their hinges and more importantly by what takes place in the painted space in each panel. Sometimes each panel shows how the space appears to continue from one to the next but at different times so that the tryptich registers a transformation of the central figure. Such is the case with Francis Bacon’s “Self Portrait” that shows the work of time and death upon life, and in a more extreme way “Crucifixion”. Sometimes the places in each panel are slightly disconnected while their figures echo each other, so that a gap opens in which a new sense can be made. Bacon tried to do this in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion”, and later in the “Metropolitan Triptych”. Roy’s is a study for the unconsoled in triptych form.

The first panel could be called a study for figures in and around the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, the fakir beheaded by the emperor because he could not, would not, complete the Kalima, the patron saint watching over the celebration of “spirituality over sacrament, simplicity over opulence, and stubborn ecstatic love even when faced with the prospect of annihilation”. In this panel a hijra becomes a mother and survives a pogrom that nevertheless brings her into the graveyard; a Dalit becomes a Muslim and then a Dalit again; the saffron parakeets—Hindu nationalists—slaughter; and a hopeless protest march gathers behind an old man and an accountant in Jantar Mantar.

The second panel could be called “Guernica of Stupidification and Autonomy”. In it, the state fights Maoists rebels and Kashmir militants, and it almost wins but only almost. For it cannot keep down the chants, the dirges, the songs, testimonial transcripts, the tell-tale secret documents and the disappearances. And hence the weirdest thing happens with utmost aptness, the state begins to speak: Garson Hobart (Biplab Dasgupta), the spokesman of the state, narrates directly, cutting across the narrative voice that tells the story of the first panel. He is not shown as seen by others, but he opens his heart and himself shows his dark truth sanely and sincerely. This is the only character privileged with first person narration—“It worries me that I use the past tense”.

Also in this panel, the centuries old spirit of casteism fights against the mute statue of the Dalit Tamil soldier Murugesan who died in Kashmir, and it wins but only almost. In it the relation between an Indian student and a Kashmiri student realises the obligation of each to the autonomy—azadi—of the other. At the edges of this panel too crowds swell at Jantar Mantar, nudging aside its permanent protester Azad Bhartiya.

In the third panel, the edges of the two panels join in a detail that is as rich as it is abstract – a baby suddenly appears on the pavement of Jantar Mantar as, unaware of each other, Anjum with her friends and Tilo with her country of her own skin converge there. It is not an arbitrary or contrived convergence; Jantar Mantar is really and symbolically the place where the unconsoled from far flung places of India, abandoned in their segregated existences, gather. This moment is the hinge of the novel and the place where the sense of our time and of our futures, begins to fall into place. The movement from one panel to the next is dictated by an inner necessity in the whole composition, as is the sojourn of each creature into the novel and into this moment in this panel where the “nativity” occurs. What is being born unbeknownst to the crowds who have collected to compose the second independence struggle? What traces will it bear of—or will it forget—that act of abyssal horror that occurs in each panel?

The Apparitions in the Ministry

The characters come together to this baby and under its mysterious auspices they arrive by a strange journey full of kidnappings, chases, hunts and escapes at the graveyard turned into Jannat Guesthouse, the refuge for the utmost happiness. This is where the novel stops telling as such and begins to make us dream—and think hard. It gives us intimations of what this uncanny thing called utmost happiness could be. In this way Ministry surpasses The God of Small Things, although the character of Tilo appears to be the donation of God to Ministry and there are those strokes in the prose, the alluring lyricism and finally the signature of the same author.

The kinds of things Ministry executes in language, always subordinated to the rigour of the triptych form, will be catalogued for a long time to come. The tragic lullabies, delicate couplets, defiant quatrains, snatches of Leonard Cohen, expletives and even a Bollywood mujra give amplitude to the novel’s tidal progress. There are, awaiting the epicures of literature, micro-stories floating around like migrants in the subcontinent, a pamphlet that nearly houses a whole character (where else would a person named Azad Bharatiya—free Indian—dwell), and a Kashmiri-English Alphabet that can teach anyone the language of life there.

At the end of the novel when the denizens of Jannat twice-bury the dead in their graveyard, another articulation of being is born: the unknown martyrs and Maoists are plugged into a new remembrance where they have a story, a mourning, a singular trace in existence. Mausoleums used to be laid out like paradise, now Jannat is laid over graves – a shroud of life teeming with creatures (and of course, the other Jannat, Kashmir, is laid over with graves).

The baby who will be called Miss Jebeen the Second is born twice – the way her Maoist mother is buried twice – once in the Dandakaranya forests and then at the moment in Jantar Mantar. She is both a sign and a new beginning. A sign of the kinship between the oppressions and injustices unfolding in the world. And an invention of new kinships that make each one of us recognize our obligations to every other by revealing new relations. Dalits, Muslims, Hijras and the rejects of the PLGA fall into each other’s company to steal and keep alive this baby. The novel’s triptych form asserts the ligatures between these characters; segregating them into independent stories would turn them into mannequins upon which the most acceptable political labels can be displayed.

In this sense, Ministry turns upside down the diagram of Samuel Beckett’s writing which showed that we “give birth astride of a grave” and in the minimal space and arid time between birth and death we must perform nothing. Ministry begins with the grave and ends with a baby who sees the stars in the puddle of her own “soo-soo”. The novel builds a world—Jannat—upon graves. The bitter irony of calling our contemporary reality in this macabre paradise an administration of utmost happiness nevertheless gives readers a vision of another future. It is a world without crutches and scaffoldings. Perhaps, this world will tell the generations to come a hundred years from now about the stubborn persistence of injustice in any world whatsoever. Perhaps this world will invite them to commit to loves unknown. Perhaps the Jannat guest house—the graveyard home—would be invented anew by those who come.

The novel deploys its poietic realism to make sense of what is happening and to give a sense of what has not yet taken place but can. When Aristotle proposed that history is about what has happened while poetry (what we call literature today) is about what is plausible, he could only think that what is plausible is the already available common sense and moral cosmology. That is why the utmost sadness of Greek tragic drama, according to him, attained its height and its limit in pity and fear. He altogether missed the essential component of the work of literature, which was to make that which is not exist. And the most important thing that does not exist, that we want the most, is the future.

This novel, in which many verses speak in the guise of prose, is alive. It creates new apparitions of itself that are already walking amidst us—it might be the emerging Dalit politics, it could also be the unliveable nightmare of Kashmir, but then there is always the subcontinent as the apparition which stands over itself. Ministry is a book-world-being which would show us the nightmares of our waking hours, the canopies of our future, gather us into movements, console us when the catastrophes come, haunt us from the horizon.

Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher based in the subcontinent.

  • Rohini

    Looks like the reviewer is trying to confuse the public more than Roy, in her latest avatar, is. But, well, take a look at this review from the Irish Times by Eileen Battersby, a well regarded literary critic and decide for yourself, folks. Given that she is not part of the charmed Indian literary circle where like meets like, I would go with her review as the probability of it being objective and true to the art form is higher. (the art form here being the literary novel, not popular fiction)

    The review simply excoriates Roy and her literary abilities, both past and present ! A few choice expressions used by Eileen include “the narrative is so ramshackle and randomly conceived, a reader could easily lose interest – and probably will.”; “The Booker winner’s polemical instinct is far more developed than her art”; “Roy is not witty although the prose is slangy and often achieves a situation comedy-like banter.”

    Enough get the gist. I for one wouldn’t subject myself to it, not after the GOST, and definitely, not after Battersby’s review!

  • Rohini

    You are welcome to love the book and read it. I am welcome to my opinion…yes? I don’t want to read the book. period.

  • Rohini

    You have fun with the book. It’s the La La land of writing. Cheers.

  • Rohini

    Re-read my comment – i have referred to the novel as the literary art form, not popular fiction (and have made it clear in my bracketed comment).
    Frothing at the mouth because someone does not like the author you do is infantile.

  • Rohini

    My comment from start to finish states my opinion and invites others to read what I have to share. YOU seem to give undue weight to what I say..! Flattered, m’sieu! Indeed.
    But I must say I cannot return that compliment.Nothing you say matters to me. Au revoir!

  • Rohini

    As expected – sarcasm passes you by, like a ship in the night. Cannot continue to engage with you – I cannot deal with the air-headed pomposity. Good bye.