Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is welcome at a time when words such as ‘secularism’ and ‘reservation’ are becoming unwelcome, but the astute storytelling you’d expect is sadly missing.
Arundhati Roy’s second book was much anticipated – after all, one is always in need of a song. Within weeks of its publication, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness found itself on the Booker longlist in in July. However, other than Roy being a celebrity and the book’s intentions, there is little by way of depth and complexity to buttress the novel’s worthiness up to the standards of a Paul Beatty or Kiran Desai, or even Roy’s own previous accomplishment. And yet, it is a necessary book.
The central characters of the book – Anjum, Tilottama, Musa and Saddam – roam in the peripheries of society. Anjum, an Old Delhi hijra and survivor of the Gujarat pogrom, exiles herself to the neighbourhood graveyard after losing the affection of her adopted daughter. Saddam Hussein, an untouchable, awaits the day when he can avenge his father’s lynching. Tilottama and Musa, enigmatic outliers, follow each other through the horrors of violence-ravaged Kashmir as star-crossed lovers and comrades.
In telling their individual and collective stories, Roy takes on the ambitious project of unmasking the social and political fault lines of the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a genuine paean for the patched integrity of the dispossessed and brutalised and is welcome at a time when words such as ‘poverty’ ‘secularism’ ‘reservation’ and ‘Muslims’ are becoming unwelcome.
And yet, despite her ardour, the book is a bit of a mystification. The astute storytelling you’d expect from a novelist of Roy’s status is sadly missing. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is noble in its vision, ambitious in its scope and dreadful in its editing.
Its characters follow a predetermined trajectory and consequently do not develop. Tilo, Musa, Anjum and Saddam enter the plot as types: each is representative of an identity or allegiance, who rise and fall with the tide of events surrounding them. They are above reproach, modelling all that is morally good with those on the right side of history. For instance, Tilo remains from beginning until the end a right mystery and a mute stoic who is just as committed to the cause of justice as she is to paying timely rent for a room she does not inhabit. The background story of a troubled relationship with her mother clarifies little Tilo’s quiet yet determined resistance to the system.
Similarly, minor characters like Azad Bharti, Garson Hobart or even the Santhal domestic help (a sideways comment on indigenous-mainstream relationships), are created less to layer the plot and more to fulfil the task of political education that Roy has assigned them. However, people are complex no matter their identities and to tease out these complexities, which cause human progress to hobble and stagger, is not just a mark of good literature but also a question of political duty.
In her own words, Roy wanted to bring the subcontinent’s castaways under one roof. While the book holds out promise at the beginning, towards the end the fallen pariahs are united to enact a rather Foucauldian ‘cemetery heterotopia’ in the graveyard guesthouse named Jannat (heaven). Complete with a people’s pool, people’s school and people’s zoo, it is Roy’s socialist alternative to the duniya’s malls, Mercedes, communalism and riots. To address our fast receding secular spirit, she even makes Zainab (raised Muslim) recite the gayatri mantra. The description of the happy bunch is so cinematically dramatic that it could inspire the next blockbuster.
Most distracting and more than a little annoying are the in-text footnotes and the awkward parenthetical explanations. For example, the forced dialogue between Anjum and Saddam over his past. Roy uses it as a ruse to explain caste rituals in detail that overload the immediate narrative flow. Dialogues, when done well, are great for subtexts, but Roy turns them into inelegant information nuggets. The same holds true for the detailed explanation of Dussehra, Bollywood’s bygone legends and so on.
Thus, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness leaves nothing open-ended or to the imagination – instead, it impatiently spells out each practice and peculiarity. It begs the question: who was this book written for?
The abacus of information capsules suggests that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is intended primarily for an audience that is global, if not just the West. But unlike Americanah or Twelve Killings, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness lacks the creativity and subtlety needed to turn issues and themes into an engaging literary masterpiece. The storyline manages to hold our sympathy but the drama cannot hold within it the multiple political and emotional surgeries the author wants to conduct. From brutal casteism to neoliberal fantasies, from the Emergency to Gujarat’s pogrom, from queer politics to Ghalib’s grave, from the Narmada Bachao Andolan to Dantewada – there is just simply too much going on. The lengthy pamphlets and letters Roy inserts in the hands of Azad Bharti, are little more than direct reportage from capitalism, socialism, casteism, colourism, to our fragmented nation and its wartime sexual violence and crimes.
This lack of focus causes the novel to end up being literal, not literary, swinging between the imperatives of a history teacher and tour guide, dragging under its own weight. To borrow from Frank Lucas, why rage through a novel like the White Knight, clattering with saucepans and mousetraps? Apparently, Roy refuses to write drafts. That may not be such a serviceable ideal after all.
Nevertheless, what the book lacks by way of pleasure-value, it makes up for with its influence-value. It certainly does not deserve the Booker, but paradoxically, this is the book’s strength. By eschewing complexity or esoteric literary devices, Roy has done a considerable favour to her country because there is definitely a rung of non-trolling middle-class right-wingers and fence-sitters who might pick up the book out of curiosity, if not for the love of fiction.
Since the birth of the nation, the largely forward-caste Indian middle class, comprising a mere 24 million, has suffered from what may be called an envy of pride. For 70 years, it has envied the pride Americans take in their flag, Saudis in their public floggings, Europe in its streets, Pakistan in its anti-secularism and so on.
Since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power, this fantasy has been consecrated in the motto ‘act proud to be proud’. The recent regression into the lynch mob mentality is viewed as but a slight collateral damage in this great march forward. By throwing its weight behind this value overhaul, the middle class is definitively arguing for a selective and convenient understanding of patriotism, which has dangerous ramifications for an already festering body politic.
Herein lies the utility of a book as sprawling and simplistic as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If civilisation’s tradition of book banning/burning were not proof enough, recent studies reiterate the ability of fiction to nurture empathy and heighten our sensitivity to injustices. Through what Keith Oatley, the Canadian novelist and cognitive psychologist, calls ‘role-taking’, reading literature helps us decode the reasons behind a character’s actions and motivations.
Thus, by making a situation such as Kashmir almost central to the narrative, Roy cajoles an obstinate nation into re-examining a damaged nerve. She urges us to reconsider, if not the sovereignty question, then the politics of war, greed and governance, which has now skilfully tacked on Islamophobia on the rhetoric around national integrity.
The stray bullet that casually kills Musa’s daughter has been, over the last 20 years, responsible for swathes of marked and unmarked graves in Kashmir. In the Valley, spilled blood of every Kashmiri congeals with ever-increasing rage the legitimacy of its call for azaadi. By describing elaborately the innate sadism of state power, Roy tries to translate the tragedy and endurance of a people united in grief, loss and post-war traumatic disorders.
In doing so, she does not shy away from the problematic aspects and heterogeneous strands of Kashmiri resistance against the military occupation. After all, nothing can be more foolish than looking for a kosher revolution. She comments on the infighting and growing intolerance of mossback militants towards the Valley’s more syncretic interpretation of Islam. In the end, her sympathy lies with the ordinary people, for when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
In the era of WhatsApp propaganda and photoshop, literature has the potential to arrest our attention for a tad longer and to this end, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness seeks to mend our increasingly skewed perceptions of and frayed relationships with each other in this country.
India was and has been a polymorphous country. No manner of linguistic uniformity or vegetarianism can organically make real the fantasy of a one nation/one people/one religion. Those who deny this congenital diversity, risk a genocidal catastrophe. Roy is right about the terror: we are at a sharp tipping point in our subcontinent’s history. Therefore, by dissuading some, if not all, against equating profit with progress and patriotism with xenophobia, books such as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness may be able to help India survive the coming onslaught of global tribalism.
Oeendrila Lahiri is an academic, a cultural observer and a freelance writer. She tweets at @oeendrila.