Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ is a hideous, beautiful story
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Can we accept the terms a book sets? The lines in the poem at the end of The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness—How to tell a shattered story?/By slowly becoming everybody/No. By slowly becoming everything—are a coda. Arundhati Roy, I believe, is warning us: This is not the novel in a form you know it. This is an experiment. Every English literature sophomore knows that modernism swept across the face of language in order to represent a fractured world. Postmodernism was supposed to be a response to that and to the new multiple universes we were spawning without knowing it. What if the world seems on the point of detonating at every minute? How can you tell a story, a form that demands a certain narrative, a structure, a belief in the rationality of the outcome of actions, when all around you, no one even wants to be rational?
I see this as an important novel, an interesting one, seriously flawed yes, but ambitious in a way that will make many of us want to punish it and the author. You can see why it is easy to declare it a failure and move on. Roy wants it all, she wants to put everything she’s got into this one book: everything, all of India, the starving of Urdu, the fading of Sanskrit, the hijra community, the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Anna Hazare moment, the rise of the saffron brigade, Ayodhya and Godhra and prime ministers, past and present, the North-East, gau rakshaks and Dalit politics. This is fiction as kaleidoscope, constantly changing, and flirting with failure. I don’t think many writers have the chutzpah to try.
So here’s my question. What form can contain the many multiplicities of India? The answer has always been: Focus. Drill down. Find that one story that can resonate. Be intensely personal and let this become political.
What if an author tires of that as an answer? What if she wants to swallow it all and spit it out? Will you damn her for courage? Could it be that it might be okay for a man to have tried this but certainly not for a woman?
I have always admired Arundhati Roy’s courage. She found herself caught in the Booker Prize glare but somewhere I think she decided to subvert that publicity. She turned Cassandra, she became Tiresias. I think I still admire her courage in this novel. She has taken the publicity and the hoo-ha around her first book in 20 years and she has slapped us on the face with it. Try this for size. Go on then, give me another Booker, let’s see if you can.
For me the problem is the tone. I can’t say I wasn’t prepared. When Arundhati Roy names a novel The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, you know it’s going to be a chamber of Orwellian horrors. But how do you present the horrifying? Nadeem Aslam uses beauty, such beauty that at times his shimmering prose erases the horrors of these present things. Generations of good reporters have simply stated the facts and backed away, trusting the reader. Roy chooses irony and this may have been the fatal mistake. A little irony is a useful thing; an entire book written with ironic hipness tires you out. When page after page of clever remarks goes by, you long for some old-fashioned outrage. Though Roy reaches for all kinds of poetry (Urdu shaayri, Leonard Cohen, Osip Mandelstam, Shakespeare) to offer the counterpoint of gravitas to her chosen tone, they become add-ons at best.
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness also reads like a first draft (is this also part of the deal? I can’t tell). We are introduced to a character on page 143 but we must wait until page 175 before he is named. But he is only one of the 50 main characters—I counted—in this populous book. Almost every story is told backwards, so you are always in free fall through time and the story has already been told before it has begun.
Meet Aftab. He has been born a hijra and soon becomes Anjum, the go-to hijra for the media and the masses. Anjum adopts a foundling, Zainab, but loses all sense of the possibility of love when she is caught up in the Gujarat riots. Anjum moves to a graveyard which she shares with a blind imam and a small-time scamster called Saddam Hussain who is a Hindu pretending to be a Muslim(!). They go to witness the Anna Hazare agitation and see another baby abandoned on the street. There the eccentric Dr Azad Bhartiya continues his 10-year fast unto death against everything. He runs a newsletter called “News & Views” which is printed for him by S. Tilottama.
Up to this point, I thought Roy was trying to place these against the grand narrative of history—the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Ayodhya, Godhra—and that we would never settle down into the formal narrative because there is no formal narrative possible in a kaleidoscope, where a single piece shifting can change everything. I was willing to go with this flow when suddenly the carousel stopped and we were in Kashmir.
Carousel? Well, the music is quite deliberately honky-tonk and we are always aware that this is Roy talking to us. Where were we? Oh yes, Tilottama.
S. Tilottama is the kind of beauty only words can create. All the men she meets fall in love with this dusky Malayali beauty who dresses badly in cast-off clothes and smokes beedis. She resembles a Billie Holiday song, we are told. “Her eyes were broken glass,” we are told. She is an addiction, we are told; and she can never get it wrong because she does not care to get it right. Her mother is a teacher and a feminist. All resemblances are purely coincidental.
Tilo chooses the Kashmiri Musa who is a reluctant fundamentalist. He is a fitting companion to Tilo, the kind of man who exists only in romantic fiction. Even his male rivals love him. They notice that he can be in company without drawing attention to himself; that a chipped tooth makes him look ridiculously young when he smiles. They notice his gentleness, his serenity and his big peasant hands. Musa and Tilo have a wonderful time together—she is “smoke to his solidness”, she is “insouciance” and he is “restraint”. But when she is caught on his shikara and taken for questioning by the Punjabi Amrik Singh, she calls the Bengali intelligence agent Biplab Dasgupta, who sends the Tamil journalist Nagaraja Hariharan to rescue her. She marries Naga on a suggestion from Musa (!) and later walks out on him and rents a room from Biplab.
Tilottama also arrives at the Hazare agitation and rescues the abandoned baby of Revathy, a Maoist from Andhra Pradesh. Tilottama is hounded by the police—why are they interested in this foundling?—and ends up in the graveyard with Anjum.
In the silent film The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924) a doorman loses his job and is taunted mercilessly and reviled by all. Near the end, where he is at his nadir, a title card says: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” I think Roy painted herself into a corner and then had to paint a trompe l’oeil door to let everyone out.
What if Roy had edited herself? What if she had stuck to her story? There is a story here, a hideous, beautiful story and it is set in the Valley. There Roy comes into her own: the way language is mutilated so that a militant is a milton, to surrender is to cylinder and the way in which everyone plays against each other is almost suffocatingly real. But then to get to that one must read an Abecedarium of political violence, ad copy for shampoo, and The Reader’s Digest Book Of English Grammar And Comprehension For Very Young Children. Some of this is self-indulgence. A good editor might have convinced her to tighten it. Perhaps they tried. But they would have also been dealing with the first novel by Arundhati Roy after 20 years.
The result is a magnificent experiment on the form of the novel.
The result? Each reader is going to write that.
Jerry Pinto is a writer of poetry, prose and fiction, and a translator.