THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS
By Arundhati Roy
449 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.
A writer has witnessed a riot. He is not, he says, a “joiner,” but the violence is so ugly that he enlists in a peaceful protest movement. The experience of solidarity changes him. “When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world,” he writes, “in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking: Is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of these descriptions failed to find a form — or a style or a voice or a plot — that could accommodate both violence and the civilized, willed response to it?”
This was the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, writing in 1995, a decade after a government-sponsored massacre left 3,000 Sikhs dead in Delhi. The questions he asked have only grown in relevance. How to write about such an event without descending into despair? And how to give hope without being treacly?
I thought of these questions while reading Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” — her first novel in 20 years. Set in India in the present decade (with back stories extending into the 1950s), it is a novel about social and political outcasts who come together in response to state-sponsored violence.
Roy’s first and only other novel, “The God of Small Things,” was a commercial and critical sensation. The gorgeous story of a doomed South Indian family, it sold six million copies and won the Booker Prize. It became a sort of legend — both for its quality and for its backwater publishing story: Roy, unlike so many other successful Indian writers in English, didn’t live abroad or attend an elite college. She had trained as an architect and had an obscure career as an indie actress and screenwriter. Her success, which involved foreign agents and a startling advance, was linked to India’s kick-starting, liberalizing economy as well. It seemed everything had come together for Roy’s book.
Roy reacted with instinctive defiance. She stopped writing fiction and began protesting against the Indian state, which, she felt, was steamrollering the rights of the poor and collaborating with capitalist overlords. Several books of essays followed. Their titles — “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” “The End of Imagination,” “Capitalism: A Ghost Story” — convey the largeness of her concerns. She traveled with Maoist guerrillas in an Indian forest, marched with anti-big-dam protesters, met with Edward Snowden in a Moscow hotel room, and was threatened and even briefly imprisoned by the Indian government — and she continued to write. But the writing was not of the same standard as her fiction. Thougoccasionally witty in its put-downs, it was black-and-white and self-righteous — acceptable within the tradition of political writing, but not artful.
So it is a relief to encounter the new book and find Roy the artist fully and brilliantly intact: prospering with stories and writing in gorgeous, supple prose. The organs of a slaughtered buffalo in one scene “slip away like odd-shaped boats on a river of blood”; the “outrageous” femininity of transgender women or hijras in a neighborhood make the “real, biological women” look “cloudy and dispersed”; a boat is seen “cleaving through a dark, liquid lawn” of a weed-choked lake. Again and again beautiful images refresh our sense of the world.
The story concerns several people who converge over an abandoned baby at an anti-corruption protest in Delhi in 2011. There is a hijra named Anjum who has survived the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002. There is her sidekick, a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussain because he is obsessed with the “courage and dignity” of Saddam “in the face of death.” And there is an enigmatic middle-class woman called S. Tilottama who ferries the abandoned baby to her home.
Tilottama, who shares biographical details with Roy, is perhaps the central node of the book; she connects everyone. In college for architecture in the 1980s she was close to three men — all of whom end up being involved with the Kashmir conflict in some way: one as an intelligence officer, the other as a journalist, and Musa, the Kashmiri of the group, as a freedom-fighter, or militant. The three men intersect again on an autumn night in Kashmir in the 1990s, when Tilottama, nicknamed Tilo, is arrested on a houseboat for apparently colluding with a militant. What follows is a saga that enfolds the whole conflict.
The modern Kashmiri struggle for independence from India was inflamed in 1990, when Indian security forces fired on unarmed protesters; aid and arms from Pakistan flowed in. Now Kashmiris agitating for self-determination live in the most densely militarized area in the world, with civilians regularly arrested, tortured, and “disappeared.” Roy, in her nonfiction, has taken a sharp interest in Kashmir, and it is evident in this novel, which is blazing with details about the Indian government’s occupation and the Kashmiri people’s ensuing sorrow. She knows everything from the frighteningly euphemistic military terminology of the region (informers are “cats” and so on) to the natural landscape of “herons, cormorants, plovers, lapwings,” and the “walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards.” She looks into homes, into bomb sites, into graveyards, into torture centers, into the “glassy, inscrutable” lakes. And she reveals for us the shattered psychology of Kashmiris who have been fighting the Indian Army and also occasionally collaborating with it.
These sections of the book filled me with awe — not just as a reader, but as a novelist — for the sheer fidelity and beauty of detail. A worried father watches his son save himself as he falls down the stairs in their house. “How did you learn to fall like that?” he asks. “Who taught you to fall like this?” (He fears, like so many Kashmiri parents, that his son has joined a militant group.) A young militant describes buying ammunition from the army, because, in Kashmir, “everybody on all sides is making money on the bodies of young Kashmiris.” A turncoat Kashmiri torturer who works for the Indian government unconsciously introduces a journalist as being “from India.” This is terrific novelistic noticing, and it has none of the programmatic feeling of Roy’s nonfiction.
The other part of the book, which concerns Anjum, gives Roy more trouble, but only in its political aspects. We see how Anjum, born intersex as Aftab in the conservative Muslim quarters of Old Delhi, wishes “to put out a hand with painted nails and a wrist full of bangles and delicately lift the gill of a fish to see how fresh it was before bargaining down the price.” She eventually joins a hijra home. Then, in 2002, on a visit to Gujarat, she is attacked by right-wing Hindu mobs. While swiftly narrated, this section is flatter in execution: We know where Roy stands, where her sympathies lie, and though she finely conjures the world of Old Delhi Muslims and hijras, what emerges is a sort of political fairy tale, with the good guys and bad guys clearly delineated. Even here Roy can’t help writing with astonishing vividness, immersing us deep into a subculture. She has also crammed this section with superb mini-biographies, as if she’s conducting a novelistic census of the entire neighborhood. Nevertheless this section seemed for me to belong to a different book.
And here one comes to the problem with the form Roy has chosen. For the Kashmir stories, Roy relies on a looped, nesting structure familiar from “Small Things”; though occasionally ponderous, it heightens our suspense. The Anjum sections are linear and propulsive and often playful. But Anjum and Tilo and the other outcasts are brought together not through intellectual affinity but the device of the abandoned baby at the protest.
The baby takes up a lot of space in the novel. Significant time is devoted to debating who she is and to hiding her, and we don’t understand Tilo’s or Anjum’s obsession; it seems like sheer novelistic stubbornness, a desire to connect plotlines and political movements. And in doing so, Roy ends up erasing meaning. In the Kashmir sections she has so wonderfully answered Ghosh’s call, showing us the camaraderie of Kashmiris in the face of despair; here, because the camaraderie is forced, the novel begins to feel like a sentimental response to violence — a fairy tale in a time of suffering.
Roy, who has witnessed a great deal of turmoil, is uniquely placed to emphasize the solidarities between movements. She wants to show us a genuine counterculture of protest. Nevertheless, I longed for fewer connections, fewer babies and more in-depth depictions of the psychologies of the movements. I wanted Roy to focus not on the big symbols, but once again on the small things.