WHEN Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God Of Small Things came out in 1997, it took the literary world by storm. Roy’s story about the childhood experience of fraternal twins, Rahel and Estha along with their mother Ammu in the village of Ayemenem in Kerala, India, examined the social structures deeply embedded in India’s cultural and religious system.
The “Love Laws” touching the stereotypical Indian class consciousness and strict caste system that lay down “who should be loved, and how, and how much” formed the fabric of the tragic tale. It received stellar views in major American newspapers such as The New York Times which called it “a dazzling first novel”.
Opening with the tragic memories of a family grieving around a drowned child’s coffin, the first few pages set the tone for other tragedies to come. I know there’s more painful prose to come, but her supple imaginative narration is such that I’m captivated all the way through to its agonising finish.
Reading it about a decade ago, it was both deeply riveting, disturbing and as much as I could identify with the language and way of life depicted in the tale (which proves the point that you can take an entire generation of Indians out of India, but you can’t take the “India” out of the Indians!), the unrestrained description of sexuality got the then-Chief Minister of Roy’s home state Kerala in a tizz which resulted in her having to answer charges of obscenity!
The Booker prize-winning author said back then: “It’s taken me four years to write and it’s still not very good. I’m not doing that again in a hurry.”
Well, she certainly took her time. Two decades to be exact. Her life as a political activist explains the two-decade silence: publishing five volumes of non-fiction in support of political causes, anti-nuclear campaigns, environmentalism, land rights and anti-Hindu nationalism, while fighting charges of sedition laid against her by the Indian government.
And then comes her second novel. After all, as Roy said: “Fiction takes time.”
In The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, you can expect Roy to be no less forthright, picking another controversial subject and transgressing social boundaries, as with her first book.
The story follows Anjum-born Aftab, a hijra — a Hindu word that variously translates as hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender person — who has a complex gender history (she was born with both male and female genitals, and in her prime lived within a community of transgender women) as well as Tilo, an architect (who seems to be modelled on Roy herself) who wanders through the world as a mostly solitary observer, and the three men who fall in love with her.
Anjum gets caught up in a massacre in Gujarat, after which she resolves to quit the hijra community and re-enter the world. Hindu nationalists, a rising force led by the state’s chief minister, whipped up anti-Muslim fury to such a pitch that the violence lasted for three days and killed as many as 2,000 people.
Traumatised but single-minded, she renounces her hijra finery, sets up home in a graveyard, and bit by bit builds guest rooms onto the graves, until her Jannat Guest House becomes home to a fabulously outlandish medley of the excluded: untouchables, Muslim converts, hijras, addicts, even an abandoned child, Zainab, whom Anjum earlier adopted. This is the “ministry” of the novel’s title — a home where each room contains not only a bed but also a grave.
In the meantime, Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets up with an old love who urges her to support the Muslim separatist insurgency, which is fighting to overthrow Indian rule. “When you see what you see and hear what you hear, you won’t have a choice,” he warns her. Pretty soon, she learns about the atrocities of the Indian occupation in Kashmir, most of which is committed by a sadistic Indian army major.
Shifting places, times periods and viewpoints from her various eclectic characters with the grace of a master choreographer, Roy attempts to carve out a huge story made out of many little subplots that showcase India (and many nations at that) at her best and worst.
The best being the indomitable human spirit that refuses to bow down to the stark and often cruel twists in life, and the worst — when poverty, human cruelty and the absurdities of modern war bring out the ugliness in people.
In an interview back in 2011, she said: “I’ll have to find a language to tell the story I want to tell. By language, I don’t mean English, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam. Of course, I mean something else — a way of binding together worlds that have been ripped apart.” As with her previous book and her latest offering, Roy has certainly tried bridging a world and characters torn apart by war, poverty, politics and segregation. In her own words and her own language.
What’s Hot: What’s not to love about Roy? Her style of prose, her ability to tell a fantastic story (stories for that matter) and ability to keep you turning the pages until the end, speaks nothing short of her mastery. It may not be Booker-prize material like her debut but it’s definitely highly readable.
What’s Not: After a while, the chronological switchbacks where characters and events fall out of sync (characters brood for events and moments yet to be introduced by Roy), and the vast geography along with the two decades of Indian history it covers can throw you off the story and leave you scratching your head midway. Then again, war, death, oppression and political upheavals. Why, why, why do I need to read about this? As if the daily news isn’t depressing enough. Putting down the book at the end required an hour’s rerun of Friends and copious amount of chocolate to recuperate. I kid you not.