I finished reading Arundhati Roy's “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” a few days ago, and found myself feeling oddly bereaved.
Then, as one does when one is thrown off by life’s occasional googlies, I sought the company of an old friend: my Indian hardcover edition of “The God of Small Things.” (So much lovelier than the US edition.) But it was not on my bookshelves! Instead, I found a paperback, also an Indian edition, but not the one I had read… My beloved hardcover book seems to have joined the ranks of my books-on-tour, some never to be returned.
You know the drill. A friend wants to read a book. You have it. You lend it. You forget to whom. You never see it again. On some extremely rare occasions, you do.
Other books that have disappeared (now that I have started lamenting) are “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. I distinctly remember generously saying -- to someone, godknowswho, “Sure, sure! By all means, borrow them, read them, wonderful books!” Hah! And now. As a constant reminder of the disappearance, I have the dust cover of Mukherjee’s book on my bookshelf. I did not want that returned all tattered, so I had hung on to it during aforementioned lending. Sheesh.
But I am here to tell you about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I do reveal some plot details, so read at your own risk.
The Ministry could have begun at page 147 (of 444), Chapter 7 (of 12), to no great detriment, in my opinion. You may disagree, depending on what you think the story is all about. For me it is about Kashmir, the plight of the residents of the beautiful state as strife continues over it between India and Pakistan.
The first part is about Anjum-who-was-Aftab, her birth as a boy, her identification with being a girl, her escape from the Duniya, the regular world, into the Khwabgah, the world inhabited by hijras. About her finding a baby on the steps of a mosque, and raising her as Zainab. These pages move slowly. This is not, however, the languid, intentionally slow writing of, say, Amit Chaudhuri (Afternoon Raag) or F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Ice Palace). Or the quiet reflection of Pankaj Mishra (The Romantics). It’s just slow, to no evident purpose.
The first several chapters go on and on, and often seem like a rant. I felt as though I was listening to a person who can’t quite pull together what s/he wants to say. Whose path to clarity and understanding is speaking. And speaking and speaking. Roy’s writing here is similarly wearying. There is also magical realism that harkens to Rushdie (how could it not?) but falls short in comparison.
Yet, in parts, her immense talent at bringing alive her characters and their pain with her turns of phrase and detailed descriptions is as heart-stopping as ever. The description of Jahanara Begum’s shock at her baby’s boy AND girl parts, and her plea to Hazrat Sharmad Shaheed, to whose dargah she takes her baby, had me in tears. “This is my son Aftab. I’ve brought him here to you. Look after him. And teach me how to love him.”
And more on love as Anjum raises a black ram with great love, in preparation for Eid. “Love, after all, is the ingredient that separates a sacrifice from ordinary, everyday butchery.”
The personal touches are far more moving than the overtly political of which there are several instances. There is much about the lisping Poet Prime Minister (Vajpayee) and his party of bigots. There is a dog found wandering with a tangle of transparent tubes dangling from him. Yes, a swipe at big pharma and animal research. I was somewhat incredulous at an account of Hindu doctors who would not perform post-mortems but would relegate that task to Chamars. Really? Is there a pathologist who would refuse to perform a post-mortem for fear of being polluted? Hard to believe, but Roy is well-respected for her thorough research. And then again, maybe this part is fictional.
The first section bears some resemblance to the manifesto of Dr. Azad Bhartiya, for whom no cause is too trivial—he protests everything equally. He comes to Jantar Mantar, where we meet others who have come to uphold a variety of causes. Bhopal. Caste-based oppression. Climate change. Apparently they are all welcome there. Roy commented in a “Democracy Now” interview that it was a strange and beautiful place. In her mind, it is clearly worthy of the numerous pages devoted to it. I felt, however, that I was getting “cause fatigue.” The prose is belabored, brimming more with outrage than with stories, and seems more like newspaper reporting, largely impersonal. I did sit up at the occasional startling, brilliant metaphor. The folding of men, the unfolding of women. Murder, rape.
For me, the real story began after the long preamble. In the second and third parts, Roy bears witness, in the grand tradition of Toni Morrison, to deadly serious events in the Kashmir Valley. This is the book’s greatest strength.
In these latter parts, Roy’s prose is powerful and evocative. She describes, for example, a series of connected events at a peaceful event: it starts with a loud sound, perhaps from a juice box being run over, is immediately followed by a startled response with gunfire and rapidly escalates into more deaths, more tragedy. The God of Small Things bore witness to social injustices. From the lens of the surviving family members, the tragedy seemed insurmountable.
As Roy did 20 years ago, in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, she describes in chilling detail the encounters between the powerful - corrupt, and the innocent - powerless. And here too, we get to know the characters, feel their tenderness and pain, their strengths and helplessness, their contentment and outrage, their abiding loves, their deep hatreds.
We meet Tilo, Malayali who goes to Delhi to study architecture, and the three men she meets there who remain in her life in some fashion for decades to come. Musa Yeswi, a Kashmiri who becomes a militant, Naga Hariharan who becomes a well-known journalist and Biplab Dasgupta (called Garson Hobart by the others, after a character he portrayed in a play) who rises in the ranks of India’s Intelligence Bureau. Tilo’s first appearance in the book, as recounted by Garson Hobart, is beautiful and touching. “The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”
And here is a passage so utterly beautiful that I have taken the time to type up several lines.
Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the Line of Control, through moonlit mountain passes manned by soldiers. Night after night, it walked on narrow, stony paths wrapped like thread around blue cliffs of ice, across vast glaciers and high meadows of waist-deep snow. It trudged past young boys shot down in snowdrifts, their bodies arranged in eerie, frozen tableaux under the pitiless gaze of the pale moon in the cold night sky, and stars that hung so low you felt you could almost touch them.
When it arrived in the Valley, it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards.
While there is Urdu poetry all over the place, I was (of course) especially delighted by the appearance of Bengali: “Dekhte besh Rolypoly”, Biplab Dasgupta thinks his Bengali mother might have said in response to a neighbor’s plumpness. Tilo’s Hindi, we learn is hesitant. She remembers a Malayalam nonsense rhyme, scatological like a few in The God of Small Things. I found myself wondering if children in Ayemenen had a larger repertoire of scatological verse than the tamer stuff that my cousins in Aluva, Ernakulam and Parur recited decades ago.
As in The God of Small Things, she describes powerful, menacing men. Major Amrik Singh is a state-sanctioned terror-monger. A sadist, wielding his power violently and terrifyingly. Later, he and wife seek asylum in the United States. Asylum is granted, as convincing stories were told. A strong case was made for escape from police oppression with vivid examples drawn from personal experience. But unbeknownst to the social worker helping build their case, the experience was not on the receiving side, but on the delivering side.
Amrik Singh is a man who physically abuses his wife, and has done so since they were married. In India, his violence does not go unnoticed, but is unpunished. In America, he is arrested for assaulting his wife. His information becomes public and suddenly, he is outed from hiding. Numerous interested parties come by to see how the Butcher of Kashmir spends his days. No longer protected by a state, he crumbles.
In another wrenching description of violence against women, the mother of little Miss Jebeen the Second, Comrade Maase Revathy, reveals her gang rape by the police, and how her account was dismissed and ignored by callous party leaders.
In the case of Amrik Singh, the justice that is unattainable in India is served in America. Not to say that America is free of state-sanctioned oppression and torture, of course. Recall Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay in just the recent past. But does the truth come to the surface faster in the US than in does in India, I wondered. The wheels of justice turn slowly everywhere, but they seem glacially slow in India.
On the other hand. Setting war aside for a moment, I thought of the glacial slowness in the United States in righting the injustices endured by African Americans. The racism is ingrained, institutionalized. No black man or woman (and often child) in America is free from the daily slights, the insults, the violence, the tragedies. The daily battles with racism add up to the trauma of an all-out war, and the helplessness and resistance of the people of Kashmir in their political nightmare is similar in many ways. Religion, unlike the color of one’s skin, can be disguised, and thus, Musa, chameleon-like, survives longer than most.
The book ends on a note of hope, with a quiet appreciation of the happiness found in day-to-day activities, among trusted friends. Somehow, after the chilling tales that went before, I found that vaguely unsatisfying. But, but, I thought, what of…? And how about…? How can justice be served? How can we right these wrongs? Are we just going to stop there?
As I grappled with my reaction, I remembered this sobering section from Tilo’s diary, sly, yet sincere:
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.
Q1: Why is it not sophisticated?
Q2: What is the acceptable amount of blood for literature?
On reflecting further, I recalled that Roy had offered one possible (if improbable) outcome in the words and hopes of Musa, who believes that justice will be served one day. That what befell Amrik Singh will befall India. In the book, Biplab Dasgupta, a man of great reflection, reflects on this as well.
Not long after I finished reading the Ministry, I went with my daughter to watch the movie “Wonder Woman”.
At the end, the most spectacular and wonderful Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (aka Wonder Woman), says “I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both. … And now I know... that only love can truly save the world.”
And in those words, I found my peace with the ending of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.