“A single book could contain so much of everything, so much anguish and joy and love and war and death and life, so much of being human” – is how Anita Felicelli in Los Angeles Review reacted to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy's latest novel. As she observes, this is the kind of book that makes one feel that life is worth living.
Written 20 years after The God of Small Things, Roy's new book focuses on a world where “people, communities, castes, races and even countries –carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market” (Roy). The Ministry of Utmost Happiness ties the two strings of its plot—a hermaphrodite or a 'hijra' named Anjum from old Delhi, and a woman called Tilottoma who has three lovers from sundry backgrounds. Millennial India is portrayed in the novel through the eyes of these people. Roy depicts thereby the debasement of life through commercialization in her times, and in the process, confirms her position as a writer committed to critiquing capitalism and globalization.
In her wonderfully woven narrative Roy beguiles the reader into seeing what most Indians tend not to see: the 'khawabgah' or dreamland that is the counterpart of duniya or the world, and a resistant Kashmir that is the counterpart of “rising” globalizing India. Roy draws attention to the dark nature of events in contemporary India and puns grotesquely with the phrase 'utmost happiness'. The implications of the pun (and the title) become clear when Aftab aka Anjum is asked by another hijra, Nimmo Gorakhpuri, “D' you know why God made Hijras? He decided to create … a living creature that is incapable of happiness.”
A complex turn in relationships make all the major characters meet at Jannat Guest House, located between graves in an Old Delhi graveyard. There is a sense of extremes coming together in the novel and of juxtapositions of government forces and separatists, aristocrats and the homeless, the colluding media and critiques of globalization. The net result is the reader's encounter with a wonderland gone awry. The plot brings together diverse fragments of Indian society in such a manner that the reader is ready to suspend his disbelief at what he or she encounters: Muslims, dalits, hijras, Kashmiris, abandoned children and stray dogs. Such deprived sections of Indian society constitute in the narrative an incredible assortment of beings whose stories contribute powerfully to a narrative dedicated to the underprivileged ones of the world who are brutalized by the so-called “progress” bestowed by globalization. Delhi, as the novel describes it, was “to become supercapital of the world's favourite new superpower.”
India! India! The chant had gone up – on TV shows, on music videos, in foreign newspapers and magazines, at business conferences and weapon fairs, at economic conclaves and environmental summits, at book festivals and beauty contests. India! India! India! But the novel looks at the world from the viewpoint of the oppressed and not from that of the upholders of, “shining India.” Thus we meet Aftab, a boy born with girl parts, and Anjum, a woman captured within a male body, who one day decides to leave home and start living with the hijras. The growth of New Delhi as well as the decaying old Delhi is seen through the eyes of Anjum; her experience becomes the centre point of an India experiencing riots.
In a Gujarati shrine, Anjum is caught up in a massacre of Hindu pilgrims. The consequent government action against Muslims brings about a dramatic change in her clothing and mind. Saddam, a young low caste Hindu working in the mortuary whose psychological upheaval made him change his religion in private, is another victim of the riot.
India's apparent peacefulness, the novel suggests, is achieved at the cost of the death of thousands such as Saddam's father. His death triggers a sense of revenge in Saddam and he carries out a vigil for the murderer of his father, although there is no single murderer to be found.
Tilottoma is an abandoned child whose own mother adopted her, and she is set in a world where living means refusing the luxuries of the world and looking at it with melancholic indifference. Nagaraj and Biplab come from the upper or upper middle class of India, and their narratives depend on how each observes the deception of globalization and progress –sometimes indifferently, and sometimes in self-imposed delirium. Musa, the Kashmiri underground leader and Tilottoma's lover, comes back from a feigned death with the wind of change that blows at the end. The personal is political and vice versa in the novel.
One interesting aspect in the novel is the lost and recovered children. Zainab is raised by Anjum, bringing happiness and change in her life, and Jebeen is abducted by Tilottoma. Her upbringing by the mothers in Jannat Guest House is given importance. The little girl signals change in this terror-stricken world. The tiny dung beetle Guih Kyom, therefore, senses that everything would turn out alright.
The question for the critical reader at the end of the novel is whether the forced optimism in its final pages has been worked works out effectively, especially since there remain hundreds of exploiters like Amrik Singhs and all kind of syndicates that are prospering so in the twenty-first century. And yet Roy is also a writer who claims to be a twin of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano for whom the great tragedy of humanity wasn't that we die or suffer or make each other suffer; it is that we so often forget what we should remember. Perhaps the author did not after all want to think of the possibility that that there is a world beyond the graveyard for Jebeen, which she must cross to reach the ministry of utmost happiness.
Sabiha Huq is Head of the English Discipline at Khulna University of Technology.