It’s been two decades since Indian writer Arundhati Roy startled the world with her debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” which won the Booker Prize and became a modern-day classic. But as the years passed, it seemed Roy had turned away from fiction, dedicating herself instead to writing about imperative political causes such as nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation and Kashmiri independence. Even as her fame increased, so did the attacks against her, from accusations of pomposity to charges of contempt, obscenity and sedition.
Now, in an era that feels impossibly removed from 1997, comes her second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” a book always threatening to surge beyond its covers. Truly, this is a remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains.
It will not convert Roy’s political enemies, but it will surely blast past them. Here are sentences that feel athletic enough to sprint on for pages, feinting in different directions at once, dropping disparate allusions, tossing off witty asides, refracting competing ironies. This is writing that swirls so hypnotically that it doesn’t feel like words on paper so much as ink in water. Every paragraph dares you to keep up, forcing you finally to stop asking questions, to stop grasping for chronology and just trust her.
Summarizing “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” feels like trying to capture the Ganges in a teacup, but here’s a sip. The story opens in Delhi with the much-celebrated birth of a boy whose mother discovers, with horror, that her baby also has “a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.” The father embarks on a “cultural project of inculcating manliness,” but despite those efforts, the child finds “himself wanting to be her.” Freedom, of a sort, comes only at the age of 15, when this young person takes the name Anjum, steps through “an ordinary doorway into another universe” and joins a community of intersex individuals called hijras. These people, a separate gender with a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, maintain a unique position in South Asia, alternately tolerated, revered and denigrated.
In a bit of tragicomedy typical of this novel, Anjum becomes a media celebrity, a favorite of journalists and filmmakers who want to expose the plight of hijras. Anjum’s own complaints, though, are more spiritual than cultural or political. A wise friend assures her that “Hijras were chosen people, beloved of the Almighty,” but Anjum struggles for years for respect, for love and, most of all, for motherhood.
Roy captures a world full of secret lives and cloistered sanctuaries where no one can exist for long outside the factional hatred consuming India. The animus between Hindus and Muslims generates a cycle of terror that eventually snags Anjum and almost destroys her. Shattered, she moves to a graveyard and builds makeshift rooms above her buried relatives. The structure that develops is like something Steven Millhauser might conceive, an ever-evolving compound that becomes a funeral parlor and gives shelter to rejected people. The Jannat Guest House, as it’s called, also serves as a locus for all the fantastical side stories that Roy spins in this great tempest of a novel — from the man who awakens from each epileptic seizure with a different personality to the friend who dreams of emulating Saddam Hussein. Anjum turns no one away and neither does Roy.
So invested in this colorful graveyard community do we become that it’s something of a shock — in a book of shocks — to find ourselves suddenly in what feels like another novel altogether. The second half of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” introduces a new set of characters and encompasses a much wider canvas to capture the ongoing struggle for Kashmir independence.
In a demonstration of Roy’s tonal range, this section begins in the ironic voice of an Indian government official named Garson Hobart. For years, Garson has been struggling to uphold his country’s militant objectives while also maintaining his friendship with some radicalized friends from college. “It gives me great pride to be a servant to the Government of India,” he tells us, but the labor of constantly rationalizing his nation’s atrocities has driven him to alcohol and close to a nervous breakdown. “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg. Its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence,” he says. “As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis, it helps to take the long view.”
In that same cool voice, Garson goes on to describe India’s counterterrorism endeavors, a program without scruples, sowing confusion everywhere and ignoring the most grotesque human rights abuses in the name of bringing peace to Kashmir. “It made for the perfect war,” he notes, “a war that can never be won or lost, a war without end” — a statement that will resonate even with Americans who know nothing of the Indian-Kashmiri conflict.
Garson’s pickled cynicism gives way to raw suffering when Roy plunges us into the lives of his old college friends: Musa, now a Kashmiri freedom fighter of almost mystical status, and Tilo, the woman he loves. Theirs is a harrowing tale of life on the razor’s edge, knitting together false identities, slipping between torturers’ bloody fingers and struggling to maintain a decency commensurate to their cause. “This is the worst part of the Occupation,” Musa tells Tilo, “what it makes us do to ourselves.”
Admittedly, Roy sometimes sacrifices coherence in favor of her story’s hurtling movement. The two halves of this novel do eventually connect, but if you have a low tolerance for confusion, loose ends and delayed explanations, you may find this kaleidoscopic story brings the utmost unhappiness. Anyone willing to grab hold, though, will be dazzled by the indefatigable narrative, which is punctuated by transcripts, text messages and newspaper articles — a cacophony of witnesses and perpetrators, victims and liars in a land where “nightmares were promiscuous” and “tombstones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth.”
Roy’s views on the plight of Kashmir are well known and, among some parties, controversial. A few years ago, she co-authored a collection of essays called “Kashmir: The Case for Freedom,” in which she wrote, “The Indian military occupation of Kashmir makes monsters of us all.” Such statements have raised the ire of her political opponents in India and will certainly influence the reception of her new novel. Readers with a different attitude about Kashmir’s rightful status will disagree, but “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” never descends into polemics, no matter how broad its sympathies. It’s a thoroughly absorbing work of art — distinct from Roy’s political statements — a hybrid of satire, romance, thriller and history. It speaks to the universal struggle of minority people to be free and the all too common corruption of governments determined to maintain control.
Late in the novel, Musa, the Kashmiri freedom fighter, can’t forget the murder of a young taxi driver, just one of countless innocent people casually snuffed out in this perpetual conflict. “That story had always stayed with him,” Roy writes, “perhaps because of the way hope and grief were woven together in it, so tightly, so inextricably.”
So too with this vast novel, which will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Arundhati Roy
Knopf. 449pp. $28.95