Author: Arundhati Roy
Publisher: Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd
Price: Rs. 599
Arundhati Roy is the author of two books of fiction. The first being the The God of Small Things and the second being the recently released The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. That it took two decades to publish her second piece of fiction (she wrote other non-fiction books in the interim), has left many readers aching for far too long. But as Arundhati Roy re-emerges after a long hiatus, she produces a complex text which is an admixture of fiction and the political thought she has affiliated to in the two decades between the two books. The Booker Prize winning author’s own life journey has had its share of conflict due to the stands she’s taken on volatile issues that have engulfed India. But if you remove Roy’s personal journey and India’s current political climate, and evaluate the book itself as a literary piece, you might get disappointed. But if one reads on and contextualises its subtle meanings and its relevance to the ‘Duniya’ in which we live in, then a small window opens up where all of it comes together. What brings it together? Perhaps it is the reader’s own life experience.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness describes the journeys of two women. The first being Anjum, and the second being Tilottama. Anjum wasn’t born a woman or a man, but chooses to be a woman, and life takes her to ‘Khwabgah’ where she lives among a community of Hijras (transgenders). Anjum’s journey is complex because she battles a constant violence which exists inside her body, while living in the environment of violence that exists in the ‘Duniya’ around her. She adopts a child and experiences motherhood and calms her demons inside, but she can’t fight the demons outside. She witnesses murder and is almost killed herself because of a massacre that erupts after sixty Hindu pilgrims on a train are burned alive by ‘miscreants’ in Ahmedabad. Anjum leaves Khwabgah and makes way to the graveyard, the only place where she can find some solace.
The second story is that of Tilottama, who is in love with ‘Musa’. She has an admirer in her landlord, but eventually marries another man. Her personal journey is a representation of the politically volatile Kashmir because her lover ‘Musa’ is from the valley. He has loved, lost, struggled and lived in its complexity and accepted his facticity and is now trying to make a change. His losses can be witnessed through Tilottama’s eyes. The armed forces plague the valley with their torture and a dystopia is created much like the Orwellian 1984, just that in this dystopia there is no big brother but an ‘Amrik Singh’ who is also called the butcher of Kashmir. Tilottama, with her adopted daughter ‘Miss Jebeen, the second’, eventually lands up in the same graveyard where Anjum lives, to silence her demons.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a framework where a clear political message is imbibed into the structure of a narrative. Many of the episodes and characters in the book are the ones which we know. ‘The Poet Prime Minister’, ‘Gujarat ka Lalla’, and the ‘saffron parakeets’ aren’t ambiguous terms, but specific figures that have lived and breathed in the politics of India, and Roy’s direct attack on them is evident. There is no grey in these characters, their hearts are black and power is fundamental.
Kashmir and its struggle for self -determination is also another extremely important theme in the book’s narrative. The portrayal of the Indian army in the said struggle is again a reinforcement of all the literature, and cinema, that has emerged out of the valley. Be it the play Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar or the film Haider by Vishal Bhardwaj, these pieces of art have very strongly condemned India’s part in the struggle, showing India as the outsider, and not the country that Kashmir belongs to. In fact, at no point in the book does ‘Musa’ consider India as his own country. It is evident from his manner of speaking and the sentiment of utter alienation.
Many political commentators have written about Kashmir and the struggle for ‘Azadi’, some providing ridiculously simplistic solutions to its problems. One among them is Chetan Bhagat, the bestselling author of many novels. The open letter he wrote to the Kashmiri youth had a rational argument which wanted the youth of Kashmir to assimilate with India because it is their best bet, Pakistan is a bad option because they are not a stable country themselves and ‘Azadi’ would be equally problematic because having giant neighbours and no self-sustaining capacity, it would become a hole of drugs and smugglers. Bhagat’s oversimplification of the struggles of living in a war torn valley were answered by an open letter by journalist Barkha Dutt, who provided a humanistic side to the struggles of living in Kashmir. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a full account of that struggle. The side we are not so privy to. The hopelessness that these youth feel. The losses that these mothers have seen, and the coffins of all those children that have gone inside the beautiful soil of an ironical heaven on Earth.
And so it is apt that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness functions in a graveyard. Its inhabitants are a hijra, a chamar, a bandicoot, and a mother with an adopted child. The histories of these people, is in a way, the struggle of India. When ‘Dystopia’ or ‘Duniya’ unfolds, there aren’t simple rational answers. But it doesn’t have to stay that way, because there is hope as there is always a new history born, which is yet to unfold.