Rip Van Winkle woke up after a slumber of 20 years in a world he no longer recognised. Arundhati Roy, the novelist, has also emerged from a literary hibernation lasting two decades, with a work of fiction that the world may find hard to recognise for what it is.
From its hyperbolic title to its cumbersome expanse, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is everything that Roy's first, Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things (1997) is not. The God of Small Things was a testimony to her shining originality, experiments with Rushdie-like nonce words and a heightened reality that were seamlessly woven into a politically and socially bristling storyline.
Her characters—Rahel, Estha, Mammachi, Velutha, Baby Kochamma and the rest—are alive in our minds for these intervening years for a reason. They were exasperating, fallible, endearing, tragic, but most of all, unselfconsciously human. Not for a moment did they strike as insubstantial or hollow receptacles of social and political agenda.
The contrast couldn't have been starker with Roy's second fictional offering.
Apart from being frustratingly rambling, the Ministry is shockingly uneven in its register. Soaring to flights of irony and poetry one moment, plunging into anodyne reportage the next, it appears to be composed by several minds and hands, unable to decide its tone and texture. More worryingly, the plot seems to stick together multiple strands of narratives with the merest excuse of a literary scotch tape—without too much care, or perhaps with such exquisite design that eludes the lesser mortals.
Roy appears to have anticipated these reactions already in the coda on the cover: "How to tell a shattered story?" she seems to ask rhetorically. "By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."
That's precisely what Ministry attempts to do: take a panoramic view of violence, injustice, suffering over decades of India's history and turn it all into a living, pulsating, human story. If Roy begins with a tenderly imagined biography of a hijra called Anjum (modelled, quite obviously, on the famous Mona Ahmed), her plot soon begins to sprout a million heads like the mythical Hydra. Before long, it becomes an exercise in ticking boxes.
Apart from being frustratingly rambling, the Ministry is shockingly uneven in its register
The Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, 9/11, the unrest in Kashmir, Maoist insurgency, atrocities against Dalits, the rise of the gau rakshaks, the saffron wave, Modi's ascendancy (he's referred to as "Gujarat ka Lalla"), the anti-corruption brigade of Anna Hazare, the advent of Arvind Kejriwal (disguised as the bumbling Mr Aggarwal): it's as though Roy pours her years of stellar non-fiction into a melting pot of liberal outrage and stirs it in with some fictional garnish (transgenders, female sexuality, homeless people, missing babies, terrorists).
If the transition from Anjum's story to that of the enigmatic Tilottama's seems abrupt, the two appear to be connected at least by an unbroken chain of stereotypes.
Anjum runs away from home to live with a community of hijras, who seem to be caught in a time warp. They spend their days applying surma, listening to the soundtrack of Mughal-e-Azam, talking about the good old times of yore, making profound observations about their destiny (as one says, the real "riot" is within them and it's as bad as "Indo-Pak" in there) and reciting Urdu poetry—every syllable of which is dutifully translated for the benefit of the non-Indian reader.
As if on cue, a blind imam enters the plot, followed by two foundling girls, a Dalit man who pretends to be a Muslim, and a menagerie of animals, whose mute presence provides a welcome relief from the throbbing intensity of their human counterparts.
Tilottama, or Tilo as she is referred to, is unmoored from her past in Kerala and estranged from her Syrian Christian mother (almost a carbon copy of Mammachi in GoST). Tilo's strident unconventionality is writ all over her. Her dark complexion, laconic nature, alert presence and every breath she takes are burdened with layers of meaning. Her psychic faculties are high-strung: a baby's bones "whisper" to her in the night, she lived "in the country of her own skin ... that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates", "her eyes were broken glass" and the "traffic inside her head seemed to have stopped believing in traffic lights."
She is courted by three men: an alcoholic high-ranking government official called Biplob Dasgupta (nicknamed Garson Hobart by Tilo after a character in a college play) posted in Kashmir, a journalist of South Indian stock but resident of diplomatic Delhi, and a Kashmiri, co-opted by his tragedies into militancy, who becomes Tilo's enduring link to the state. Her peregrinations across the war-torn valley and encounter with its people constitute some of the most powerful sections of the book, though, once again, Roy's anxiety to fill in the reader with stacks of historical information tends to dilute the human impact of the story.
What I have said so far perhaps sounds rather crude as literary criticism, but the Ministry doesn't lend itself to subtlety. For a reader in India, especially coming to it from the audacious GoST, it may feel unabashedly tame, written for an audience who have a passing acquaintance or vague curiosity about the wonder that is Incredible India. If Roy studiously avoided being the literary guide to India for the West in GoST, she seems to have embraced it with an earnestness one would never have expected of her.
If it's not the dreadful clichés about East and West, it's the ones that involve Us and Them that are rolled into the texture of this sprawling Rashomon-like narrative. In a world of binaries, Tilo is the drifter, who is forever lurking between spaces, existing like an overwrought literary conceit or a shape-shifting chameleon who holds a mirror up to the English-reading, bleeding heart, middle class reader and the characters in the book.
For a self-confessed fan of Roy, with dependable reserves of patience, I was on the verge of conceding defeat a number of times. They say the devil is in the details. Truer words were hardly spoken. For several times, I was tempted to do the unthinkable—skip pages of self-indulgent monologues spoken in simile-studded prose by men and women on the verge of nervous breakdown or personal confessions that have little relevance to the action.
When Roy is in form, the crystalline clarity of her prose glitters off the page, the less she labours over a point, the more effectively it pricks our conscience. We glimpse her impish humour and human affinities most luminously when she homes in on individuals and their stories, instead of putting in everything that has ever happened to them to the service of writing contemporary history. Had those precious moments been gathered together with more ruthlessness and craft, we would have had superior fiction from her—not just a gargantuan handbook to modern India and its injustices.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (₹599) is published by Hamish Hamilton, Penguin.
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