Mona Ahmed at the graveyard, 1998. Photograph by Dayanita Singh ('Myself Mona Ahmed', printed 2008)
On 27 May The Guardian published an exclusive extract from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and as somebody who had savoured Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize-winning novel God of Small Things, I was naturally drawn to this appetiser.
The narrative of Utmost Happiness comes across as a self-assured piece of writing that reminds one of an unassuming adult, whose expectations are informed by experience, and who is not inundated by fortuitous developments but seeks premeditated growth (unlike hormone-ravaged teenagers, who are blown away by their own rapid development). In other words, Roy's narrative is revealing yet not overwhelmingly so; her language is suggestive and effusive, yet with a solid handle on reality—albeit, the kind of reality that remains reserved for the margins, almost unreal to most.
As I read the paragraphs, and as Anjum as a character began to slowly unfurl, a strong sense of familiarity came over me.
The first two chapters gradually put together the protagonist's image. The protagonist is described as a "clown without a circus, queen without a palace—she let the hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain."
The story continues:
Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. "You mean I've made a khichdi of their story?" she asked. "What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?" The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he'd made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn't a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, "It doesn't matter. I'm all of them, I'm Romi and Juli, I'm Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I'm not Anjum, I'm Anjuman. I'm a mehfil, I'm a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone's invited."
By the time the reader comes across the passage above he or she is pretty sure that as far as the protagonist or the author is concerned, "he" or "she"—as distinct gender classifications—can now be rendered null and void. As Anjum points out, the story is about a person who is "of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing." And soon afterwards, the account of Anjum's birth confirms what we have been suspecting all along.
In Urdu, the only language she [Jahanara Begum, Anjum's mother] knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.
"...lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home". This social recluse had also baffled the friendly imam with the following question: "Where do old birds go to die? Do they fall on us like stones from the sky? Do we stumble on their bodies in the streets? Do you not think that the All-Seeing, Almighty One who put us on this Earth has made proper arrangements to take us away?"
This Urdu-speaking, bird-loving, graveyard-dwelling eunuch is a bold and refreshing addition to the otherwise hackneyed stockpile of protagonists that pop up in stories, films, and more recently, in web series as well. However, as I read the paragraphs, and as Anjum as a character began to slowly unfurl, a strong sense of familiarity came over me. It felt as if I had known Anjum all along. Once I was convinced that I knew her from somewhere, it did not take long to see through Arundhati Roy's Anjum, and discover Dayanita Singh's Mona Ahmed beaming back at me.
If indeed the excerpt is a true representation of the entire book, the success of her novel will ultimately rest on Arundhati Roy's ability to turn Mona Ahmed's life into Anjum's story.
Back in 2001, the noted photographer Dayanita Singh, who has recently concluded her phenomenally successful exhibition Museum Bhavan, had chronicled through photographs slices of Mona Ahmed's life. The book Myself Mona Ahmed, which is categorised as a "mix of photobook, biography, autobiography and fiction", presents to the world Mona, the unique eunuch from Old Delhi with whom Dayanita had developed a friendship more than a decade long. Mona can be seen in many of these photographs posing with the tomb stones of the graveyard, or cloistered in her niche—a dirty concrete nook with bird droppings all around. In yet another one, this social outcast—surrounded by a half-dozen ducks—can be seen hugging a black dog, a morose look on her face.
Mona Ahmed was born in Old Delhi in 1937, and was initially mistaken to be a boy by her parents. Roy's Anjum, who hails from Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi, shares the same backstory. Although in the excerpt we are only aware of her mother's reaction, it is quite evident that both her parents, who were keen on having a boy after giving birth to three daughters, were similarly disappointed when they realised Anjum was an outlier. Moreover, other biographical details, eccentricities, and the inimitable charisma of Mona's personality find an echo in Anjum's story, whether it is her love for animals, exclusion from family and the eunuch community, or simply, her life among the dead.
Mona Ahmed's life has been well documented in photographs, articles and films. Over the years she has emerged as an icon of sorts for the Third Gender. To tell a story of a person whose stories have been already told is a challenge that not many established authors will dare to take up, especially when making a much-anticipated comeback after 20 years. If indeed the excerpt is a true representation of the entire book, the success of her novel will ultimately rest on Arundhati Roy's ability to turn Mona Ahmed's life into Anjum's story. Therefore, the promise of Utmost Happiness will be met when the plot matches Roy's prowess with words, and when instead of merely developing, the story begins to grow and assumes a life of its own.
[This blog was written after reading the excerpt of The Ministry Of Utmost Happinesspublished in The Guardian on the 27th of May 2017. Since then a reliable source has confirmed that indeed Anjum's characterisation is partially based on Mona Ahmed and that Arundhati Roy has acknowledged in the book her debt to Dayanita Singh.]