It’s two decades since Arundhati Roy’s first novel - has it been worth the wait?
Book review: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Indian uncomfortable truths
Twenty years is a long time to wait for new writing but in the case of Indian writer Arundhati Roy she’s remained deeply engaged with her country over the last two decades. After the huge success of her first novel, The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, Roy has transformed herself into one of the world’s most incisive observers of India’s supposed economic boom. Roy calls it a “lie”.
For her outspokenness on human rights, including abuses in Kashmir, Roy has faced criminal charges of contempt and sedition. She fled to London last year after fearing for her life. She has written in support of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and remains deeply opposed to injustice around the world.
In her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy tells the story of a transgender woman, Anjum, who lives in a crumbling Delhi neighbourhood. After a massacre in Gujarat – India’s current prime minister Narendra Modhi stands accused of complicity in the killings of Muslims in the same state in 2002 – she flees to a cemetery and establishes a new life there full of colourful characters.
Alongside this narrative is a wider perspective set in Kashmir. As she recently told the Guardian, these two sections become one book because, “geographically, Kashmir is riven through with borders, and everybody in the book has a border running through them,” she said. “So it’s a book about, how do you understand these borders?”
Roy is scathing of India’s behaviour in Kashmir, accusing the military of torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances. It’s a place where darkness envelops its victims but also entrances its many visitors through natural beauty. As one character Musa is described: “He knew that Kashmir had swallowed him and he was now parts of its entrails … In the heart of a filthy war, up against a bestiality that is hard to imagine, he did what he could to persuade his comrades to hold on to a semblance of humanity, to not turn into the very thing they abhorred and fought against.”
Throughout the book, Roy conjures up imagery reminiscent of the finest magical realism of novelist Salman Rushdie but she never strays far from real life. In one striking passage, Roy utilises her wit and sarcasm to devastating effect, mimicking those who blindly admire or celebrate India (or any country?) without question: “Compared to Kabul, or anywhere else in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or for that matter any other country in our neighbourhood (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Syria – Good God!), this foggy little back lane, with its everyday humdrumness, its vulgarity, its unfortunate but tolerable inequities, its donkeys and its minor cruelties, is like a small corner of paradise.
“Children play at ringing doorbells, not at being suicide bombers. We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes, but these are only aberrations.”
Roy wants readers to understand that state-backed violence across India is central to economic benefits for the minority who have become enriched through destructive neo-liberal policies. One can’t happen without the other. This violence permeates the book because so many characters either suffer because of it or inflict it on the less fortunate. This could be physical or psychological and the author is often explicit in her descriptions. This is an India that’s far away from the glossy tourist brochures advertising a tranquil holiday at the Taj Mahal. This section could be written by any number of Indian critics about Roy herself, incensed that a citizen of their country dares to publicly shame the human rights abuses of the current and previous governments. Roy’s life is committed to those less fortunate than her, more marginalised and hated by the majority. It’s where the best writers should always be.
It’s hard not to be transported to India with Roy’s love and revulsion of her birth country. The book isn’t a dry exercise in political culture but a rich and detailed look at a nation that overwhelms visitors and citizens. Roy is unforgiving of its mainstream leadership but embraces the myriad of characters she has created.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a fascinating and complex book – about modern India that will challenge anybody who thinks they understand the world’s largest self-described democracy. Roy wants readers to be uncomfortable with characters that sparkle with humanity, wit and anger. It’s hard not to be seduced with a work that forces us to confront what populations in democracies routinely don’t see or choose to ignore. This is as relevant in India as in Palestine.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.