The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Title: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Author: Arundhati Roy 

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

From the very first page of this densely packed novel of modern India, Arundhati Roy makes it clear that this will be as much a polemic as a work of fiction. Within a few lines, a poetic evocation of the “magic hour” between day and night changes tack to become an account of the decimation of India’s vultures, the “friendly old birds”, once so vital to India’s social and natural ecosystems. This brief prelude to the long-awaited follow-up of The God of Small Things sums up much of what is to come in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a teeming, kaleidoscopic, sometimes overly didactic novel, in which poetry and polemic sit side-by-side.

We begin in Shahjahanabad, the crowded city of “Old Delhi”, once the thriving heart of India’s Mughal empire, now the overcrowded, dilapidated “vibrant ghetto” where Delhi’s Muslim population seem “content enough”. Aftab, a much-wanted baby boy is born to adoring parents and doted on, like all baby boys in India. But Aftab’s mother knows that all is not what it seems, that her boy-child is both male and female. After a childhood of confusion, and years of misguided treatments and botched operations to suppress his female side, Aftab eventually becomes Anjum, a Hijra and member of India’s transgender community whose role in Indian society has always been clearly marked out. Happy to be among like-minded souls in the haveli known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, Anjum learns that even here she will not find peace. With their extravagantly feminine attire and exaggerated gestures, the Hijras are a marginalised community, at war with their own natures, their masculine and feminine sides locked in on-going internal struggle: “Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down,” her fellow Hijras tell her.

Anjum forges a life for herself and becomes something of a celebrity. But India closes in on her and she finds herself caught up in the riots and massacres in Gujarat in 2003, where a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment and growing Hindu nationalism leads to the slaughter of thousands of Muslims. Anjum is spared by the mob, who fear the bad luck that will befall them if they raise a hand to a Hijra. And while Gujarat’s Chief Minister, with his “cold eyes and vermilion forehead”, turns a blind eye to the massacre of Muslims in his state, the “saffron army” of Hindu nationalists applaud his every move. The man known as Gujarat ka Lalla, Gujarat’s Beloved, will soon be India’s prime minister.

Apocalyptic vision

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 3

‘A teeming, kaleidoscopic novel in which poetry and polemic sit side-by-side.’

As India modernises, the “surplus people” living in the “cracks and fissures” of the burgeoning cities, toil ceaselessly and thanklessly to build the gleaming towers. While professionals thrive and shoppers stroll in air-conditioned malls, the poor eke out their existence, living on roadsides, where the air is “chemical, the water poisonous.” Roy gives us an apocalyptic vision of modern India, a society riven with corruption and injustices. Her narrative lays bare the underlying inequities of the caste system and speaks of mobs of “saffron men bearing swords and tridents” who slaughter Muslims and low-caste Hindus in the name of their religion. The “saffron parrakeets” are intent on making India a homeland for Hindus, where the cow is sacred and any suspected infringement of laws to protect the sacred beast is a legitimate cause for riot and murder. Anjum’s friend and fellow Hijra, a Dalit (or “untouchable” as they were once known) who goes by the name of Saddam Hussein, tells of her father’s death at the hands of one such mob.

Anjum’s awakening to the terrors of the Duniya, the world beyond the Khwabgah, marks a turn in the novel to a more overtly political tone. Roy seizes the opportunity to inform her readers and fill the pages of her book with the fruits of her twenty years of activism. She is relentless in her will to expose the hypocrisy and violence upon which India’s prosperity is being built, and it is here that for some critics, this novel falls down. Long passages that seem to do no more than document cases of injustice, with little apparent connection to the narrative and its central characters, take up many of the first one hundred and fifty pages. Only with great difficulty can the reader follow the link to the long second section, which tells a new story, delivered in an altogether different tone.

But the threads do all tie together, and the meaty story of four students whose lives are intertwined with the ongoing and convoluted conflict in Kashmir, does indeed lead us back to Anjum’s new home, a graveyard where she has taken up residence after leaving the Khwabghar. Like so many of India’s shanty-town dwellers Anjum now resides in a jerry-built shack, supplied with water and electricity from any source she can tap into. Her shack has grown to become the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services, a refuge for Hijras and misfits. Among them is Tilottama, a fiercely independent, thoroughly modern young woman.

Conflict and uprisings

After a long peroration on the anti-corruption movement of 2011, complete with satirical portraits of most of its leaders, the narrative takes up Tilotama’s story, looping back to her student days when the bonds of love and friendship that would define her life were formed. The tale is told from differing perspectives and plunges us into the heart of the on-going and intractable conflict in Kashmir, a spiralling cycle of uprisings and vicious reprisals in the lakes and mountains of that beautiful state. Tilo’s story revolves around a series of tragedies that amply underline the assertion made by one of the characters that Partition, with its clumsily drawn borders, was quite simply “God’s carotid burst open”.

This is a vast and baggy tale, in which the central character is India itself. Anjum and Tilottama are both marginal creatures, colourful and defiant, threading their way through a harsh, chaotic world, surrounded by a multitude of characters and voices. This novel has been twenty years in the making. For all its flaws and longueurs, it is a novel worthy of its much-celebrated author, and an important addition to the literature of modern India.

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

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