Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—a bright mosaicArundhati Roy’s second novel is not just one story, but many. Here is a trans woman from Delhi, here is a man from an untouchable background passing himself off as a Muslim, here is a government official retired from a post in Kabul, here is a resistance fighter in Kashmir, here is a woman in the Maoist rebellion in Bastar, here is a rebellious woman who kidnaps an abandoned baby, and more.
Arundhati Roy’s second novel is not just one story, but many. Here is a trans woman from Delhi, here is a man from an untouchable background passing himself off as a Muslim, here is a government official retired from a post in Kabul, here is a resistance fighter in Kashmir, here is a woman in the Maoist rebellion in Bastar, here is a rebellious woman who kidnaps an abandoned baby, and more. Indeed, from time to time the birds and the beetles become as important as the people in this narrative.
This scene seemed to me to sum up the unique flavour of the novel: an owl is looking through a window; inside the room, a woman is lying with a sleeping baby she has kidnapped. The reader is eager to leave the owl’s point of view and move into the woman’s mind; we’ve heard about her and this baby already, and we want to understand what is going to happen to them. But the woman is dreaming about a weevil teaching ethics and quoting a contemporary philosopher on why we should never rely on pity. “Evil Weevils always make the cut,” says some graffiti on the weevil’s classroom wall. The woman’s interior monologue descends further and further into the surreal, as alligators, lizards and a “neocon newt” crowd into the classroom. After a couple of pages, the scene cuts off and we switch point of view again, this time to the woman’s ex-husband. What links the baby and the woman is left behind, to be continued much later in the novel.
“How to tell a shattered story?” one of the characters reads in his lover’s notebook towards the end, in a statement that also appears on the cover. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Clearly, Roy’s scattershot narrative is deliberate; it reflects the fragmentation of the world around us. But there are dangers inherent in the attempt to become everybody and everything, and her clashing subplots and whimsical digressions can become rather unwieldy.
The publication of this novel, 20 years after Roy’s Booker prize-winning debut The God of Small Things, comes with great expectations. That book also used a rather jagged style, but moulded it into a narrative with a fierce emotional pull. I don’t think I will ever forget the cloying taste of the lemonade in that cinema where dark things happened, or the desiring glances between the doomed lovers. Even apparently incidental details had weight, and the characters moved vividly through the densely imagined scenes.
Although this follow-up has been so long in the making, it feels less polished than Roy’s first novel. Perhaps this could even be the result of its long gestation, rather like the experience that one of the characters has of painting his floor, whose surface becomes more broken the longer it is left. “I notice that my experiment with the red cement floor has failed. I wanted a floor with a deep, soft shine, like those graceful old houses down south. But here, over the years, the summer heat has leached the colour from the cement and the winter cold has caused the surface to contract and shatter into a pattern of hairline cracks.”
This fragmented effect is partly down to the vast cast of characters. At times, Roy’s desire to capture all sorts of diverse stories works brilliantly. Her opening depiction of the life of the trans woman, or hijra, Anjum, for instance, is intriguing. There is nothing overly dramatic about Anjum’s recognition that she is a woman, no terror involved in her passage from her family into the commune where she lives most of her life. She is scornful when film-makers, NGOs and foreign correspondents try to feed off her tragedy: “Others have horrible stories, the kind you people want to write about,” she says. Instead of overdone trauma, we get acutely angled insight into what it might be like for her, finding a community where she is accepted but also coming into the realisation that she will never be really at peace with herself. As another hijra says to her, “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.”
The sense that many of the most important wars and riots are inside, not outside, the characters, is vital to the impact of this novel. Nobody is at peace, everyone is restless with unsaid memories and unattained dreams. But some characters are much less realised than Anjum; they brush past us and hardly draw us into their world. This decision to bring in so many varied voices feels political, as if it is Roy’s statement about the need to give attention to those who are so often overlooked by narrators of modern India. We know from her passionate polemics how she feels about the inequalities and injustices of her country, and several of the subjects she has written about in non-fiction appear here, lightly transmuted into fiction.
By including so many voices Roy may be pressing the point that everyone is as worthy of empathy as everyone else, but at times the effect, strangely, becomes the opposite. Almost every character seems to have some terrible experience of loss—a friend killed in massacres in Gujarat, a father murdered for being an untouchable, an acquaintance beaten to death in the Kashmir resistance, a wife and daughter brutally killed in a crowd shooting—but partly because there are so many of them, it is hard for each dire event to achieve its full force.
Particularly in the scenes in Kashmir, Roy provides a relentless parade of misery. While this may be true to the reality of that region, it is unfortunate that in order to try to bring the horrors to life, she sometimes slips into the kind of purple prose that feels unworthy of her talent, where bodies are “arranged in eerie, frozen tableaux under the pitiless gaze of the pale moon in the cold night sky”. At times, she almost seems to be warning the reader against looking for any point of human sympathy: “Death was everywhere. Death was everything. Career. Desire. Dream. Poetry. Love. Youth itself. Dying became just another way of living … As the war progressed in the Kashmir Valley, graveyards became as common as the multi-storey parking lots that were springing up in the burgeoning cities in the plains.”
But just as I began to feel that her narrative was failing to create the depth it needed to spring fully alive, the perspective changed. Throughout the novel there are glimpses of the important arrival of a new baby, and when we finally find out more about who the baby’s mother is and why the child means so much to the diverse characters, a new and more humane spirit seems to enter the book. There is a moving quality to the way that Roy gathers her cast together around the abandoned child. A sense of community arises as this disparate group of people make new bonds and, symbolically, encourage new life to flourish in a graveyard. Humour makes a welcome return, as does a more grounded sense of relationship and loss.
This vision of building something fine and generous feels all the more honest and hopeful because of the harder journeys of much of the rest of the book. Stick with this novel, give it time to grow, and there are lasting rewards in Roy’s ability to create a bright mosaic out of these fragmented stories.
—©2017 The Guardian