After the publication of her Booker Prize-winning debut and international bestseller “The God of Small Things” in 1997, Arundhati Roy became one of India’s most-celebrated authors and also one of the country’s more notable political voices. Her nonfiction essays and public commentary take clear and sometimes controversial positions on globalization, neo-imperialism and the ongoing conflict with Kashmir. With the release of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” Roy merges her energies as a fiction writer and an activist, shaping a rich narrative that’s as complex and multivalent as modern India.
The emotional centers of the novel are Anjum and Tilo, whose lives eventually intersect at Jannat Guest House, Anjum’s compound built in a cemetery, with headstones in each room so that “the battered angels in the graveyard that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack) so that the souls of the present and the departed could mingle.” The house attracts outsiders like Anjum, a hermaphrodite. This includes Hijras (transwomen), but also orphans, political refugees and the troubled victims of India’s religious battles between and within the Muslim and Hindu communities. With each newcomer comes a story of injustice from the pages of Indian history.
Anjum’s journey carries her through the streets of New Delhi, from the era of Indira Gandhi to the digital age, always in search of that role that will complete her — motherhood. In the meantime, she’s more like a midwife, ushering lost souls into her sanctuary, which offers respite from the deafening noise of protest and violence. “I’m a gathering,” she says. “Everyone’s invited.”
Among those who take refuge is Saddam Hussein, a sight-impaired young man who changed his name (in order to inhabit the disdain his namesake had for his executioners) after the killing of his father at the hands of a higher caste mob. “I want to pay it like that,” he says, promising revenge upon the corrupt police officer he blames for his father’s death. Until that day arrives, he serves as the mortician for those — the impoverished, the pariahs — who are denied funeral services in the city.
Another taking refuge with Anjum is Tilo, an architect-turned-activist whose reserved nature keeps her mysterious and distant— an ideal keeper of the smuggled files, eyewitness testimonies and notebooks that document the travesties committed against citizens of Kashmir as the state fought for secession from India.
Since the book is structured nonlinearly, before the reader is treated to the crux of Tilo’s story, Roy offers the story of the man who will become Tilo’s captor, Amrik Singh, who thrived in a time when “there wasn’t much daylight between caution and paranoia” and “dying became just another way of living.”
Singh commits heinous acts as an officer in the Indian army. In the book, these serve less as a critique of India’s complicated relationship to Kashmir than to reflect on the culture of war that has become endemic in the social discourse of day-to-day interactions. This is why every life in this book is not spared a physical assault or an egregious personal loss, not even Singh. Garson Hobart, one of Tilo’s suitors, says it best: “It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist — continue to live together, tolerate each other, and from time to time, murder one another.”
For Tilo, the saving grace of her sacrifices for the Kashmiri cause is contained in the copious paperwork she guards in her apartment. The archive is evidence of the unofficial narratives ignored by history and the headlines — preserving the memory of the people (including her lover) is security against erasure, revision and forgetting. Accused of aiding a political dissident, she’s interrogated by Singh but mercifully released. She bides her time in a state of sadness and silence in an unhappy marriage of convenience until her chance encounter with Anjum’s motley crew.
In an effort to connect with Tilo after she leaves for Jannat Guest House, Garson Hobart also immerses himself in the hidden files and notebooks detailing their country’s internal strife. When he comes across a poem by Tilo — How do you tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything — the phrasing brings the novel full circle to Anjum’s “Everyone’s invited,” and suddenly the patchwork of narratives becomes perhaps too simplistically justified, an expeditious exit for the author, much like Tilo’s recognition that her place is among her tribe at the graveyard, where the living and the dead surrender to redemptive peace, not to strenuous anxiety.
It is also difficult to ignore the number of instances Roy’s prose offers, depending on the disposition of the reader, either political propaganda or empowering messages like this dire, final warning that can be applied to any fight around the globe in which the underdog confronts the oppressor: “You may have blinded all of us, every one of us, with your pellet guns by then. But you will still have eyes to see what you have done to us. You’re not destroying us. You are constructing us. It’s yourselves that you are destroying.”
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” unfolds in that liminal space between novel and history lesson, which might disappoint all but her most ardent fans since the fictional story appears to have been written in service to the nonfiction content. Yet there are plenty of moments of dazzling wording and surprising exchanges between her characters to keep readers interested in sloughing through the density of information. Patience occasionally cedes a reward when a story within the story bursts open, allowing one more compelling glimpse into India’s soul. Thankfully, those moments are not few, nor do they lack gravity — but neither do they accumulate into something more substantial. By the end, the fragmented narrative remains just that: pieced together, occasionally engaging and never quite fulfilling.
González is critic-at-large at the L.A. Times and is professor at Rutgers-Newark.
Knopf: 464 pp., $28.95