The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"We're jackals who feed on other people's happiness, we're Happiness Hunters."
In a thought provoking 1973 short story titled "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (which you can read here), Ursula Le Guin describes the Utopian city of Omelas where there is no crime, no police, and enough resources to feed every citizen keeping them happy. However, this city's splendour is contingent on the fact that a single child is kept imprisoned in a basement cell in constant misery. Would you chose to live in such a city, where the "greatest good" is at the cost of a single unfortunate human's misery? Can a society even aim to become something other than Omelas. India is accused of many things; but never of being Utopia. At least not in the present (some maintain that ancient India was the greatest-everything ever). India is not Omelas. However India, like probably every other country, has a basement cell. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhathi Roy doggedly focuses on this basement cell, where we have imprisoned more, many more, than one single child.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in Delhi and Kashmir for the most part, and deals with the fringes of our society. A transgender woman caught in a man's body; a woman who swears, smokes beedis and refuses to wear make-up; a Kashmiri who has crossed over to the other side and takes arms against India; and an enterprising Dalit who thinks one fringe is better than another, and thereby calls himself Saddaam Hussein. The canvas is epic, as Arundhathi Roy attempts to deal with multiple issues and to tie them up with the modern history of India. She succeeds at times, but falters at most. Her politics and anger seep through her writing, even at the rare moments when she seems to be attempting to subdue them. As a fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is underwhelming. As a call for our empathy, it will polarize people, but needs to be read by Indians who are too proud of their country to not see its many flaws.
Arundhathi Roy's political position is well-known, and she has been praised, awarded, hounded, abused and threatened for her views. The God of Small Things, which brought her to limelight, is a political book too. However beneath the politics it had an emotional story that we could empathize with. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness though, Arundhathi Roy's stance is clear - fiction is an excuse to get across her ideas. The attack on political right is relentless. On Brahmins, the upper class of India (and one to which I belong), she says they "wear their sacred threads inside their safari suits, and their sacred ponytails dangling down the inside of their vegetarian skulls." With her powerful narration, she makes a Ram-Leela celebration feel like a horrific congregation of right-wing goons. India feels like Afghanistan under the Taliban in Khaled Hosseni's A Thosand Splendid Suns. She attacks Indira Gandhi by name, and goes on ridicule and mock modern politicians and contemporary figures by symbolism. Vajpayee (the"lisping poet"), Advani, Anna Hazare ("newest show in the town"), Arvind Kejriwal ("raging, almost uncontrollable, tornado of terrifying righteousness"), Manmohan Singh ("puppet"), and even Chetan Bhagath (through a reference to a book titled "What young India really wants") - no one's safe. The most choicest insults are of course reserved to Narendra Modi ("Lala"). Arundhathi Roy picks on most forms of activism in a scene set in the Delhi Anti-Corruption protests with a tone conveying that every form of activism other than hers is inferior.
She almost spares Muslims. At one point, one of the lead characters says that "We Muslims are motherfuckers too, just like everyone else.. our name is in mud already", but in general she sympathizes with the conditions of Muslims in India. It is probably because Arundhathi Roy feels that Muslims are already disgraced enough in the current climate. What we get instead is a first hand glimpse of Muslim culture and Urdu language. We learn about the equanimity of the Mughal King Muhammad Shah Rangila. Even dead Muslims are better than dead Hindus in her World ("If they were recognizably Muslim they were buried in unmarked graves that disappeared over time and contributed to the richness of the soil and the unusual lushness of the old trees"). She refers to Kashmir as outside India. We do get a bit of an opposing perspective through the character of Biplab Dasgupta (who thinks, "We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes, but these are only aberrations. I feel a rush of anger at those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country. Frankly, they can do it only because they are allowed to. And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy."), but the narrative is overwhelmingly against this view. Now, I am not saying that these are problems that need not be discussed. The rise of the far-right in India is a dangerous sign. Dalits are still ill-treated and rarely considered as equals. We have destroyed our environment to favour corporates and cities. Kashmir is a glaring mess which is becoming worse, and most of the Indians outside Kashmir are frightfully happy to ignore the brutality of Indian Army. However, Arundhathi Roy's views are completely unsympathetic to the idea of India as a country. She refers to the violence in India as the "Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to." She feels that "Normality in our part of the World is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence." I sat-up when we see things (for a very brief while) from the perspective of a Tamil soldier. We learn that this soldier is a Dalit too, and we witness the cruelty with which the upper caste treat him back home.
As a work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness falters often. The two main narratives of Anjum and Tilotamma do not connect seamlessly. There are some glaring logical oversights. A wanted activist (or terrorist, depending on the way you look at it) moving around in disguise carries a photograph of his family with him. Miss Jeban the second stays in a house with Tilotemma which is conveniently "sound-proofed", so that the neighbors do not suspect anything. The whole episode of Anjum's travel to Gujarat is obviously force-fitted so that Arundhathi Roy can describe the 2002 riots (which she does very effectively). Anjum's struggle as a trans-gender is dealt with extremely well, for a while. Once Anjum grows up, she just becomes another character and we do not see much of the practical difficulties such a person faces in India. The God of Small Things had a small element of magical realism. Such moments are present in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness too ("Clouds stopped drifting in the sky, birds froze in mid-flight"), but are few and far between. The book still works despite all this because Arundhathi Roy is a phenomenal writer. She is one of those rare writers who can afford to break all structural rules of fiction, and still ably engage the readers. Her writing is dreamy and trippy at her best, and borders on absurd, but almost always stops on genius. There is no structure to her narration, but this unpredictability adds to the fun.
The politics of Arundhathi Roy is the politics of Tilotemma, who even remarks that "I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's a lot to write about. That can't be done in Kashmir. It's not sophisticated; what happens here. There's too much blood for good literature." Arundhathi Roy has clearly not set out to create great literature. She just wants to get her messages across. In many an Indian's minds, Kashmir is a black-and-white issue with terrorists and patriotic soldiers. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness inverses this, with the black being the white and the white being the black - a war between innocent civilians forced to defend themselves and cruel, psychotic fascists. The truth is most definitely a mixture of both narratives - a shade of gray. If India were a woman, Roy does not consider her to be an attractive one. She writes on India's modernization, "Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore." Bleak and pessimistic. Arundhathi Roy's work would be appreciated far and widely in the Western World where human rights activists would forget that the platform they speak from is one of unparalleled imperialistic and colonial crimes. That is not to say that Arundhathi Roy's views can be ignored at home. She is one of the greatest writers of this generation, and her political views are based on a lot of truth. However it is up to us to gleam the empathy from her writing with a holistic understanding. After all, each country has its own Omelas-basement, and each of us need to work towards eliminating the misery of the people trapped in this basement.
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