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Arundhati Roy's latest work is a meditation on the humanity, cruelty, humour and tragedy of contemporary Indian life.
THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS
Awarded the Booker Prize in 1997 for her only other novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has since worked as a human rights activist, particularly in India, protesting the effects of globalisation and Hindu nationalism, as well as the inter-faith conflict in Kashmir-Jammu.
Her incisive essays on these issues, as well as her constant call for women’s rights, were published in a collection entitled Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, published in 2009.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness records the life and sounds of a host of grasshoppers who gather, over the course of the novel, in a neglected graveyard in Delhi, near a mortuary from where the remains of unclaimed vagrants were thrown after dark.
Anjum sets up residence among the tombs, and draws to her the lost and maimed, both human and animal. From this unlikely stage the action of the novel spins in wider and wider circles to take in the humanity and cruelty, the empathy and prejudice, the humour and tragedy of contemporary Indian life, from the conflicts in Kashmir in the north to the plight of Keralite Syrian Christians in the south.
In addition to the interwoven histories of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths, the novel weaves other patterns based upon caste, colour, gender and political belief.
At the centre of this stage struts, pouts, weeps and swears in the most colourfully foul language Anjum, the founder of the community of the graveyard known as the Jannat (Paradise) Hotel.
Anjum is a Hijra, a man who wants to be woman. He leaves his grieving parents to live in a tolerant transgender community but feels abandoned by the abandoned and scurries off to live among the graves when he unsuccessfully tries to be mother to a foundling girl. Eventually she succeeds in finding her own family of outsiders and others haunted by traumas of their past, among them, later in the novel, Tilo the lover of Musa, a leading militant of the Kashmir uprising.
Tilo is the pivot of a second centre of activity in the book. Four student friends, three men and Tilo, rehearse together at college a production of Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick’s 1970 play Norman, Is That You? about a mother and father confronting their son’s homosexuality.
Tilo eventually marries Naga, but loves Musa. Biplab Dasgupta — the Landlord, later an operative in the Indian security services — always loves Tilo. Each member of this quartet is fated to lose the ones they love, through the vicissitudes of loyalty to nation, caste and faith. Musa and Tilo, like Romeo and Juliet, are star-crossed, members of cultures at war with each other.
Roy is very conscious of her literary roots, both in Indian (Hindi and Urdu) poetry and song, in Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda and Osip Mandelshtam. These are the poets of fated difference, of intolerance in ordinary life to the extraordinariness of love, of the magic of language, of the best and worst in human nature.
The two plots have their own energy, but are interwoven, as well as joined in the progress of the narrative by the stories of others that emphasise the pain of war and insurrection, the sweet but passing pleasures of love, the lives of women full of dread and fun.
Roy has a gift for diamond-sharp wit and fast-flowing prose. Almost every page is full of twists and turns of phrase that astonish with their freshness, originality and in-the-face violence. Sections of the novel are given their own narrator: while the omniscient third-person is factual and detached, the first-person can become overwhelming in the expression of loss, parting and farewell.
This is a book not just about India. We are all participants in these events, not only now but in our histories. A harrowing book, it demands to be read.
- Peter Stupples teaches at the Dunedin School of Art.