Arund­hati Roy’s The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness

He­len El­liott on Arund­hati Roy’s The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - He­len El­liott

“She lived in the grave­yard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and wel­comed the bats home. At dusk she did the op­po­site.” Each night An­jum un­rolls a thread­bare Per­sian car­pet and, in a sweet jest with the uni­verse, chooses two new graves to sleep be­tween. She talks with the ghosts of the friendly old birds, the vul­tures who used to live there but have now ex­cused them­selves and ex­ited. Maybe they are not too fussed about hav­ing to leave the world?

The story ends, 415 pages later, in the same Delhi grave­yard, which now has a name, the Jan­nat Guest House. In Urdu Jan­nat means Par­adise, the place of rest and re­ward. The name is used with lazy irony but An­jum has made the grave­yard into a real guest­house, en­clos­ing graves and build­ing over them, filch­ing elec­tric­ity from the nearby mor­tu­ary and wa­ter from the pub­lic hand­pump. The Jan­nat Guest House is home, a con­nect­ing point for the hu­mans – and an­i­mals – who live through the pages of this rav­ish­ing novel.

Novel? Well. The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness (Hamish Hamil­ton; $32.99) is a cav­al­cade of ex­tra­or­di­nary imag­i­na­tive beauty. It has char­ac­ters who will re­main with you un­til you are snug in your own grave plot, it has ner­vous ten­sion and emo­tional pulse, it shim­mers with the myr­iad nu­ances of beauty in the phys­i­cal world – but to call it a novel is limp. It is as sprawl­ing as life it­self and ex­actly as plot­less.

Arund­hati Roy sailed into world view 20 years ago when her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize. As the screen­writer of two films di­rected by her then hus­band, the in­de­pen­dent film­maker Pradip Kr­ishen, Roy was al­ready a glam­orous if un­con­ven­tional pub­lic fig­ure. In 1994 she in­fu­ri­ated many of her friends in the film in­dus­try with a re­view of Shekhar Ka­pur’s film The Ban­dit Queen, a sup­pos­edly bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of Phoolan Devi, the child bride, ac­cused mur­derer and ban­dit leader who be­came a politi­cian. While most re­view­ers ex­tolled the film as a vir­tu­ous plea against the rape and ex­ploita­tion of a poor woman, Roy read dif­fer­ently. “It’s a sort of re­versed male self ab­sorp­tion. Rape is the main dish. Caste is the sauce that it swims in.” The real Devi, she wrote, had been ap­pro­pri­ated with­out po­litesse.

The re­view is un­com­fort­able to read be­cause the tone is hec­tor­ing. Roy has a sim­i­lar pub­lic pres­ence to Ger­maine Greer, and a sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory of fame. Young, ar­tic­u­late, con­fi­dent, brainy – both were sus­cep­ti­ble to the love–hate of pub­lic at­ten­tion.

Greer and Roy also share a tal­ent for righ­teous­ness. It is not en­dear­ing. Yet in fiction Roy trans­forms the righ­teous­ness into com­pas­sion, fil­tered through the sen­si­bil­i­ties of a po­etic imag­i­na­tion where emo­tional co­her­ence is what mat­ters. The well-cho­sen epi­gram that ush­ers the reader into the novel, “I mean, it’s all a mat­ter of your heart …”, is a quo­ta­tion by the Turk­ish poet fa­mous as a ro­man­tic rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Nâzım Hik­met.

Roy has poured her money and en­er­gies into rais­ing aware­ness of lo­cal and global in­jus­tices. She is a com­mit­ted anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion ac­tivist, an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and a cham­pion of Kash­miri in­de­pen­dence. She is scathing about Ma­hatma Gandhi and his ap­par­ent ac­cep­tance of the caste sys­tem. All of these ur­gen­cies fly into The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness as Roy tracks con­nec­tiv­ity and cause, both hu­man and ge­o­graph­i­cal.

She is also funny. The pe­riph­eral – if any char­ac­ter in this book is pe­riph­eral – fig­ure of Dr Azad Bhar­tiya might be droll self­satiri­sa­tion. Dr Azad Bhar­tiya (not a real doc­tor, he ex­plains, but a ti­tle adopted be­cause he knows how peo­ple re­spect it) has been on a hunger strike for 11 years and lives on the pave­ment. He fasts be­cause he is “against the Cap­i­tal­ist Em­pire, plus against US Cap­i­tal­ism, In­dian and Amer­i­can State Ter­ror­ism/ All Kinds of Nu­clear Weapons and Crime, plus against the Bad Ed­u­ca­tion Sys­tem …” The man­i­festo of “against” is im­mense, but the rea­son­ing be­hind ev­ery­thing is sound. Dr Azad, fool and saint, lives his life hun­gry and

per­ilously on a pave­ment with his writ­ing around him for the sole pur­pose of try­ing to save the world. He wants to make those who pass him by stop, look and see.

Polem­i­cal writ­ing is Roy’s pave­ment. In the 20 years be­tween her two works of fiction she has ad­dressed her con­cerns with rigour and pas­sion, but it con­fines her as much as ab­sorbs her. Fiction sees her un­leashed, play­ful, vivid, po­etic. And, most im­por­tantly, avail­able to a fur­ther au­di­ence that is open to hear­ing her elo­quent heart.

Hun­dreds of small sto­ries whirl around the two cen­tral fig­ures, Tilo and An­jum. Both are women, yet that, like many things in this book, is not quite true. An­jum is a Hi­jra, a mem­ber of South Asia’s leg­endary third sex. She is born Aftab, a much-de­sired boy baby af­ter three girls. But Aftab’s mother dis­cov­ers “nestling un­der­neath his boy-parts, a small, un­formed, but un­doubt­edly girl-part”. It terrifies her. In Urdu, the only lan­guage she speaks, ev­ery­thing, not just liv­ing things, has a gen­der. “Ev­ery­thing ex­cept her baby.” She re­solves to pray at ev­ery shrine she can that the girl-part will heal, and seal, and she tells no one, not even her hus­band, what she has dis­cov­ered. Aftab is a clever lit­tle boy, mu­si­cal with a sweet, true voice. But as he grows up there are cer­tain prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, not the least be­ing that he iden­ti­fies more with his girl-part. Aftab un­der­stands who he is and senses where he be­longs, but it does not bring him ease in the world. He is at­tracted to the house of the lo­cal Hi­jras, who, with their blend of beauty, glam­our, cyn­i­cism, gen­eros­ity and seed­i­ness, fas­ci­nate and ed­u­cate him. God made peo­ple like them as an “ex­per­i­ment”, one of them ex­plains. “He de­cided to cre­ate some­thing, a liv­ing crea­ture that is in­ca­pable of hap­pi­ness. So he made us.” At 15, six feet tall, Aftab steps into a fresh uni­verse when he leaves his par­ents’ house and en­ters the shabby com­pound of Hi­jras as An­jum. Her fa­ther, ed­u­cated, sen­si­tive, a poet in re­fined Urdu, will pass her in the street but never ac­knowl­edge her again. An­jum lives in the Hi­jra com­pound un­til she is in her 40s, when tragedy drives her to seek the peace of the grave­yard. In that place alone she finds con­so­la­tion.

The grave­yard is not a refuge but a home for those who do not have one. In Gas­ton Bachelard’s terms “home” is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the soul. An­jum’s guest­house min­is­ters a sort of hap­pi­ness, al­though be­cause of their uneasy lives all the res­i­dents un­der­stand that ut­most hap­pi­ness is elu­sive or imag­i­nary. Hap­pi­ness at any level can­not be pur­chased.

The res­i­dents and wider con­nec­tions of the grave­yard live ac­cord­ing to prin­ci­ples rather than rules in a coun­try where re­li­gious rules are in­tri­cately tied into daily be­hav­iour. They are out­siders. In the guest­house, re­li­gions and castes mix. As An­jum ex­plains to a beau­ti­ful, gen­tle young man who, for par­tic­u­lar com­plex rea­sons, calls him­self Sad­dam Hus­sein, “Once you have fallen off the edge like all of us have … you will never stop fall­ing. And as you fall you will hold on to other fall­ing peo­ple … This place where we live, where we have made our home, is the place of fall­ing peo­ple.”

Some have fallen fur­ther than oth­ers, but they are all an un­com­fort­able fit with the new eco­nomic In­dia as it hur­tles towards the fu­ture. A grave­yard, af­ter all, is the most peace­ful place to con­tem­plate the past. And it is un­de­ni­ably the univer­sal, un-eco­nomic fu­ture.

An­jum’s story gives a spine to this novel, but, im­i­tat­ing the noise of life it­self, the book is stitched from nar­ra­tives, tracts, po­ems, in­ter­views, rem­i­nis­cences. Tilo is as cen­tral as An­jum, but where An­jum, all six feet of her, is earthy, real, Tilo is elu­sive. One of the three men who love her – she loves one, mar­ries the other and re­lies on the third – writes this about her: “Be­hind her plain, un­fash­ion­able spec­ta­cles, her slightly slant­ing cat-eyes had the in­sou­ciant se­cre­tive­ness of a py­ro­ma­niac. She gave the im­pres­sion that she had some­how slipped off her leash. As though she was tak­ing her­self for a walk while the rest of us were be­ing walked – like pets.”

Two of Tilo’s would-be lovers are charm­ing and in­ter­est­ing, con­ven­tional enough, but Musa, the one she loves, be­comes a Kash­miri free­dom fighter. Roy’s com­mit­ment to Kash­miri in­de­pen­dence, the story of an oc­cu­pied coun­try and the con­se­quent bru­tal­i­ties, burns through­out the tale of Musa and Tilo. It’s an ed­u­ca­tion in vi­o­lence and the vi­o­lent power of money. Kash­mir will never seem ro­man­tic again.

The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness is am­bi­tious and beau­ti­ful as it ex­am­ines things that make us hu­man and other things that undo our hu­man­ity. And it is about what free­dom means in per­sonal and na­tional terms. For Western read­ers, some of the shock, and joy, is be­cause it is so res­o­lutely out­side the fa­mil­iar – so fa­mil­iar we can­not see it – Chris­tian nar­ra­tive of love, kind­ness, for­give­ness, hu­mil­ity and turn­ing the other cheek. All of these have their place in this min­istry, but here they scin­til­late in un­ex­pected mo­ments that en­dow them with a fresh truth. Read­ing this book is a process of un-learn­ing and re-learn­ing. As with the sur­prise of new great po­etry, Roy re­minds An­glo read­ers of the parochial­ism of too-lived-in lines of thought and per­cep­tion. The Min­istry is a shake-up, so I ten­ta­tively reach for words writ­ten by the 22-year-old male Keats 200 years ago in wet, cold Eng­land to il­lu­mi­nate what 55-year-old fe­male Roy in hot, steamy In­dia is do­ing in the rest­less glory of this novel: “I am cer­tain of noth­ing but of the ho­li­ness of the Heart’s af­fec­tions, and the truth of Imag­i­na­tion.” Roy’s novel is ded­i­cated to “The Un­con­soled”. This caste will find it use­ful, es­pe­cially if they take note of Nâzım Hik­met’s di­rec­tion: “It’s all a mat­ter of your heart.”

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