Voice of righteous anger lost in the Indian crowd
India’s life writ large: an almost unswallowable mouthful of sights and sounds and smells and colour, rich casts (and castes) of characters parading outside every train window and on every street. For Salman Rushdie, the first Indian author writing in English to be feted in the West, the idea of what India was or might be was complicated because he grew up in Britain.
Faced with reconstructing partition and emergency-era India in Midnight’s Children from ‘‘fragments’’ and ‘‘shards’’, he discovered that “their partial nature … their fragmentation … made them so evocative. The shards … acquired greater status, greater resonance because they were remains: fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.’’
Today, modern, “shining” Indian society at once proclaims itself an IT hub and flexes its diplomatic muscles in an “Asian century”, while still in thrall to casteism and communalism and still suffering iniquity and inequality.
Faced with an idea as enormous and complex as India, the question might be asked: what’s the point of fiction when the facts — constantly debated and disputed in a thousand different languages — are so fantastically strange?
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel, The God of Small Things, a bestseller that made her a public figure in India and a household name abroad. She’s asked the aforementioned question in the years since, in countless articles and 16 nonfiction books, railing against the injustices of the Indian state towards its most vulnerable and downtrodden.
And there is no doubt about her righteous zealousness in her second novel, two decades after the Booker win, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. ‘‘How to tell a shattered story?’’ asks one character, Tilo, an activist who bears a striking resemblance to the author. ‘‘By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.’’ This shattering and fragmentation is manifested in a masala of voices, police files, newspaper clippings, snatches of song lyrics, poems and slokas, political slogans, SMS texts, billboards, diary entries and gravestone inscriptions — and that’s not all of it. It is, literally, everything.
As a result, the novel’s largely discrete narratives end up everywhere: from the story of Anjum, a hermaphrodite hijra abandoning her cloistered life in a haveli to run a guesthouse in a graveyard; to a perilous love affair between a Kashmiri separatist and the inscrutable, irresistible, independent Tilo; to the manners of an owl and the musings of a weevil. No detail’s too small, no digression too distracting.
In one long scene, set outside Delhi’s iconic Jantar Mantar observatory, Roy’s eye flits from a baby abandoned in “a crib of litter: silver cigarette foil, plastic bags and empty packets of Uncle Chipps … a thin white horse tethered to the railing, a small dog with mange, a concretecoloured garden lizard, two palm-striped squirrels, who should have been asleep, and from her hidden perch, a she-spider with a swollen egg- sac watched over her’’ to a hunger-striking protester, young filmmakers, TV journalists, striking sewage workers, displaced farmers, political operatives, the curious, the abject, the deformed, the mad. A drunk security guard sacked for falling asleep under the toilet block billboard he was hired to protect. The man in charge of the toilet block. A young man who uses the toilet.
It could almost be a kind of virtuosic sustained riff echoing Henry David Thoreau on that forgotten, hopeless mass of quiet desperation in a desperate city where the only consolation is the bravery of the spiders and dogs and squirrels. But it’s too much, resulting in a confusing, sometimes perplexing, mishmash. Despite often gimmicky formatting, it’s not always clear who is speaking, or why, even as the messages and morals are so stridently and so unsubtly hammered home, everyone sounding more or less the same. Or more or less like the one person Gustave Flaubert rightly said should never be seen.
With so many plots flying around, the two apparently main narratives end up tangled by