Voice of right­eous anger lost in the In­dian crowd

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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