Min­is­ter­ing to the out­casts

After wait­ing 20 years for Arundhati Roy’s sec­ond novel, we are gifted with an ab­sorb­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing – of­ten dev­as­tat­ing even when flawed and imperfect – work.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by SUBASHINI NAVARATNAM star2@thes­tar.com.my

IN­DIAN au­thor Arundhati Roy cat­a­pulted to lit­er­ary star­dom in 1997, when her de­but novel, The God Of Small Things (In­di­aInk), was re­leased to wide­spread ac­claim. It went on to win the pres­ti­gious Man Booker Prize that same year and has been trans­lated into more than 40 lan­guages.

But in­stead of be­com­ing a lit­er­ary star by rid­ing on the wave of her spec­tac­u­lar de­but, Roy im­mersed her­self in the po­lit­i­cal strug­gles of her time: the Kash­mir in­de­pen­dence ef­fort; Adi­vasi, or tribal In­dian, land rights; and anti-nu­clear protests. She ar­gues against US im­pe­ri­al­ism and the far­right machi­na­tions of the In­dian se­cu­rity state. Now, 20 years after her de­but, Roy has re­turned with her sec­ond novel, The Min­istry Of Ut­most Happiness.

After two decades of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, it would be wrong to ex­pect Roy to re­main an un­changed nov­el­ist. In­deed, the ef­fects are ev­ery­where in this sec­ond novel. The God Of Small Things is an ele­giac, gothic story about fam­ily told in lush, de­scrip­tive lan­guage; the po­lit­i­cal hov­ers vaguely like a rest­less ances­tral spirit over the per­sonal. Min­istry, on the other hand, is rife with all of Roy’s po­lit­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions from first page to last. It is an at­tempt to make the po­lit­i­cal per­sonal. In ded­i­cat­ing her book “To the Un­con­soled”, Roy makes it ob­vi­ous even be­fore you crack open the cover that this novel fo­cuses on the marginalised mem­bers of so­ci­ety: the out­casts, the op­pressed, the strag­glers, and all those who have been for­got­ten, de­lib­er­ately so, in the quest for “In­dia Shin­ing”.

Min­istry be­gins with the story of An­jum, an in­ter­sex per­son raised as a male who leaves her fam­ily and, after barely es­cap­ing a pogrom, sets up home in a grave­yard. Slowly, over time, her res­i­dence be­comes a guest­house for other out­casts: Dal­its, trans­gen­ders, sex work­ers, and ad­dicts.

Though An­jum’s story be­gins the book, Roy’s nar­ra­tive leaves her be­hind as it en­ters the main story cen­tered on a woman named Tilo and the three men she’s known since univer­sity in 1984 and who or­bit her uni­verse: Biplab, Naga, and Musa.

Biplab works for the In­dian gov­ern­ment (and, de­spite Roy’s anti-na­tional pol­i­tics, is the only char­ac­ter who nar­rates from the first per­son); Naga is the cool guy who has jet­ti­soned his former rad­i­cal pol­i­tics to be­come a cel­e­brated hu­man rights jour­nal­ist, so blinded by the stature of his job that he doesn’t even know he’s be­ing used as an in­tel­li­gence as­set by the In­dian gvern­ment; and Musa is an af­fa­ble Kash­miri mil­i­tant.

He’s also Tilo’s one true love, and it’s her re­la­tion­ship with him that takes her to Kash­mir, sub­jects her to po­lice in­ter­ro­ga­tion, and sends her on a life on the run that inevitably ends with her find­ing a home in An­jum’s grave­yard guest­house. Both Musa and Tilo are ide­alised, but at least Musa ap­pears as a per­son while Tilo ap­pears as an ar­che­typal Cool Girl With a Murky Past.

Min­istry is a sprawl­ing, am­bi­tious book, and this re­view can barely scratch the sur­face of what it tack­les: hi­jra (trans­gen­der) rights, Adi­vasi tribal land con­ven­tional novel, one that will en­ter­tain them and give them a story with a be­gin­ning, mid­dle, and an end.

But in a book rife with epi­taphs from Jean Genet and James Bald­win, snatches of bawdy col­lo­quial proverbs and rhymes, and bits of Osip Man­del­stam’s po­etry, there is no be­gin­ning and an end. To­wards the end of the book, the lines of a poem re­veal the cen­tral ques­tion: “How to tell a shat­tered story?” That this is in­cluded as a blurb on the back is both a warn­ing and in­struc­tion to read­ers.

But Roy and her edi­tors must have thought that in order to please her read­ers, they must tie up some loose ends and give the char­ac­ters that dreaded re­quire­ment in fic­tion: “clo­sure”. Thus, an aban­doned baby en­ters the story, a Dick­en­sian foundling whose pres­ence ties sev­eral char­ac­ters and is­sues to­gether. In a book steeped in so­cial re­al­ism like this one, the awk­ward thread of “one baby to unite them all” weak­ens the novel with its jar­ring note of mag­i­cal re­al­ism.

While An­jum is the most en­dear­ing char­ac­ter, gifted with the best lines, it’s the cen­tral story about Kash­mir that is mov­ing and pow­er­ful, the story about a peo­ple who “were in the ri­fle-sights of a sol­dier” in ev­ery part of the Val­ley.

“I would like to write one of those so­phis­ti­cated sto­ries in which even though noth­ing much hap­pens there’s lots 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.” That’s a part of Tilo’s notes while in Kash­mir, but it is also Roy an­tic­i­pat­ing her crit­ics. In a sense, Min­istry is an at­tempt to fig­ure out what makes for good lit­er­a­ture in our present time, a time with too much blood.

For this reader, it was ab­sorb­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing, of­ten dev­as­tat­ing even when flawed and imperfect. The book is alive on ev­ery page. If this is what failed fic­tion looks like – at­ten­tive to the dis­pos­sessed, the marginalised, and the op­pressed; frac­tured, bro­ken, and sprawl­ing – then I’ll take it over po­lite, well-man­nered, per­fectly-ex­e­cuted fic­tion any day.

Au­thor: Pub­lisher:

Photo: AU­GUS­TUS BINU/Wikimedia Com­mons

Arundhati Roy Hamish Hamil­ton, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.