Un­com­fort­able truths about mod­ern In­dia

It’s two decades since Arund­hati Roy’s first novel. It’s been worth the wait, writes Antony Loewen­stein

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Twenty years is a long time to wait for new writ­ing but in the case of In­dian writer Arund­hati Roy she’s re­mained deeply en­gaged with her coun­try over the last two decades. Af­ter the huge suc­cess of her first novel, The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, Roy has trans­formed her­self into one of the world’s most in­ci­sive ob­servers of In­dia’s sup­posed eco­nomic boom. Roy calls it a “lie”.

For her out­spo­ken­ness on hu­man rights, in­clud­ing abuses in Kash­mir, Roy has faced crim­i­nal charges of con­tempt and sedi­tion. She fled to Lon­don last year af­ter fear­ing for her life. She has writ­ten in sup­port of NSA whis­tle-blower Ed­ward Snow­den and re­mains deeply op­posed to in­jus­tice around the world.

In her new book, Roy tells the story of a trans­gen­der woman, An­jum, who lives in a crum­bling Delhi neigh­bour­hood. Af­ter a mas­sacre in Gu­jarat – In­dia’s cur­rent prime min­is­ter Naren­dra Modhi stands ac­cused of com­plic­ity in the killings of Mus­lims in the same state in 2002 – she flees to a ceme­tery and es­tab­lishes a new life there full of colour­ful char­ac­ters.

Along­side this nar­ra­tive is a wider per­spec­tive set in Kash­mir. As she re­cently told the Guardian, these two sec­tions be­come one book be­cause, “ge­o­graph­i­cally, Kash­mir is riven through with bor­ders, and ev­ery­body in the book has a bor­der run­ning through them,” she said. “So it’s a book about, how do you un­der­stand these bor­ders?”

Roy is scathing of In­dia’s be­hav­iour in Kash­mir, ac­cus­ing the mil­i­tary of tor­ture, ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings and dis­ap­pear­ances. It’s a place where dark­ness en­velops its vic­tims but also en­trances its many vis­i­tors through nat­u­ral beauty. As one char­ac­ter Musa is de­scribed: “He knew that Kash­mir had swal­lowed him and he was now parts of its en­trails … In the heart of a filthy war, up against a bes­tial­ity that is hard to imag­ine, he did what he could to per­suade his com­rades to hold on to a sem­blance of hu­man­ity, to not turn into the very thing they ab­horred and fought against.”

Through­out the book, Roy con­jures up im­agery rem­i­nis­cent of the finest mag­i­cal re­al­ism of nov­el­ist Sal­man Rushdie but she never strays far from real life. In one strik­ing pas­sage, Roy utilises her wit and sar­casm to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, mim­ick­ing those who blindly ad­mire or cel­e­brate In­dia (or any coun­try?) with­out ques­tion: “Com­pared to Kabul, or any­where else in Afghanistan or Pak­istan, or for that mat­ter any other coun­try in our neigh­bour­hood (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Syria – Good God!), this foggy lit­tle back lane, with its ev­ery­day hum­drum­ness, its vul­gar­ity, its un­for­tu­nate but tol­er­a­ble in­equities, its don­keys and its mi­nor cru­el­ties, is like a small cor­ner of par­adise.

“Chil­dren play at ring­ing door­bells, not at be­ing sui­cide bombers. We have our trou­bles, our ter­ri­ble mo­ments, yes, but these are only aber­ra­tions.”

Roy wants read­ers to un­der­stand that state-backed violence across In­dia is cen­tral to eco­nomic ben­e­fits for the mi­nor­ity who have be­come en­riched through de­struc­tive neo-lib­eral poli­cies. One can’t hap­pen with­out the other. This violence per­me­ates the book be­cause so many char­ac­ters ei­ther suf­fer be­cause of it or in­flict it on the less for­tu­nate. This could be phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal and the au­thor is of­ten ex­plicit in her de­scrip­tions. This is an In­dia that’s far away from the glossy tourist brochures ad­ver­tis­ing a tran­quil hol­i­day at the Taj Ma­hal. This sec­tion could be writ­ten by any num­ber of In­dian crit­ics about Roy her­self, in­censed that a cit­i­zen of their coun­try dares to pub­licly shame the hu­man rights abuses of the cur­rent and pre­vi­ous govern­ments. Roy’s life is com­mit­ted to those less for­tu­nate than her, more marginalised and hated by the ma­jor­ity. It’s where the best writers should al­ways be.

It’s hard not to be trans­ported to In­dia with Roy’s love and re­vul­sion of her birth coun­try. The book isn’t a dry ex­er­cise in po­lit­i­cal cul­ture but a rich and de­tailed look at a na­tion that over­whelms vis­i­tors and cit­i­zens. Roy is un­for­giv­ing of its main­stream lead­er­ship but em­braces the myr­iad of char­ac­ters she has cre­ated.

The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness is a fas­ci­nat­ing and com­plex book – about mod­ern In­dia that will chal­lenge any­body who thinks they un­der­stand the world’s largest self-de­scribed democ­racy. Roy wants read­ers to be un­com­fort­able with char­ac­ters that sparkle with hu­man­ity, wit and anger. It’s hard not to be se­duced with a work that forces us to con­front what pop­u­la­tions in democ­ra­cies rou­tinely don’t see or choose to ig­nore. This is as rel­e­vant in In­dia as in Pales­tine.

Com­pared to Kabul, or any­where else ... this foggy lit­tle back lane, with its ev­ery­day hum­drum­ness, its vul­gar­ity, its un­for­tu­nate but tol­er­a­ble in­equities, its don­keys and its mi­nor cru­el­ties, is like a small cor­ner of par­adise Arund­hati Roy The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness

Antony Loewen­stein is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and au­thor of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism: Mak­ing a Killing Out of Catas­tro­phe.

The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness Arund­hati Roy Pen­guin, Dh44

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