The Min­istry of Utmost Hap­pi­ness by Arund­hati Roy, 449 pages, Knopf

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The ter­ri­tory of Kash­mir, parts of which are claimed by In­dia and Pak­istan, has been a cen­ter of con­flict for at least seven decades. In Arund­hati Roy’s sec­ond novel, The Min­istry of Utmost Hap­pi­ness, the trauma of war­fare and its di­vi­sions — not just be­tween re­gions or re­li­gions but in caste, class, gen­der, and per­son­hood it­self — are the thread with which Roy weaves a mod­ern his­tory of In­dia. It is an un­flinch­ing por­trayal.

It has been 20 years since Roy, who lives in Delhi, won the Booker Prize and in­ter­na­tional ac­claim for her first work of fic­tion, The God of Small Things. She has not been quiet in the in­terim, writ­ing bit­ing es­says about the cor­rup­tion and so­cial ills of In­dia, from its nu­clear-weapons pro­gram to the con­se­quences of Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East. Min­istry reads like the cul­mi­na­tion of her ac­tivist non­fic­tion over the past two decades.

The story be­gins omi­nously, with the demise of an en­tire species of vul­tures. The “cus­to­di­ans of the dead,” who have feasted for cen­turies on the corpses of cat­tle, be­come poi­soned by a medicine given to speed the cows’ milk pro­duc­tion. The vast con­se­quences of hu­man in­ter­ven­tion in the name of progress frame the nar­ra­tive that fol­lows. And death is never far from view. “Dy­ing be­came just an­other way of liv­ing,” she writes of Kash­mir. “Grave­yards sprang up in parks and mead­ows, by streams and rivers, in fields and for­est glades. Tomb­stones grew out of the ground like young chil­dren’s teeth.”

The novel’s an­chor is An­jum, a Mus­lim her­maph­ro­dite raised as a boy, who dreams of be­ing a wo­man. As a child, An­jum fol­lows a hi­jra — or trans­gen­der wo­man — into a harem called the Kh­wab­hah, where men who wish to live as women re­side in a kind of mag­i­cal squalor. A hi­jra named Nimmo tells young An­jum why God made peo­ple like them: “He de­cided to cre­ate some­thing, a liv­ing crea­ture that is in­ca­pable of hap­pi­ness.” Other peo­ple’s strug­gles, Nimmo says — cheat­ing spouses, the Hindu-Mus­lim riot, the In­dia-Pak­istan war — are “out­side things that set­tle down even­tu­ally.” For the hi­jra, she says, “The war is

in­side us . ... It will never set­tle down. It can’t.” The hi­jras watch wars be­gin on tele­vi­sion. Planes crash into the Twin Tow­ers, and while America be­gins its wave of anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment, In­dia sees an op­por­tu­nity to do the same. In­dia has been sit­ting on its own form of ex­trem­ism, Roy ex­plains, wait­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to be­come a re­li­gious state. “The saf­fron tide of Hindu Na­tion­al­ism rises in our coun­try like the swastika once did in an­other,” she writes.

When Mus­lim boys are rounded up on the streets as part of a new anti-ter­ror­ism law, An­jum is among them. Her hair is shorn, and she is dressed in men’s clothes. She learns a Hindu prayer in or­der to pro­tect her Mus­lim faith. Ul­ti­mately, she seeks refuge in a grave­yard and draws in a strange band of brothers, who, like her, are wounded in pri­vate ways. At the grave­yard she cre­ates the Jan­nat Guest House, a sanc­tu­ary for peo­ple who are refugees in their own lives.

An­jum’s per­sonal his­tory cre­ates the foun­da­tion from which ev­ery­thing else in the novel grows. It is not un­til page 99 that the ur­gent plot and gor­geously rich and de­tailed lan­guage co­a­lesce. A baby girl is aban­doned on a side­walk in Delhi. “She ap­peared quite sud­denly, a lit­tle af­ter mid­night,” Roy writes of the baby, naked, awake, “blue-black,” and ush­ered in by a mil­lion stars.

This child rep­re­sents “the begin­ning of some­thing” that, “when she was grown to be a lady, would set­tle ac­counts and square the books.” In the story, the na­tion of In­dia is also per­son­i­fied as a wrin­kled grand­mother, aching from cen­turies of civ­i­liza­tion and sud­denly pro­pelled into the mod­ern world of Star­bucks, Wal­mart, and five-star hotels stuffed with tourists.

With the ap­pear­ance (and then dis­ap­pear­ance) of the baby, Min­istry re­veals how the chaos of eco­nom­i­cally boom­ing In­dia can­not be sep­a­rated from the bru­tal­ity of Kash­mir. This story is told through a group of col­lege friends and the peo­ple they grow up to be — three men and the wo­man they love, who bring us to Kash­mir, where vi­o­lence is om­nipresent. The place’s beauty is ob­scured by “eight or nine kinds” of Is­lamic rad­i­cal­ism, cre­ated in the face of In­dian oc­cu­pa­tion. Roy de­scribes in­no­cent peo­ple killed and thrown into a field of bombs so they can’t be given burial rights. A man’s eyes are gouged out of his skull. An­other dies, dropped into the sewer and suf­fo­cated by ex­cre­ment. But the bat­tle is never one-sided in Kash­mir.

Roy writes of a char­ac­ter called the Butcher of Kash­mir, who came to a sim­i­lar fate as the vul­tures. Af­ter gain­ing asy­lum in Cal­i­for­nia, the ex-In­dian mil­i­tant drove trucks for a liv­ing and grew fat. Then, seem­ingly with­out rea­son, he self-de­struc­ted, slaugh­ter­ing his fam­ily and him­self. One char­ac­ter ex­plains, “One day Kash­mir will make In­dia self-de­struct in the same way. … You’re not de­stroy­ing us. You are con­struct­ing us. It’s your­selves that you are de­stroy­ing.”

Roy’s story im­prints on the reader the lessons of a va­cant, spine­less democ­racy — or any supreme ide­ol­ogy. Squan­der­ing lives for the sake of the greater good is dan­ger­ous, she in­di­cates. Per­haps this is why the Min­istry of Hap­pi­ness is founded in a place that sub­verts the struc­tures not only of pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, and caste but of life it­self: the Jan­nat Guest House.

“The bat­tered an­gels of the grave­yard that kept watch over their bat­tered charges held open the doors be­tween worlds (il­le­gally, just a crack), so that the souls of the present and de­parted could min­gle, like guests at the same party,” Roy writes. “Some­how ev­ery­thing be­came a lit­tle eas­ier to bear.”

— Re­becca Moss

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