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