Francine Prose

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The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness by Arund­hati Roy.

Knopf, 449 pp., $28.95

Most likely it would still make news to­day if a first novel by a young In­dian woman liv­ing in In­dia won the Man Booker Prize. Cer­tainly it was big news in 1997, when Arund­hati Roy’s The God of Small Things re­ceived the pres­ti­gious Bri­tish award, and the re­sul­tant pub­lic­ity helped bring in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to Roy’s in­ti­mate, lyri­cal, and re­veal­ing por­trayal of a multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily in Ker­ala.

The God of Small Things reached a much broader au­di­ence than ear­lier de­pic­tions of ru­ral and semiru­ral In­dia, in work such as that of the bril­liant R. K. Narayan. Roy’s dreamy, ele­giac do­mes­tic­ity ap­pealed to the sort of reader who may have been in­tim­i­dated by the scope and ve­loc­ity of Sal­man Rushdie’s Mid­night’s Chil­dren. Two decades later, her novel is still widely read and con­tin­ues to elicit fer­vent en­thu­si­asm. Younger writ­ers credit it with hav­ing ex­panded their sense of what could be done in fic­tion and, more to the point, of who was en­ti­tled to do it. Junot Diaz has called The God of Small Things “one of the sin­gle most im­por­tant nov­els writ­ten in English,” and one can see its in­flu­ence on Diaz’s The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao; the two books share a loose, con­fi­dent ap­proach to sto­ry­telling and chronol­ogy, a debt to mag­i­cal re­al­ism, and an in­ter­est in how or­di­nary peo­ple carry on with their lives in times of his­tor­i­cal tur­moil.

The Syr­ian Chris­tian fam­ily at the cen­ter of The God of Small Things in­cludes a twin sis­ter and brother whose mother pre­cip­i­tates a series of tragedies by falling in love across caste and re­li­gious lines. The nar­ra­tive, set mostly in the 1960s, fo­cuses on the twins’ child­hood, on the drown­ing of a young halfEnglish cousin, and on their dra­matic dis­cov­ery of what they mean to each other; th­ese plot el­e­ments are what the novel’s fans will most vividly re­call. So it’s strik­ing, on reread­ing the book, to dis­cover how pow­er­fully the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of Ker­ala (which at that time had a Marx­ist govern­ment) af­fects al­most ev­ery­thing that hap­pens. De­fined, to vary­ing de­grees, by class back­ground and party af­fil­i­a­tion, the char­ac­ters are haunted by what it means to be an An­glophile. Roy shows us, from the inside, the chal­lenges and com­plex­i­ties of main­tain­ing an old—and forg­ing a new—cul­tural iden­tity in a for­mer colony. Per­haps this amended read­ing of Roy’s first novel owes some­thing to our aware­ness of what she has ac­com­plished in the years since its pub­li­ca­tion. A vo­cal, vis­i­ble, and coura­geous ac­tivist, she has cam­paigned against the In­dian nu­clear weapons pro­gram, the bar­bar­ity of her govern­ment’s re­pres­sion of the Kash­miri and Nax­alite in­sur­gen­cies, and the en­vi­ron­men­tal and hu­man costs of In­dia’s hy­dro­elec­tric dam projects. She has op­posed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, writ­ten a book-length polemic about the dan­gers of un­re­strained global cap­i­tal­ism, and emerged as a cham­pion of the poor and those at the low­est and most de­spised lev­els of the Hindu caste sys­tem.

Roy re­mains a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in In­dia and abroad, in par­tic­u­lar for her outspoken crit­i­cism of In­dia’s poli­cies in Kash­mir. She trav­eled to Kash­mir in 2008, when mass protests trig­gered a new wave of vi­o­lence, and in an es­say that ap­peared that year (“Azadi: It’s the Only Thing Kash­miris Want. De­nial Is Delu­sion”), she wrote that the In­dian govern­ment

had used money (lots of it), vi­o­lence (lots of it), dis­in­for­ma­tion, pro­pa­ganda, tor­ture, elab­o­rate net­works of col­lab­o­ra­tors and in­form­ers, ter­ror, im­pris­on­ment, black­mail and rigged elec­tions to sub­due what democrats would call “the will of the peo­ple.” Two years later she was threat­ened with ar­rest for sedi­tion af­ter talk­ing in pub­lic about In­dia’s “bru­tal mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion” in Kash­mir and say­ing that “Kash­mir has never been an in­te­gral part of In­dia.”

In view of how Roy has spent the last two decades, it’s un­der­stand­able that her long-awaited sec­ond novel, The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness, should re­flect an im­pulse to ex­am­ine what she has ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing that time. She has ex­panded her view from the steamy in­su­lar world of a Ker­alan fam­ily to the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and be­yond: to Iraq, Kabul, and Cal­i­for­nia. A huge cast of char­ac­ters acts out a series of in­ter­linked sto­ries; the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal are in­ex­tri­ca­bly tan­gled. No one re­mains un­scarred by cat­a­clysmic up­heaval, the Hindu–Mus­lim and an­tiSikh ri­ots, the eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter at Bhopal, the war in Kash­mir, or the as­cen­dancy of vir­u­lent Hindu na­tion­al­ism. In fact Roy has so much she wants to tell us that The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness, in its nearly 450 pages, seems like sev­eral dense nov­els com­pressed into a sin­gle vol­ume. Its sec­tions are connected by re­cur­ring char­ac­ters and plot threads that in­ter­sect at sev­eral points, and at the end. At times the reader must work to keep track of the mul­ti­ple story lines and of mi­nor fig­ures whose sig­nif­i­cance we may dimly re­call af­ter hav­ing lost sight of them for a hun­dred pages. The first and most en­gag­ing of th­ese nov­els-within-a-novel sug­gests what one imag­ines might have re­sulted if the Span­ish di­rec­tor Pe­dro Almod­ó­var de­cided to make a film that had, as its back­ground, decades of In­dian his­tory. Roy’s hero­ine—whose win­ningly the­atri­cal gift for self-drama­ti­za­tion re­calls Almod­ó­var’s women—is born a bi­o­log­i­cal her­maph­ro­dite and named Aftab by her Mus­lim fam­ily, who raise her as a boy. Aftab clearly has what a lo­cal doc­tor refers to as “ten­den­cies,” and the talented child’s singing style, like that of “a Luc­know cour­te­san,” is mocked by the other chil­dren at their mu­sic school. But un­like trans peo­ple else­where, who of­ten spend their for­ma­tive years in tor­ment and iso­la­tion, Aftab lives in a cul­ture in which the re­al­ity of “a fe­male trapped in a male body” has been ac­knowl­edged for cen­turies.

Af­ter see­ing a “tall, slim-hipped woman wear­ing bright lip­stick, gold high heels and a shiny, green satin sal­war kameez buy­ing ban­gles from Mir the ban­gle-seller,” Aftab runs down­stairs and fol­lows her through their Delhi neigh­bor­hood:

No or­di­nary woman would have been per­mit­ted to sashay down the streets of Shah­ja­han­abad dressed like that. Or­di­nary women in Shah­ja­han­abad wore burqas or at least cov­ered their heads and ev­ery part of their body ex­cept their hands and feet. The woman Aftab fol­lowed could dress as she was dressed and walk the way she did only be­cause she wasn’t a woman. What­ever she was, Aftab wanted to be her.

Aftab watches the charis­matic stranger, whose name is Bom­bay Silk, dis­ap­pear through a blue door­way into “the House of Dreams,” home to a com­mu­nity of Hi­jras, trans women who have been tra­di­tion­ally (and are now of­fi­cially) rec­og­nized as a third gen­der, and who com­monly make their liv­ing by beg­ging, pros­ti­tu­tion, and en­ter­tain­ing at fam­ily gath­er­ings.

Af­ter an ap­pren­tice­ship run­ning er­rands, Aftab—now An­jum—is ac­cepted into the house­hold. Roy writes sym­pa­thet­i­cally and in­for­ma­tively about the world of the Hi­jras, whose bois­ter­ous, foul­mouthed, and ag­gres­sive pub­lic per­sonae are in­tended to dis­com­fit out­siders, un­less com­merce is in­volved. And she man­ages to cap­ture the shocking, unique sound of the Hi­jras’ un­usual form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion:

the sig­na­ture spread-fin­gered Hi­jra clap that went off like a gun­shot and could mean any­thing—Yes, No, Maybe, Wah! Be­hen ka Lauda (Your sis­ter’s cock), Bhon­sadi ke (You ar­se­hole born). Only another Hi­jra could de­code what was specif­i­cally meant by the spe­cific clap at that spe­cific mo­ment.

Even­tu­ally, An­jum be­comes “Delhi’s most fa­mous Hi­jra. Film-mak­ers fought over her, NGOs hoarded her, for­eign correspondents gifted her phone num­ber to one another as a pro­fes­sional fa­vor.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, her celebrity comes at a price. Her fa­ther stops speak­ing to her for­ever, and her mother can meet her only in se­cret. But at least she has some­where to go, a com­mu­nity, and a so­cial po­si­tion in a cul­ture that knows that peo­ple like her ex­ist. A botched op­er­a­tion has left her in­ca­pable of sex­ual plea­sure, but An­jum makes the best of it and en­joys her suc­cess un­til, dur­ing a trip to Gu­jarat, she is caught up in a hor­rific erup­tion of anti-Mus­lim vi­o­lence. Her trav­el­ing com­pan­ion, an old friend of her fa­ther’s, is mur­dered, and An­jum is spared only be­cause it’s con­sid­ered bad luck to mur­der a Hi­jra. Deeply trau­ma­tized by what she has seen, she re­turns to Delhi, lapses into si­lence, and leaves the House of Dreams.

In one of sev­eral plot turns that re­quire the kind of sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief that mag­i­cal re­al­ist fic­tion asks of its read­ers, she sets up a dwelling, then a com­mu­nity, then a guest house in one of the city’s more hum­ble ceme­ter­ies. An­jum’s so­journ there oc­ca­sions some of the book’s most evoca­tive writ­ing, and the sec­tion ends with a mys­te­ri­ous, sus­pense-in­duc­ing sen­tence: “And miles away, in a trou­bled for­est, a baby waited to be born . . .”

Though we will re­turn to An­jum pe­ri­od­i­cally through­out The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness and at greater length in its fi­nal chap­ters, we be­gin to lose track of her and her friends when, in the third sec­tion of the book, we’re dis­tracted by an aban­doned in­fant ly­ing “on the con­crete pave­ment, in a crib of lit­ter: sil­ver cig­a­rette foil, a few plas­tic bags and empty pack­ets of Un­cle Chipps.” The novel’s per­spec­tive broad­ens to of­fer us a portrait of Delhi as an el­derly grand­mother:

Gray fly­overs snaked out of her Me­dusa skull, tan­gling and un­tan­gling un­der the yel­low sodium haze. Sleep­ing bod­ies of home­less peo­ple lined their high, nar­row pave­ments, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe, loop­ing into the dis­tance. Old se­crets were folded into the fur­rows of her loose, parch­ment skin. Each wrin­kle was a street, each street a car­ni­val. Each arthritic joint a crum­bling am­phithe­ater where sto­ries of love and mad­ness, stu­pid­ity, de­light and un­speak­able cru­elty had been played out for cen­turies.

Delhi’s new masters have plans for her fu­ture, schemes that in­volve the city sell­ing her­self for money:

She was to be­come su­per­cap­i­tal of the world’s fa­vorite new su­per­power. In­dia! In­dia! The chant had gone up—on TV shows, on mu­sic videos, in for­eign news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, at busi­ness con­fer­ences and weapons fairs, at eco­nomic con­claves and en­vi­ron­men­tal sum­mits, at book fes­ti­vals and beauty con­tests. In­dia! In­dia! In­dia!

The baby has been left in the small park sur­round­ing the Jan­tar Man­tar, an eigh­teenth-cen­tury astro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tory in cen­tral New Delhi, where “a tubby old Gand­hian, for­mer-sol­dier­turned-vil­lage-so­cial-worker [has] an­nounced a fast to the death to re­al­ize his dream of a cor­rup­tion-free In­dia.” The old man be­comes a me­dia sen­sa­tion and, not to be out­done, other groups—sur­vivors of the Bhopal dis­as­ter, sup­port­ers of farm­ers and in­dige­nous tribes­peo­ple—join the protest. Soon the demon­stra­tion de­volves into chaotic disor­der, pro­vid­ing the kind of in­sta­bil­ity that right-wing politi­cians can ex­ploit to ad­vance their au­thor­i­tar­ian agen­das. The aban­doned baby is dis­cov­ered, fought over, then dis­ap­pears from the book for a while. A news­let­ter writ­ten by Dr. Azad Bhar­tiya, a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” who has been on a hunger strike for over eleven years, is reprinted in its en­tirety; in pass­ing, it men­tions a woman named S. Tilot­tama, known as Tilo, who will soon sup­plant An­jum as the novel’s hero­ine. But first we will spend a sec­tion inside the con­scious­ness of a man called “the land­lord.” Even be­fore we learn his name—Bi­plab Das­gupta—we find out that he has a drink­ing prob­lem and has worked as “a ser­vant of the Govern­ment of In­dia” in Kabul. Das­gupta de­scribes a com­pli­cated ro­mance that be­gan in Delhi in 1984, at the re­hearsals for a col­lege play. The love tri­an­gle in­volved Tilo, an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent, and two men: Naga, an icon­o­clas­tic master’s can­di­date in his­tory who be­comes an am­bi­tious jour­nal­ist covertly co­op­er­at­ing with the In­dian govern­ment, and Musa, a Kash­miri who will re­turn home to be­come a leader of Kash­mir’s war for in­de­pen­dence. In fact, the tri­an­gle is a quad­ran­gle if we in­clude the land­lord’s infatuation with the beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tect. (“The mo­ment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped it­self around her. And there it still re­mains.”) Das­gupta has worked as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, posted to Sri­na­gar in the 1990s, dur­ing the war in which his three for­mer school­mates/fel­low ac­tors were, in dif­fer­ent ways, in­volved.

It’s a dar­ing strat­egy: introducing us to the con­flict in Kash­mir through the eyes of a man who has been called in to put down the in­sur­gency, and to whom ly­ing, tor­ture, and mur­der are re­gret­table but nec­es­sary tools for so­cial con­trol. Only later, af­ter Das­gupta has rented a Delhi apart­ment to Tilo, do we hear a more crit­i­cal ver­sion of the anti-in­sur­gency cam­paign. Search­ing Tilo’s apart­ment, Das­gupta finds some photos taken in a pub­lic toi­let, along with an ac­count of a Kash­miri man who was tor­tured, killed, and stuffed into the la­trine drain by men from the In­dian spe­cial forces. The land­lord ques­tions what he is see­ing (“How does one ver­ify th­ese things? Peo­ple aren’t re­li­able. They’re for­ever ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Kash­miris es­pe­cially...”) and main­tains his com­po­sure un­til he finds more photos—pic­tures of a sadis­tic army com­man­der, Am­rik Singh, who shot him­self and his fam­ily af­ter mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia, where he had been granted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum.

Das­gupta’s dis­cov­er­ies trig­ger a hal­lu­ci­na­tory episode, a con­fu­sion that car­ries over into the fol­low­ing sec­tion. His ex­pla­na­tion of Tilo’s re­la­tion­ship with Musa and Naga isn’t quite clear enough to help us un­tan­gle the con­vo­lu­tions oc­ca­sioned by the trio’s arrivals and departures: a mar­riage, a sep­a­ra­tion, rup­tures and re­com­bi­na­tions. A care­ful read­ing is re­quired to make sense of Tilo’s shifts from one man to the other. One may think of François Truf­faut’s Jules and Jim, and of the aca­demics’ love tri­an­gle in the first book of Roberto Bo­laño’s 2666, though here the lovers aren’t lit­er­ary crit­ics but two rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and one jour­nal­ist-turned-govern­ment-stooge. Tilo mar­ries Naga, and as the mar­riage un­rav­els, she goes to Cochin to visit her dy­ing mother, then re­turns with notes doc­u­ment­ing her mother’s de­scent into psy­chosis:

I’ll just take two sheets. But what should our legs do?

Will there be a horse?

A great war has started be­tween me and the but­ter­flies.

Through­out the novel, one is heart­ened and im­pressed by Roy’s re­spect for the in­tel­li­gence and at­ten­tive­ness of her au­di­ence—for its will­ing­ness to fol­low the plot as it tracks back and forth in time, for her read­ers’ abil­ity to rec­og­nize (or fail­ing that, to look up) the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events to which she refers. But only the most de­voted will be able to re­sist skim­ming six full pages of Tilo’s notes on her mother’s rav­ings. In the fi­nal hun­dred pages, we may feel our en­durance wan­ing ever so slightly. One might wish that Roy had in­cluded fewer “found doc­u­ments”: of­fi­cial state­ments by wit­nesses to a killing; a com­pi­la­tion of sto­ries, di­ary en­tries, and press clip­pings that Tilo as­sem­bled dur­ing the war in Kash­mir. And per­haps we might have wel­comed a bit more au­tho­rial guid­ance on the mys­ter­ies that th­ese sec­tions in­tro­duce. The aban­doned baby reap­pears, now named af­ter another child who was mar­tyred in Kash­mir, where in the in­terim Tilo has gone to take part in the strug­gle and be re­united with Musa. Is the child hers, con­ceived with Musa— or is the mother some­one else? Has Musa been killed—or has he sur­vived? Th­ese ques­tions will be an­swered, but by then the so­lu­tions will have al­most stopped mat­ter­ing, be­cause our at­ten­tion—and Roy’s, we feel—has been so fully ab­sorbed by the hor­rors of the war. Once more, we can sur­mise that Roy has wit­nessed and heard about too much bru­tal­ity to keep it from spilling out onto the pages of the first novel she has writ­ten in two decades. It’s all too easy to un­der­stand why she would want to in­form her read­ers about the era’s crimes and hu­man rights abuses. When Tilo is ar­rested in Kash­mir and ac­cused of be­ing “the ac­com­plice of a ter­ror­ist,” she is brought into a tor­ture cham­ber eu­phemisti­cally termed an “in­ter­ro­ga­tion cen­ter”:

At first glance it looked like a rudi­men­tary tool shed, kit­ted out with a cou­ple of car­pen­ters’ work­ta­bles, ham­mers, screw­drivers, pli­ers, ropes, what seemed to be scaled-down stone or con­crete pil­lars, pipes, a tub of filthy water, jerry cans of petrol, metal fun­nels, wires, elec­tric ex­ten­sion boards, coils of wire, rods of all sizes, a cou­ple of spades, crow­bars. On the shelf there was a jar of red chili pow­der. The floor was lit­tered with cig­a­rette stubs. Tilo had learned enough over the last ten days to know that those or­di­nary things could be put to ex­tra­or­di­nary use.

She knew that the pil­lars were the in­stru­ments of the most fa­vored form of tor­ture in Kash­mir. They were used as “rollers” on pris­on­ers who were tied down while two men rolled the pil­lars over them, lit­er­ally crush­ing their mus­cles. More of­ten than not, “roller treat­ment” re­sulted in acute re­nal fail­ure. The tub was for wa­ter­board­ing, the pli­ers for ex­tract­ing fin­ger­nails, the wires for ap­ply­ing elec­tric shocks to men’s gen­i­tals, the chili pow­der was usu­ally ap­plied on rods that were in­serted into pris­on­ers’ anuses or mixed into water and poured down their throats.

One can sense Roy’s pas­sion and rage seep­ing through the quasi-clin­i­cal de­tach­ment of this pas­sage. The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness takes ad­van­tage of what fic­tion can do better than polemic or his­tory: put us in the room with those im­ple­ments re­pur­posed to in­flict max­i­mum pain on other hu­man be­ings. It can make us feel what it is like to be there, in peril, hop­ing—as Tilo does—to find the words that can save us.

By the end of the novel, we have re­turned to the grave­yard that Tilo and An­jum have trans­formed into a mod­est sort of so­cial utopia. There is a wed­ding, a cel­e­bra­tion. We check in on the land­lord, Das­gupta, who has not gone into re­hab, as he once con­sid­ered do­ing, but has at least changed his mind about Kash­mir. “Things will get better,” he thinks. “They must.”

We last see An­jum out for a latenight stroll with the once-aban­doned in­fant, now a thriv­ing child named Miss Udaya Je­been, whose parent­age we have learned. An­jum takes the child to the grave of Bom­bay Silk and ex­plains how she first saw the Hi­jra buy­ing ban­gles from Mir the ban­gle-seller, and fol­lowed her through the streets. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Roy means us to read this as a happy end­ing, a balm to salve the wounds in­flicted by the painful pas­sages that have pre­ceded it. Guih Kyom, the dung bee­tle whose name pro­vides the ti­tle for the fi­nal chapter, thinks that “things would turn out all right in the end.” But that’s a dung bee­tle’s opin­ion.

Look, Roy seems to be say­ing. This is all of it; this is the coun­try I live in. This is a na­tion whose cit­i­zens are ca­pa­ble of greed, cor­rup­tion, in­dif­fer­ence, hor­rific mob vi­o­lence—and a place where, de­spite ev­ery­thing, an el­derly Hi­jra and an adopted child can am­ble through a thousand-year-old city on a starry night.

Arund­hati Roy protest­ing the con­struc­tion of the Sar­dar Sarovar Dam on the Nar­mada River, Gu­jarat, In­dia, 1999

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