When I put Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness down for the first time, I breathed an enormous sigh — a sigh in realization that perhaps everything that needs to be said, has been, that a single book could contain so much of everything, so much anguish and joy and love and war and death and life, so much of being human. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel like you’ve lived several times over. I’d felt a shadow of this same enormous, overpowering feeling — along with a welter of other chaotic emotions — when reading The God of Small Things for the first time.
In The God of Small Things, I saw uncovered every tiny detail of my India, my South India, to the extent I had one as someone who has lived nearly her whole life in the States. Caste laid bare, abuse of all sorts, village life, wildlife, older women who somehow wielded all the power, Christianity living alongside Islam and Hinduism, communism, marches, injustice and also quite open fights against injustice, passion. It was not the India of expat, well-off Hindus that aped Victorian morals, and had quiet, controlled epiphanies. The world in those novels is an India in which “protesting and activism may also seem culturally alien,” as The Atlantic put it in an article about the recent spate of hate crimes against Indian Americans. In The God of Small Things was the far more interesting and real India that I’d observed, and that had been suggested by my father’s stories about the village and town where his family was from.
Somehow in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first novel in 20 years, Roy outdoes The God of Small Things, and this is largely because it is an even more unsettling, artistic cry against injustice. It is a polyphonic protest.
Granted, it lacks her first novel’s intimacy, its sense of inventing its own language, the sense that you are entering into a private, not quite real, world that is yours. The first novel included a few different settings, but it largely took place in a circumscribed bounded space — the town of Ayemenem in Kerala. What the second novel sometimes lacks in the “miniature” qualities that characterized The God of Small Things, it makes up for in its kaleidoscopic range, its rugged Rushdie-esque maximalism, its ripping open of the world to show us everything that is dazzlingly beautiful and brutally ugly about it, its daring public unsheathing of many emotions and events considered private, and its enormity, its recounting of everything without sacrificing the sheer honesty of its predecessor. If at times it’s messy and unwieldy and hard to control, this chaos mirrors the identity of India itself.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens in a graveyard full of flying foxes, bats, crows, and sparrows. Lest the reader mistake it for a place of romantic wildness, it is also a place where the vultures have died of diclofenac poisoning, which is used to ease the pain of cows so that they’ll produce more milk. In the graveyard is Anjum, born a hermaphrodite, not technically a Hijra — a female trapped in a male body, as a doctor in the novel describes it.
Born Aftab in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi, Anjum had both boy parts and girl parts, which left her Muslim mother terrified. In Urdu,
all things, not just living things, but all things — carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments — had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. […]
Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
This question, whether it’s possible to live outside the control of language, outside of the circumscribed categories, the binaries that don’t work for many of us, recurs throughout the book, growing louder and louder as the book explores the conflict in Kashmir.
Anjum’s mother tries to raise Aftab as a boy, but one spring morning Aftab sees what appears to be a woman, Bombay Silk, in bright lipstick and gold high heels. He follows her to Khwabgah, the House of Dreams. A group of eight Hijras live there together with their guru Ustad, and eventually Aftab is able to insinuate himself into their lives. Finding a sense of belonging makes Aftab unbelievably happy. But his first friend in the house asks if he knows why God made Hijras, and explains, “He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.” The friend goes on to explain that what makes grown-ups unhappy are things like:
husbands’ beatings, wives’ cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war — outside things that settle down eventually. But for us […] [t]he riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.
Anjum wants to contradict her, but eventually the words prove prophetic. Her body begins to rebel — she grows hairy, tall, muscular, and she develops an Adam’s apple — and like anyone whose outsides aren’t aligned with her internal sense of identity, she develops a strong unhappiness. In spite of these difficulties, however, she becomes Delhi’s most famous Hijra, undergoing a botched surgery and treatment for her voice. She mothers a daughter, Zainab, whom she finds crying on the steps and who immediately trusts her. A trust that subdues momentarily the internal battle her friend had dubbed “Indo-Pak.”
Years later, as a result of getting caught up in an approximation of the 2002 Gujarat riots, Anjum winds up in a refugee camp, and when she returns to Khwabgah, she’s altered so much that her daughter is afraid to be around her. She takes up residence in a graveyard, and over the years, her home there gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a guesthouse that she rents to down-and-out travelers. As she tells her friend, a Dalit (once known as an untouchable) who has taken the name Saddam Hussein,
Once you have fallen off the edge like all of us have […] you will never stop falling. And as you fall you will hold on to other falling people […] This place where we live where we have made our home, is the place of falling people.
Amid protests and performance art by the graveyard, another baby is abandoned by her mother and then kidnapped by a woman introduced as S. Tilottama, who goes by Tilo. Something of a Christ figure who will eventually “settle accounts and square the books” and turn the tide (perhaps the saffron tide), this baby — Miss Jebeen the Second — provides an entry point into a beautiful and tremendous love story. Tilo is one half of the couple that forms the love story that is braided into Anjum’s narrative. While all of the protestors, activists, artists, and other marginalized people squabble about whether to call the police — Anjum is firmly against it — Tilo takes the baby.
To tell the love story, the novel digs back more than 30 years. A group of three men were in love with Tilo when they worked on a college play together, Norman, Is That You?, at Delhi University. The play was never performed due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and yet the four characters’ lives intersect repeatedly and significantly later on. One of the actors was Naga, a mercurial master’s of history student, who played Norman. Another, a traditional Brahmin named Biplab Dasgupta, played his lover Garson Hobart. One of the actors was a government servant, who also becomes a landlord in Delhi. Another student, Tilo, was a mysterious third-year Architecture School student and gifted artist working on the sets and lighting design.
The rumors about Tilo’s background are quite similar to Roy’s own background and the story of Rahel in The God of Small Things — born to a Syrian Christian mother in Kerala who’d had a scandal, a love affair with an untouchable. She’s eccentric, and refuses to divulge her background, at least to Biplab Dasgupta, from whose point of view we first see her. Naga and Biplab Dasgupta (who Tilo continues to call Garson Hobart) are “students of history, wooing a girl who didn’t seem to have a past, a family, a community, a people, or even a home.”
Musa is Tilo’s architecture classmate, a Kashmiri man who is solid, dependable and gifted. Tilo and Musa are in a relationship that is never quite clear to Biplab, and that Tilo, for a reason unknown to the other two men, seems determined to keep mum about.
Later Biplab becomes a government servant of India in the Intelligence Bureau and marries a Brahmin woman who is in the Foreign Service. He’s posted to Srinagar, a city in the Kashmir Valley, for several years as Deputy Station Head for the Bureau. Naga, who moves through a series of political positions that seem to Garson Hobart extreme, becomes a mainstream newspaper journalist and an asset to the Intelligence Bureau.
Biplab’s political views, liberal, but moderate ones, are only slightly different from those of his conservative, closeted Brahmin colleagues who don’t seem to see “the difference between religious faith and patriotism” and who “want a sort of Hindu Pakistan.” He describes Hindu nationalism rising like a “saffron tide” just as “the swastika once did in another.” However, Biplab is only mildly liberal, commenting,
I feel a rush of anger at those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country. Frankly, they can only do it because they are allowed to. And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy.
In 1996, however, Biplab gets a midnight call from Major Amrik Singh who Biplab describes as not just a rotten apple, but a putrid one. Singh had previously captured and murdered Jalib Qadri, a well-known lawyer and human rights activist, and during the call he notes that they’d captured Commander Gulrez, a terrorist, in a massive search operation of a houseboat. Along with Commander Gulrez, they’d captured a lady who was not Kashmiri. When she was sent for an interrogation, she’d asked that a message be passed along to him over the phone. Uncertain of whether the murdered terrorist is Musa, Biplab sends Naga to pick up Tilo.
Moving backward and forward, the remainder of the novel concerns how Tilo and Musa’s love story intersects with that of Anjum, and the kidnapped baby. The love story is one of opposites attracting. Tilo has no background, no belonging, no home, and she adopts insouciance about this, whereas Musa is a Kashmiri activist who would die for his home.
In the latter half of the novel, Tilo writes in her notebook:
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.
She asks two questions of this statement, one of which is: “What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?” The novel seems determined to violate Tilo’s observation, as the most important parts of the novel happen in Kashmir. The state is a site of inversions, simultaneously full of brutality and play. “Dying became just another way of living” in Kashmir, Roy announces, trying to characterize the state while also pulling it outside the conventions of ordinary language.
Identity is at the heart of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Not only India’s identity, or Kashmir’s identity, but also the identities of individual people, often those considered marginalized. However, it’s not identity as it is considered in public discourse — a fixed category, a biological mark or trait that can’t be altered from what it appears on the surface to be. In the novel, as in life, identity is an incredibly slippery thing, a human something that resists boundaries and artificial borders. Anjum is neither man nor woman nor, exactly, a Hijra. She’s a hermaphrodite and a mother. In many ways she’s restricted in her happiness by her identity. Tilo is outside identity, but perhaps no more happy for this unusual freedom. As Naga notes, “It had to do with the way she lived, in the country of her own skin. A country that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates.”
What Roy recognizes in both her books is that language is often a source of power, and that naming — the act of identifying something as “man” or “woman” or “India” or “Pakistan” or “Kashmir” — is a way of exerting dominion. It’s the nature of language to capture only so much of experience and leave certain qualities of experience out. The refusal to be bound, the refusal to be named is the impulse to exist outside of language, outside of polemic, outside of countries and nations. It’s an impulse toward freedom (or perhaps, in Kashmir, azadi). And yet, as Roy recognizes, even the smallest steps toward liberating or naming oneself as a marginalized person are quickly repudiated by those who have material power. For example, in the United States, the conservative movement against critical race theory, against “intersectionality” and against “identity politics,” recognizes that the most vulnerable in our society are finally creating a language for their experience, and thereby gaining a form of power. They’re quick to stamp it out. Sometimes this new form of power can be toxic, if not as toxic as the conservative form of power, but it is also always providing a shelter to those that don’t have more traditional protections. Like her first novel, Roy’s second emphasizes the liminal spaces, the space outside conventional language and power. She centers the vulnerable and the unseen of our world, making clear that love is the only way for individuals to really meet across the borders of skin or country.
There are many novelists that set out to make the unfamiliar familiar. So much of this process involves writing into divisions, writing into the status quo and language of the powerful. For example, in American fiction, even those, like Roy, who are between identities, frequently have to write toward the status quo, toward the bourgeois. Look at X minority group — they’re just like us! these short stories and novels seem to announce, stripping out any aspect of identity that might suggest cultural difference. And of course, they are just like us, or we’re like them, and this is a worthwhile, if also well-trod, sentiment. But although there is a common humanity, a universalism in her work, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Roy celebrates the little differences, makes use of all the features of identity that may seem, to a reader more comfortable with the bourgeois novel (the novel as commodity), freakish, grotesque, or magical.
The lack of sobriety, the wordplay, the goofy descriptions, and the color that characterize Roy’s two novels may seem grotesque to those who take the perspective of the powerful, but for others, they are magical. These characteristics are, as anyone who has visited India knows, utterly real. In its celebration of difference, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has as much in common with Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, as it has with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Most novels don’t comment at all on power, even though our real world operates on power, and in failing to comment, are in and of themselves politically status quo, interested primarily in the perceptions of those who have and wield power. For those inclined toward the status quo, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is, at every turn, hyperaware of power, advancing a complicated dramatic argument on behalf of everyone whose identities are slippery. In the character Anjum, for example, the novel might be said to show how identity can be by turns a prison and a form of freedom. From another light, however, the novel makes no arguments at all, but simply reflects the reality of the majority of people in the world right now, a majority that did not build the language or the divisions or the structures or the wars that have made such a mess of our world.
The novel is an anthem for the misfits and the weirdos watching on the sidelines or being crushed by oppressive forces. It’s not for people who identify with the oppressive forces of the world and the tools they use (the master’s tools) — marriage, jobs, money, goods, and sober language. However, it’s also too irreverent, too unwilling to wholeheartedly identify with anything, to be a good fit for those that have adopted call-out culture. For example, the socialist social worker in Clovis who deals with Amrik Singh’s asylum petition is treated as a laughable figure, rather than the kind of hero he’d be in an American progressive polemic.
For all the control and power that can be gained with language, language is also a form of magic, a way to bring the inanimate to life, a way to hand power to the powerless. Everything is alive in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, from emotions to people to the country itself. For example, Anjum’s “desolation protected her. Unleashed at last from social protocol it rose up around her in all its majesty — a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob.”
Internal emotions, then, are as real as what happens outside a person.
It is precisely this aliveness of every human as well as every little animal and thing (a feature of the book that is influenced by Hinduism) that makes this novel so remarkable. There’s a common misconception in the United States that the political novel is somehow unartistic — didactic or simplistic or polemical — and this novel gives lie to that idea. It’s bursting with artistry, if not the artistry of the bourgeois.
Arundhati Roy has been described as “anti-India” by rightwing Hindu nationalists determined to portray India as a monoculture, the singular culture of well-off upper-caste Hindu Anglophiles, while simultaneously trying to claim a higher status in the world by calling itself a secular democracy. Ironically, she’s written a loving novel that genuinely engages with the polyglot, polymorphic character of India.
The true measure of a democracy is in how it treats its most marginalized and vulnerable people. For some of us, it is the condition of the powerless and marginalized, not the powerful that best reflects the character of a country. It’s people on the margins who are able to observe a country most clearly, and from all angles, rather than following the lead of how the people at the center of the country, at the center of its norms want to see themselves. In the United States, the marginalized include the homeless, the LGBTQ community, people of color, Muslims, and women. So it’s not a surprise that women and people of color are leading the resistance against the homegrown bigots and well-off minority of rich people that are destroying democratic institutions. They are the ones that see most clearly what is being threatened, and are most affected by the loss of democratic protections. Similarly, in India, the protestors and activists are even more diverse, and, like many of us in the United States, are also struggling against bigotry and a well-funded minority of upper-caste Hindus who claim to speak for every Indian, and who have no interest in real democracy.
As her friend, Pankaj Mishra has said, Roy’s sympathies are always with the powerless, and this sets The Ministry of Utmost Happiness apart from the other important novels of the past half century. She’s a treasure of India and the world. There are those that call her novels Dickensian, and the comparison is somewhat apt, though her epigraphs suggest that she finds more common ground with Jean Genet and James Baldwin. Both she and Dickens consider moral and sociopolitical issues and both write rich characters and entertaining plots that make clear their hearts lie with the most vulnerable people in society. They both deftly wield irreverent humor — at one point Amrik Singh provides testimony for a refugee application in the United States and writes, “The Kashmir police and Indian Government is putting this blame on me. I am being made an escape goat.” However, I’d say that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is more moving and powerful than most of the books in Dickens’s oeuvre. Where Dickens frequently lapses into a kind of caricatured villainy, and a caricatured innocence, Roy seems to clearly observe the contradictions within the emotional life of every character, even the powerful, even the evil.
Roy elucidates the conversation around power and diversity in a way that no other author does. This book is more than just one of the best protest novels ever written, standing up to reading after rereading. It is also the ultimate love letter to the richness and complexity of India — and the world — in all its hurly-burly, glorious, and threatened heterogeneity.
Anita Felicelli has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (Modern Love), San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been published in The Normal School, Joyland, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, Strangelet Journal, and The Stockholm Review.