Published:  12:59 AM, 29 October 2017

An ode to reality: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

An ode to reality: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, Publisher - Penguin Books, published in June 6, 2017

Nazmun Naher Shishir explores the tale of fallen people of Indian society, unveils the agony and endurance narrated by the author

Arundhati Roy, an activist, and a fiction writer, has come up with her second fiction stitched in reality: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, after twenty years. Out of the graveyard The Ministry tells a poignant tale of sufferings of those people who are outcastes in the society within the structure of India and their sufferings are caused by the political intolerance and interstate struggle of India of previous decades since 1950, soon after the partition of 1947.

Despite placing these political issues in her political essays as before, she has infused politics in fiction. And in defense of that, she clarified to Isaac Chotiner while giving interview for The Slate, "There was a lot that could not be said except in fiction."

Covered in a decaying cemetery and dried rose petals, The Ministry symbolizes India as both -- a home and graveyard, for those Indians but who are minor in religion, caste and gender. Paradoxically, Roy turns a Delhi graveyard into a home where victims of different riots and insurgencies seek shelter. On the other hand, a place whom many Indians call home -- Kashmir -- turns into a graveyard.

Thus, The Ministry begins telling a shattered story with Anjum, the transgender protagonist of the novel. Though she rejects the term 'transgender' and prefers to be called 'hijra'. Poetic by name and lyrical by nature, symbolically Anjum is the union of hope and frailty, though she never fails to be confident to embrace all her 'limitations' of being Hijra and Muslim at the same time, in India where 'hijra' community were not recognized as third gender before 2014.

Ambiguity of identity is in the core of the book. Thus, Roy must have shown Anjum's undefined body category as a metaphor of multi religious and culturally heterogeneous India which is indefinable by homorganic culture. Whereas, from the nationalistic point of view, extremist groups of the country along with extremist politicians are always in negotiation to declarer India as a Hindu state.

Thus, Roy unfurls that Anjum once was Aftab: was born as intersex child in a Muslim family after three daughters. After discovering the sexual 'ambiguity' of Aftab -- neither a son nor a daughter; his father desperately influenced him to become a 'masculine' by telling heroic tales of kings. In the contrary, with the desire of being women, he left home to live with other hijras in Khwabgah: House of Dream, where gender outcastes live together and earn their living by prostitution. Thus, he makes flow her womanish breeze of mind caged into a man's body and becomes Anjum in the euphemistic Khawbgah.  

Consequently, Anjum faces the anti-Muslim fury after infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, and she starts living in a graveyard cum base camp of duniya, as she left behind her jannat -- Khawagah, she built her jannat again in between two graves, called -- Jannat Guest House and Funeral. Gradually, we start meeting numerous characters in the graveyard who have same embedded trauma of violence like Anjum.

Therefore, after Anjum's, readers will meet the millions of story-heads of The Ministry like Hydra. From graveyard of Delhi, story revolves around the valley of graveyard -- Kashmir. To continue with that, in the graveyard, Anjum meets Tilottama also known as Tilo -- an architecture student, activist and a solitary observer, a riot victim, and above all a part of Roy herself.

Roy's jump from Anjum to Tilo would feel abrupt but at one point they are identical in being marginalized in India, and the struggle within themselves is as aching as any other riot of the history. Tilo being love-struck with Musa -- a Kashmiri terrorists/activist (Depends on the perspective of the reader), struggles for the Kashmir. And again, undefined identity comes is case of Tilo. She is the 'illegitimate' child of Ammu and Velutha; sister of Rahel and Estha from The God of Small Things, which has no direct accountability in the book.  

The myth of nationalism is established on the basis of the politics of making a state culturally and religiously singular. In this process, many belongs to the religiously minor group, and change their religion -- a life style, to hold at least status in the society. Therefore, readers will meet Saddam Hossain, a young Dalit (or subaltern), who has changed his name and religion by taking the name of a fallen dictator, in the way of his horrible experience of losing his father in Gujrat violence.

His father was killed by the mob because he was carrying a dead cow in his truck. Victim of Hindu caste system and Hindutva, Hossain is actually inspired by the video which shows that with utter bravery how the fallen dictator faced his death. And being critical about globalization, Roy shows that the idea of globalization is caught as leprosy by the disinformation and misinterpretation in the shoulder of the world.

Brutality, insurgency, violence by the powerful politicians of the country take over the novel as Roy's twenty years of activism has been glued together in the storyline. Therefore, Roy not only depicts the story of oppressed but oppressors' too.

There is only one first person narrator -- Garson Hobart (real name is Biplab Dasgupta), the deputy head of the Intelligence Bureau in Kashmir, who was voiced like anti Roy critic. Hobart eventually kills his family and himself, unable to cope up with his guilt conscious on the torture he did to others. Such depiction of both side stories has left Roy in the ambiguous moral state. But, without giving any hint she leaves the remark of her being pro-people.  

All the political circumstances Roy links with her characters in The Ministry have made these events humanly to the readers. The time, circumstances and the plot of these political events might be different but the victims of these war zone share same agony and it is always the oppression of power to the marginalized community either by religion or by caste or by gender.  India's partition of 1748, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, aftermath of 9/11 of 2001, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, contemporary Kashmir struggle, and violence of extreme caste system, have the potentiality to disrupt the comfort zone of reader. Roy actually enforces the reader to see the world from the down to the world.

The Ministry is a "place of falling people" and their rise, holding of each other's hand and their recovery. Though the characters are broken, they have their own beauty to bloom even in between the two graveyards. And the pathos they behold make them numb which move readers even though the end is almost never ending -- as real as life.

How much of agony, anguish, death, love and joy a book can contain? No. Not an appropriate question to be asked in case of The Ministry - it has everything, one of its kind. After reading it over and over, it feels like this book has told everything. Everything about being tortured and being human, simultaneously. Moreover, The Ministry and its characters are beautiful in its own lost way, since she dedicated the book to "The Unconsoled."


The reviewer is a journalist

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