In its dogged refusal to become a thing of beauty, it celebrates the androgynously loving, hideous leftovers of 21st century Indianness.
The prefatory shroud that nestles the gravestone on the cover jacket of Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is both a great expectation, and a drying, dying rose. The 20-year-wait is always the introduction, even ironically at times, and it clashes, or mates, with the coda at the back: How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.
Arundhati Roy, the Great Anti-national, the literary terrorist, is a priestess of the great shattering. Her second offering at the high temple of Literature is a hideous diary of the moment, as she resists becoming nice and acceptable, even on the page. In her dogged refusal to offer us a thing of canonical beauty, she shamelessly parades the androgynously loving, ghoulish leftovers of 21st century India.
This is the witchcraft that connoisseurs of good taste, and of novels that reaffirm the supremacy of the literary market, of seamless juxtaposition between insidious hierarchies and corporatised lit-fests, will call a “bad novel”. And, a bad novel it is, just like Roy is a bad woman, the badness being its/her resistance to being accommodated, being figured out, being categorised, coopted and ascribed a safe space.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an unsafe novel, a dirty bomb, as it were, thrown at the citadels of nationalism that was born in 1998, with the Pokhran nuclear tests. That is the bookend for Roy’s universe, an important inner date, a personal zero-point of becoming the Anti-national. That was the year the nation ended its imagination, by prioritising the bomb over the (eventually, potentially) bombed. The bombed were not just the humans, but the creatures, dwellers underneath the ground that shook in that desert stretch. Roy’s throwback was a militant word-bomb, in her 1998 essay, The End of Imagination.
Is The Ministry a novelisation of the same impulse? Yes, perhaps. And, no, not quite. Is Roy’s return to fiction satisfactory? Has she fictionalised enough, maintained that critical distance from the “real world” – Duniya, where everybody lives and dies – ensured the novelistic Goldilocks zone for hers to be a Suitable Book?
But then, suitability and Roy are as far apart from each other as the two ends of the universe. And if the universe is a giant sphere, the two farthest points are one and the same, almost like god. Hers is the Anti-Chronicle, because its protagonists are inverted and hotchpotch themselves, entering and exiting the story at will, like the old birds who go somewhere to die, without giving two hoots to chronology.
Whether it’s Anjum the hijra who “lived in the graveyard like a tree”, or Tilo, in whose thick, curly hair Biplab Dasgupta could see “small birds nesting”, the characters in The Ministry are recognisably familiar, yet distant in their shaggy, self-flagellating irony. Worlds jostle against each other, blowing into each other like the insults thrown at Anjum the hijra when she lived like a tree in the graveyard. The caricatured, compromised “liberal” – a class one Lutyens media type, or the devastatingly handsome militant muse of a Kashmiri man, or even the razor-sharp but tortured bureaucrat-lover-rejecter of the beating heart and the ticking mind-bomb of The Ministry, or the baby as the child of the State as the Rapist, or the bumbling political figures courting attention and obsolescence at once – everybody in The Ministry lives with relation to each other, “wounding each other deeply”, yet “recognising loneliness when [they] see one”.
Yet, some would say, the many worlds she straddles in her Medusa mind, blinding her reader-gazers with her intrepid sooth-saying, those worlds, they don’t fit neatly into each other, that one cannot make sense out of her multiverse. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle that’s hideously recalcitrant to the taxonomy of taste. Those who expect a narrative obedience, nay, an immediate and comfortable coherence, they would be confused at first, upset and let down later. Some would knowingly smirk at Roy conforming once again to her stereotype – “She who pets her liberal causes and needs an excuse of a book to hang them from.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy; Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India, 2017; Pg 445.
The Ministry anticipates that. The book knows that its is a “placard aesthetics”, culled from the solidarity marches on India’s bleeding streets, where humans are lynched because of their names, the accident of their births, the prayer cap on their heads, the manner in which their dead are put to rest. The opening question – the life and death one, of cremation versus burial – occurs in a graveyard, somewhere in Old Delhi, behind a government hospital.
Why is it that in a novel that we expect our pamphlets of resistance to turn into love songs and romantic sonnets, that we’d raise a toast to in our drawing rooms, consuming war and liberation from our increasingly humongous TV screens? The Ministry insists on the camaraderie of the unpleasant, without camouflaging or codifying them for convenient consumption, without turning them into anodyne anecdotes of revolutionary rendition, without turning them into tweets not from birds but bots and trolls from a paid digital army, doing the nationalist bidding. The Ministry, like Roy herself, is inconvenience as a book.
Like the vultures who die of diclofenac poisoning – good birds, old friends, scavengers them vultures dying of cow-aspirin consumption – in the preface, in the same way, the guardians of our memory, the writers, the artistes, the scribes, the journalists, the painters, the singers, the dancers and the musicians – they are dropping dead from the sky. Like the vultures scavenging on the cow carcass, the human vultures who extract art and literature and sense and memory and culture from the living cadavers of civilisations, they are dying from brain relaxant poisoning. The death is of course metaphorical, it’s the death of their ability to question because they are on a conditioned diet of obedience, obedience to the Great Nationalism.
Exactly as the Nation builds itself massive rockets and bombs, parades its annihilators and nuclear torpedoes, the nation’s vultures – the questioners, the scavengers of nationalism – they experience dizziness. The nerve gas of nuclear nationalism bulldozes the benign bounty of differences, the happy celebrations of many-ness. While Roy is attendant to the gigantic complexity of the nation and its narrations, she laments, and ironises, the dying throes of plurality itself.
Arundhati Roy’s book is a literary castration of that giant penis of the hypermasculine nation. However, this isn’t a punitive action, but rather, it’s an attempt to emerge out of the shadow of the nationalist phallocentricism, beyond which the androgynous delights of a secular modernity wait longingly. It’s an ode to love, love of/from the discarded, of the people of the debris, whether in Delhi, or Kashmir, or Bastar.
It’s best not to read The Ministry literally, word for word, ingesting the references she bluntly makes to characters like Gujarat ke Lalla, Aggarwal, Azad Bharatiya. While the parallels are packed into this not-so-thick a book, it’s perhaps rewarding to see them as urges, proclivities, tendencies and waves clashing against each other. The proximity of the context makes the book like a long harangue, a never-ending oped column which has engulfed its Page One, City, Nation, Entertainment, World and Sports sections, but once we zoom out, and return to The Ministry after a while, the weaponised words tell us a story.
In the beginning was a shattering.