Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 26 January 2020

Bridging the gap between art and activism

Fiction: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton, hdbk, 437 pages, €14.99

Thrust into the limelight: Roy was an unknown 35-year-old screenwriter from southern India when she won the Booker
Thrust into the limelight: Roy was an unknown 35-year-old screenwriter from southern India when she won the Booker
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

JP O'Malley

After The God of Small Things won the Booker in 1997, Arundhati Roy gave up writing to became a full-time activist. In this long-awaited follow-up, she uses the novel as a tool to critique the modern world.

In 1997 the Booker Prize was awarded to Arundhati Roy: a 35-year-old unknown screenwriter from the small village of Ayemenem, in Kerala, southern India.

The semi-autobiographical novel told the tragic tale of an Indian family's fall from grace and so-called respectability. It also pointed out that seemingly small events in an individual's life can connect them to a grander narrative of the world: because it's always imbued with a mystical and spiritual dimension.

The book was also a stark reminder how Indian society works from an ancient set of Hindi rules and conservative values. This unapologetic racism - masquerading as a theological set of moral principles - divides the human food chain into a preordained Darwinian hierarchical natural order of skin classifications, castes, classes, creeds, higher races and untouchables.

I was blown away by The God of Small Things when I first read it in the summer of 2004, on an epic 44-hour-train journey- halfway across India - from Kerala towards the holy city of Varanasi. Selling over eight million copies, and translated into 42 languages, the book made Roy a millionaire overnight. She could have easily become a global brand, and cashed in on her new-found success.

Instead, Roy gave up writing fiction and devoted herself to a life as a full-time activist for the international left, campaigning on a wide range of issues, such as nuclear disarmament; the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; anti-globalisation; and Kashmir independence.

The latter issue, Roy argues in a number of non-fiction essays, has been subsumed into a plethora of lies, propaganda, and bloody violence; and the region remains one of the most heavily policed and militarised in the world. The estimated Indian security forces in the region is at well over 700,000, where the population is just 5.5 million.

Bloody battles, masquerading as implementing civic Indian democratic values, have been the norm there. As have false claims from the Indian government that Islamic terrorism is the only game in town for those seeking autonomous separatist rights in Kashmir.

Roy has claimed in numerous interviews that if she was ever to pen another novel, she needed to find a suitable tone of language that could bridge the gap between beautiful art, and the reality of the political causes she is constantly fighting. At last, she has found it.

And so, amid a whirlwind of hype and a huge weight of expectation, comes that difficult second novel: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

This magnificent follow-up defies both the conventions of conservative society, and, more importantly, the limitations most standard novels tend to impose on the reader.

The writing here is overtly political.

And yet, it somehow manages to capture that same beauty, tenderness of the human heart, spiritual-like mysticism, and poetic brilliance that Roy's debut book did.

The novel's hero is Anjum, Delhi's most famous Hijra: the Indian term for a transgender person.

After 30 years of living in a house that caters for Delhi's transgender community, Anjum then moves to a graveyard to live. Pretty quickly she finds herself acquainted with a man who has taken on the moniker of Saddam Hussein, after recently converting to Islam.

Together they set up a guest house/ funeral parlour in the graveyard, which is located near the Red Fort in Delhi. They name it Jannat: which translates as 'paradise'.

The novel's other major narrative concerns the tale of three men who all fell in love with a woman called Tilottama - back in 1984 - on the set of an amateur student play.

One man goes on to become a famous journalist, the other (the narrator, known as the landlord) a loyal servant of the Indian state, and the latter a radical Kashmirian revolutionary fighter. All three men are linked - in kind of weird love triangle - to Tilottama's complicated narrative, which involves the kidnapping of a small baby, among other dramatic events.

If Roy didn't have such a marvellous aptitude for language, clever plotting, and subtle humour in her prose, it might feel as if we are being treated to a political sermon and not a work of fiction.

The narrative skips, sporadically, between modern Delhi, which is being swept up into a rapid maelstrom of conquer and divide capitalism, back to Kashmir, where a battle for independence is being fought on the most bloodthirsty of ideological grounds. The narrative doesn't run sequentially. But this jostling between decades and events works effectively. Primarily because Roy treats narrative itself almost like a huge set of matryoshka dolls.

As soon as one character pops up, another narrative begins, connecting them to someone else, or to important historical events. These secret political massacres, family tragedies, violent murders, pre-genocidal rapes and passionate love affairs all get revealed to us through a host of clever narrative props: including legal documents, letters and propaganda press clippings.

All of which open up a story that flows, playfully, like someone wrestling with a kite on a windy day at the beach.

Roy operates here in the world of biblical-like parable, magic realism, mythical odyssey and the poetic spiritual epiphany.

Through a tapestry of colourful images and a host of political polemics, the author uses the novel as a tool to critique our present world: where individuals are constantly being divided - by those who covet power - into stark boarders, class, castes, genders and stereotypes.

The themes here are dark, bleak, and nihilistic - and we're never far away from a banquet of death, and an orgy of violence. The setting of a graveyard as the story's main milieu appears to be a metaphorical take on the violence of western global-capitalism.

Even though Roy is always pointing to how humans are drawn towards failure, tragedy and hatred, she constantly draws the reader back into what Leonard Cohen once called "the crack in everything [where] the light gets in".

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a celebration of love over violence, hope over hate, and redemption over envy.

Savour this mesmerising read. It could be two decades until Roy produces another such master stroke in literary fiction again.

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