Arundhati Roy’s second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is a triumph. (Her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the prestigious Booker Prize; her other published writings are all nonfiction). I’ve been rather surprised at some of the negative comments on The Ministry. Roy is perhaps difficult to categorize as a novelist only; her thoughts on politics run through the novel, and parts of the novel are actually a fable, too, but those additional aspects make the novel richer to me. Occasionally, she uses her authorial voice to talk directly to her readers, but I find that an increasingly common trope in contemporary literature, and a not uncommon one in 19th century novels.
She begins this long novel with the birth of an hermaphrodite, a probable boy who has the genitals of both male and female, so we know right away we’re in new and rare territory, that of An Other. This boy chooses to live, as an adult , with a group of women who are all transsexuals or transgenders, who really do live with each other in a kind of commune, outside the pale of perceived “reality”, known as “hijras”. Roy’s early chapters focus on one of these people, and she will become one of the main characters later in the novel, too. Three young men who meet in college all fall in love with the same woman, who appears to be based upon Roy herself. Each of them will play some kind of role in the long, ongoing war in Kashmir: the heart of the novel doesn’t so much take us through the war, but through that endless war through the lives and thoughts of the three men. Kashmir is a mostly Muslim province way in the North of India, bordering on Nepal and ultimately Tibet, and both India and Pakistan have been laying claim to Kashmir (where the world’s finest wool, in the West called cashmere, is made). It’s a beautiful natural setting, and Roy’s sense of its people and its existence is the warp and woof of most of this novel. Tito, the woman whom three men love, is frustratingly vague as a character; she seems to be or have been an architect; her background is vague, but she’s living alone and independently as early as her late teens, which is very rare in India for a woman. Because all three of the men with whom she becomes involved are part either of the Kashmiri revolt, or part of the Indian security forces, Roy presents their characters intertwined with the war to great effect. And she hates the Indian military and its torture-loving swags. Roy most persuasively shows us how an entire people, Kashmiris, become increasingly dehumanized by the pointless war itself. There are plots within plots, twists and turns within this narrative, but Roy makes them focus around the three men, one of whom she truly loves, one whom she marries for expediency, and one who loves her a bit from afar, and who saves her skin when she’s caught by Indian military/torturers. And I believe that wars seen through the eyes of individual participants is an excellent way to delineate it, and Roy’s superbly effective thus.
A kind of Biblical remnant will end up living in the graveyard, where Anjum, our original hajra, has gone to live. This boundary between the living and the dead is presented as a kind of Utopia, wherein people live , love, and support one another, and includes a new baby whom all are raising together, various “losers”, in a Western sense, which also includes animals and insects, drug addicts and the lowest “castes” in India. The war and daily life in India is presented as a separate reality, a very Buddhist concept, indeed, and the characters who live in the expanding graveyard may be said to have transcended daily reality (the Maya of both Buddhism and Hindusim), and are reborn, in a sense, in a community of “Others”. (The last persuasive utopia in contemporary literature was that created by Lauren Groff in “Arcadia).
And Roy writes with great passion. The pages whiz by on her energy, and, though a rather long novel, I never once felt bored or wanted the plot to hurry along. Arundhati Roy has truly written a masterpiece; it’s a bit messy here and there, but that’s part of its occasional powerful charm. Reviewers have complained that the novel should be more of this, less of that, but I find the each of those reviews I’ve read has very much missed some of her major points, and have a sense that this author’s huge successes are something that they, perhaps, resent. Roy is a cultural phenomenon of contemporary literature, and she has a whole lot to write about. Her two novels to date are amazing, and we await what else will come from her wildly fertile brain.