I read God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy when I was in high school. I was bewitched and speechless. In the mean time gallons of dirty water passed through my city’s drains, and during my travel through the decades I forgot her. She came in conversations from time to time, but she became a distant memory. Then bam! it came, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. So I read it. It was in the Man Booker Prize nomination. People were asking me whether it’s going to win, I said “yes”, and then “no”, okay I could not decide. Then George Saunders won Man Booker for “Lincoln in the Bardo“.
I “liked” the book, it made me remember why I “loved” God of Small Things. That fluid poetic music of sadness glides by so smoothly in GoST, one cannot stop it, can just experience it. The feeling I had in GoST is exactly like the one I once had in my uncle’s house. I was looking at the palm tree from the 2nd floor room lying in bed. Windows were open, a breeze was coming that comes only just before the winter, somewhere the sun was setting. And that twilight aura engulping my mind. You want to look away as you do not want to cry, but you cannot move. That’s the feeling I got from GoST. Ministry… was preparing to do the same to me, it even did for few hours, and then came politics.
The story started with Anjum. Sorry. The story started with how the use of Diclofenac in cattle is killing vulturs in India. And cattle is a recurrent motif in this novel. The very description of the dying vultures was a direct punch in the stomach. At least one drop of tear will fall uncontrollably, and you will realize you are crying when the tear will hit your jawbone, yes just like a very runny nose is runny your realize when it touches your lips! So in that prologue Arundhati Roy announced she is back, like the Terminator she kept her promise. I had goosebumps, oh by the way did I tell you how much I was moved by GoST!
So Anjum was born, she was an eunuch. The time she was born in India, an eunuch could not do anything except be a “hijra”, they could not be a makeup artist or a college professor, just a “hijra”. There was a place near Lal Qilla where since Mughals, eunuchs were living. Once upon a time in India eunuchs always had a free roaming card to roam about in andarmahal or interior parts of castles where queens and princesses resided. That place near Lal Qila was called Kwabgah. Such a beautiful name this Khwabgah, almost like Elysium in As You Like It! But here lived the “hijras”, the unwanted, the despicable them. Anjum started her life there, she went to a quack to chop off her ashamed male genitals, and never had an orgasm ever. But here the question was which situation was better, she having a male sexual organ and having a night fall but her heart, her mind felt ashamed of the fact that being a girl it was unnatural to have a fall? Or that to sooth her wounded mind, to unveil and acquire her true femininity she was to never have the happiness that is sometimes compared to being once again born or to meet god, a word that Roland Barthes used to describe the pleasure of reading?
She went on living in Khwabgah, found a foundling, started raising her, that girl fell sick, here comes again a very striking situation when Anjum blames another Khwabgah mate for her daughter’s illness as well as 9/11 in America. Now that is there a fine example of microcosm to macrocosm, mixing superstition with the huge technology that involves a mass destruction, the ridiculous with the grave, the Fool with the Kings.
Anjum’s story involved the Godhra riot. Here Roy made her presence felt with her powerful pen, all the folding and unfolding of the men and women, not the eunuchs, thank god, or is it? Anjum was changed after this, started living in a graveyard, built the Jannat guesthouse and various people started to flock there.
Tilo would come there too with a child, but that was to happen later. Tilo was another part of the story, she is clearly based on the author herself including her JNU connection and her hair to her nose pin et cetera et cetera. And with the author’s shadow came all the other shadows, politics, a leading protester with her salt and pepper plait, gummy smile, big chested chaste man, the shivering national leader, heaven on earth turning into hell with their peach and cream complexion, the tribe with their black hue, and everything in between! And here starts my problem with the book. My views go with Pater, “art’s for art’s sake”. If a novel becomes an agenda, it falls down in my eyes. Here in this novel there are pages that looks like essays that Roy was writing for last 20 years on various burning topics, some pages clarifies some of her actions and denies some allegations. These paragraphs even looked like what sometimes we write randomly with tremendous speed because we are angry. I truly believe because of Tilo’s story the book sometimes lost its integrity as a novel. Still the delineation of Tilo’s psychology is well observed and very personal, one can feel it. But trying to touch all the on going problems in the world in one book that ultimately intends to tell a “story” is too much. Even the dog they found had to be the runaway lab dog with all the pipes coming out of every holes of its body. Animal testing is a cruel ugly truth that needs its own novel and a revolution. But why I felt as if the author was running out of time, she was in a hurry so she put everything she thought of in one book? Is there no such thing as editing of thoughts? If Roy had written only Anjum’s story it would have been great in itself. Tilo’s story seemed an intrusion into the beautiful narrative of Anjum. It seemed Anjum and Tilo were written by two different authors. And there lies Arundhati Roy’s ability actually. So as a reader I’m looking forward to more stories like Anjum’s in future. Please.
Lastly, the title of the book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, bound to make one ponder over its origin.