The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Here we have genius at work. Not just the genius of Roy’s hypnotic prose, but also the genius of how the disparate threads of her story so effortlessly come together as the novel concludes. I’m talking also of Roy’s genius in presenting so many conflicting world views; the view of India’s teeming dispossessed and marginalised masses, of which India’s brutally marginalised transgender community serves as the perfect metaphor for all those suffering a similar fate. Then there is the viewpoint of India’s regimented military personnel ruthless yet human and even humane all at once. And there is the genius of Roy’s representation the Kashmiri struggle both in its nationalist and cross-border Jihadist incarnations. Muslim, Hindu, Maoist and Sikh; the middle classes and the untouchables, the winners and the losers. All come to life with Roy’s expert imagination, all jostle for our sympathies, all form part of India’s rich but desperate tapestry of life.

Roy’s novel is defiantly imbued with the dialectic and is truly a wondrous thing. Of course, it’s been twenty years in the making but for me, the wait has been well and truly worth it. Arundhati Roy may well have become the leading spokesperson for India’s dispossessed, but she is so much more. Roy is nothing if not an internationalist, and although her two novels and her many other publications are firmly rooted in the Indian subcontinent, I think it fair to say her true canvass is humanity itself. Every line of this beautiful novel sheds light on the human condition, even if we humans are described as little more than weevils that have learnt to walk on two legs.

Roy was once hailed as a master story-teller. Then she was hailed as a fearless campaigner for human and environmental rights. Now, with this second novel, she has shown herself to be both of the above. With the universality of her lines, Roy has become a philosopher speaking to the world at large. Here is Roy at her very philosophical best:

They (the Kashmiris) aren’t very good at other people’s pain. But then, who is? The Baloch, who are being buggered by Pakistan, don’t care about the Kashmiris. The Bangladeshis whom we (India) liberated are hunting down Hindus. The good old communists call Stalin’s Gulag a necessary part of the revolution. The Americans are currently lecturing the Vietnamese about human rights. What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt.

Roy, talking through the eyes of an Indian intelligence officer, continues in fine form:

And then there’s that other business that’s become pretty big these days. People communities, castes, races, and even countries carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market. P194/195

That is one side of the dialectic but Roy is equally adept at representing the other side. Her sympathy for the Kashmiri struggle, and all such struggles for self-determination, is clear enough in her novel. But even here she does not allow herself to slip into mindless sloganeering. Speaking through the eyes of a Kashmiri militant and one of the novel’s leading protagonists, Roy is wise enough to note:

We were fighting and dying in our thousands for Azadi, and at the same time we were trying to secure cheap loans from the very government we were fighting. We’re a valley of idiots and schizophrenics and we’re fighting for the freedom to be idiotic P359

Here is Roy at her very finest; novelist, campaigner and philosopher. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, when it is finally revealed to us, reminds me very much of the slum life so brilliantly portrayed in Shantaram. Savagely poor yet a community of such resilience and caring. Humanity simply refusing to give in in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. If you wanted to appoint a world government to run this sorry planet, you would simply have to select Arundhati Roy as one of its leading ministers. With Roy, we would get an all-rounder; humanist, environmentalist, internationalist and above all, a master story teller for our troubled times.

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