After a 20-year hiatus from fiction, Arundhati Roy delivers a gripping piece of literature.
Through her prose, one can peek at her soul. The irony is that it might be that those people are as vulnerable as their opulent counterparts given the political turn of events. The then chief minister of Gujarat, with cold dead eyes, is now presiding the entire country with unparalleled power and with quirk of events coupled with personal greed of unscrupulous politicians, his party is also saddled in power in Kashmir.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has become one of the most reviewed books since, and even before, its publication in June 2017. The anticipatory mêlée had a sort of cultish tinge akin to that witnessed in the last decade of the last century before release of Harry Potter books or later in this century when Steve Jobs had his gadgets visit the humanity to change the trajectory of the homo sapiens in the manner of cognitive, agricultural and industrial revolutions. Every single human trajectory has been uniquely uneven leaving unfilled interstitial spaces for those unable to keep the pace for eclectic reasons to fall through only to be forgotten by rest of the humanity. They might be forgotten but the unforgotten, also called underprivileged, hardly stop living. As a matter of fact, they, in their own way, live their exhilarating lives by creating the ministry of utmost happiness where living and non-living, person and nonperson share whatever there is to share and, critical to their survival, support one another, stoically unknown in the ‘real’ world.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an amalgamation of tales with arching labyrinths of contemporary tumultuous events where heroes are the people whose existence in society is acknowledged only when utterly essential. Protagonist of one of the main stories in the book is a transgender, born as Aftab, who later rechristens herself as Anjum, weaves her existence in a house aptly called Khwabgah – the house of dreams – but not before her mother having exhausted her supplications at the mausoleum of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed. Historically, Sarmad, an Armenian Jewish mystic described by Audrey Truschke in her book on Aurangzeb as an irreverent who had prophesized that Dara Shukoh would take throne; Aurangzeb had him executed in 1661. Slowly and tortuously, Aftab realizes her non-status and starts looking for signs for the life that would have meaning for him; although, it might be said, it was not due to dearth of love for her.
The house of dream with history dating back to Mughals turns out to be a quintessential place, not only inhabited by queer and transgender, but any perceptional misfit finds there a shelter. But Anjum’s life takes a turn after she survives the visit to Gujarat during the pogroms against Muslims unleashed under and provoked by the state administration with, as in Roy’s words “the then chief minister of Gujarat appeared on TV in a saffron Kurta with a slash of vermilion on his forehead, and with cold, dead eyes ordered the burnt bodies of Hindu pilgrims be brought to Ahmedabad, the capital of the state, where they were put on display for the general public to pay their respect.” Anjum survives only for being a transgender as the killers, on a Muslim killing spree, did not want to court a bad luck by killing a transgender. As Arundhati Roy tells “nothing scared those murderers more than prospect of a bad luck. After all, it was to ward off bad luck that fingers that gripped the slashing swords and flashing daggers were studded with lucky stones embedded in thick gold rings. It was to ward off the bad luck that the wrists wielding iron rods that bludgeoned people to death were festooned with red puja threads lovingly tied by adoring mothers. Having taken all these precautions, what would be the point of willfully courting bad luck?”
Anjum fresh from the trauma leaves Khwabgah and makes a home with dead in a cemetery that eventually becomes shelter for the intentionally and deliberately forgotten. That is where her new companion, originally a low-caste boy, Dayachand, who later calls himself Saddam Hussein, tells Anjum the story of orchestrated cow-based lynching of his father. That reflects foreboding of the lynching season to descend on India with cow as a pretext to target the most vulnerable Muslims. In time, the dwelling in the cemetery, called Jannat (Heaven) Guest House becomes a converging point ultimately joined by another protagonist in the book, the indomitable Tillotama. It is through Tillotama, Tillo in short, that Arundhati brings the Indian devilry through inhumane occupation of Kashmir to the fore. Tillo’s story brings to the world, not that there was left anything unknown, the treachery of Indian occupation of Kashmir and the heinousness that state resorts in suppression of the aspirations of freedom. It brings in graphical details the mechanical and bureaucratic apparatus that the state had built to maintain an aura of Indian control over state, it only lacked the wherewithal to create an Orwellian state to affect hearts and minds of Kashmiris. That shortcoming was not for the lack of trying. The brutal killing of Jalil Andrabi, a human rights lawyer and firing at the funeral procession of Maulvi Farooq, though fictionalized are truthful representation of true events. More than any of those events, the book conveys an unambiguous defiance of Kashmiris in the face of tortures and deaths; graveyards as a matter of fact became symbols of resistance and resilience.
The panorama created by Arundhati Roy traverses across a vast canvas bringing in irrepressible hues of characters caricaturing almost everyone in Indian politics, be it the lisping Vajpayee, the trapped rabbit Manmohan Singh or Kejriwal with unsingular look or that manipulated anti-corruption crusader, the Farex baby faced Anna Hazare. But the book lightens up the most where the story focuses on the unacknowledged people fallen through the cracks, who are essential for opulent lives as long as they remain invisible. It’s the description of things they do to lighten the oppressiveness of their lives like graphic sacrifice of a water buffalo for Eid that makes the book what it is and Arundhati Roy who she is. Through her prose, one can peek at her soul. The irony is that it might be that those people are as vulnerable as their opulent counterparts given the political turn of events. The then chief minister of Gujarat, with cold dead eyes, is now presiding the entire country with unparalleled power and with quirk of events coupled with personal greed of unscrupulous politicians, his party is also saddled in power in Kashmir. Not that any of this matters, Kashmiris have long resolved to not be swayed by politicians of any color in Delhi or their local facilitators in the valley for their ultimate goal to breathe free air of the pristine valley free of gun-wielding agents and schemers and to not allow them to traduce anymore than they have already.
At the end, one would wish Tillo and three companions instead of going to a school for architects had instead been studying law or international relations given the trails their individual and shared lives traverse in the book. For Anjum, her accomplices and collaborators, I wouldn’t change a thing.