Most likely it would still make news today if a first novel by a young Indian woman living in India won the Man Booker Prize. Certainly it was big news in 1997, when Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things received the prestigious British award, and the resultant publicity helped bring international attention to Roy’s intimate, lyrical, and revealing portrayal of a multigenerational family in Kerala.
The God of Small Things reached a much broader audience than earlier depictions of rural and semirural India, in work such as that of the brilliant R.K. Narayan. Roy’s dreamy, elegiac domesticity appealed to the sort of reader who may have been intimidated by the scope and velocity of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Two decades later, her novel is still widely read and continues to elicit fervent enthusiasm. Younger writers credit it with having expanded their sense of what could be done in fiction and, more to the point, of who was entitled to do it. Junot Diaz has called The God of Small Things “one of the single most important novels written in English,” and one can see its influence on Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; the two books share a loose, confident approach to storytelling and chronology, a debt to magical realism, and an interest in how ordinary people carry on with their lives in times of historical turmoil.
The Syrian Christian family at the center of The God of Small Things includes a twin sister and brother whose mother precipitates a series of tragedies by falling in love across caste and religious lines. The narrative, set mostly in the 1960s, focuses on the twins’ childhood, on the drowning of a young half-English cousin, and on their dramatic discovery of what they mean to each other; these plot elements are what the novel’s fans will most vividly recall. So it’s striking, on rereading the book, to discover how powerfully the political climate of Kerala (which at that time had a Marxist government) affects almost everything that happens. Defined, to varying degrees, by class background and party affiliation, the characters are haunted by what it means to be an Anglophile. Roy shows us, from the inside, the challenges and complexities of maintaining an old—and forging a new—cultural identity in a former colony.
Perhaps this amended reading of Roy’s first novel owes something to our awareness of what she has accomplished in the years since its publication. A vocal, visible, and courageous activist, she has campaigned against the Indian nuclear weapons program, the barbarity of her government’s repression of the Kashmiri and Naxalite insurgencies, and the environmental and human costs of India’s hydroelectric dam projects. She has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, written a book-length polemic about the dangers of unrestrained global capitalism, and emerged as a champion of the poor and those at the lowest and most despised levels of the Hindu caste system.
Roy remains a controversial figure in India and abroad, in particular for her outspoken criticism of India’s policies in Kashmir. She traveled to Kashmir in 2008, when mass protests triggered a new wave of violence, and in an essay that appeared that year (“Azadi: It’s the Only Thing Kashmiris Want. Denial Is Delusion”), she wrote that the Indian government
had used money (lots of it), violence (lots of it), disinformation, propaganda, torture, elaborate networks of collaborators and informers, terror, imprisonment, blackmail and rigged elections to subdue what democrats would call “the will of the people.”
Two years later she was threatened with arrest for sedition after talking in public about India’s “brutal military occupation” in Kashmir and saying that “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India.”
In view of how Roy has spent the last two decades, it’s understandable that her long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, should reflect an impulse to examine what she has experienced during that time. She has expanded her view from the steamy insular world of a Keralan family to the Indian subcontinent and beyond: to Iraq, Kabul, and California. A huge cast of characters acts out a series of interlinked stories; the personal and the political are inextricably tangled. No one remains unscarred by cataclysmic upheaval, the Hindu–Muslim and anti-Sikh riots, the ecological disaster at Bhopal, the war in Kashmir, or the ascendancy of virulent Hindu nationalism.
In fact Roy has so much she wants to tell us that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in its nearly 450 pages, seems like several dense novels compressed into a single volume. Its sections are connected by recurring characters and plot threads that intersect at several points, and at the end. At times the reader must work to keep track of the multiple story lines and of minor figures whose significance we may dimly recall after having lost sight of them for a hundred pages.
The first and most engaging of these novels-within-a-novel suggests what one imagines might have resulted if the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar decided to make a film that had, as its background, decades of Indian history. Roy’s heroine—whose winningly theatrical gift for self-dramatization recalls Almodóvar’s women—is born a biological hermaphrodite and named Aftab by her Muslim family, who raise her as a boy. Aftab clearly has what a local doctor refers to as “tendencies,” and the talented child’s singing style, like that of “a Lucknow courtesan,” is mocked by the other children at their music school. But unlike trans people elsewhere, who often spend their formative years in torment and isolation, Aftab lives in a culture in which the reality of “a female trapped in a male body” has been acknowledged for centuries.
After seeing a “tall, slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick, gold high heels and a shiny, green satin salwar kameez buying bangles from Mir the bangle-seller,” Aftab runs downstairs and follows her through their Delhi neighborhood:
No ordinary woman would have been permitted to sashay down the streets of Shahjahanabad dressed like that. Ordinary women in Shahjahanabad wore burqas or at least covered their heads and every part of their body except their hands and feet. The woman Aftab followed could dress as she was dressed and walk the way she did only because she wasn’t a woman. Whatever she was, Aftab wanted to be her.
Aftab watches the charismatic stranger, whose name is Bombay Silk, disappear through a blue doorway into “the House of Dreams,” home to a community of Hijras, trans women who have been traditionally (and are now officially) recognized as a third gender, and who commonly make their living by begging, prostitution, and entertaining at family gatherings.
After an apprenticeship running errands, Aftab—now Anjum—is accepted into the household. Roy writes sympathetically and informatively about the world of the Hijras, whose boisterous, foulmouthed, and aggressive public personae are intended to discomfit outsiders, unless commerce is involved. And she manages to capture the shocking, unique sound of the Hijras’ unusual form of communication:
the signature spread-fingered Hijra clap that went off like a gunshot and could mean anything—Yes, No, Maybe, Wah! Behen ka Lauda (Your sister’s cock), Bhonsadi ke (You arsehole born). Only another Hijra could decode what was specifically meant by the specific clap at that specific moment.
Eventually, Anjum becomes “Delhi’s most famous Hijra. Film-makers fought over her, NGOs hoarded her, foreign correspondents gifted her phone number to one another as a professional favor.” Unsurprisingly, her celebrity comes at a price. Her father stops speaking to her forever, and her mother can meet her only in secret. But at least she has somewhere to go, a community, and a social position in a culture that knows that people like her exist.
A botched operation has left her incapable of sexual pleasure, but Anjum makes the best of it and enjoys her success until, during a trip to Gujarat, she is caught up in a horrific eruption of anti-Muslim violence. Her traveling companion, an old friend of her father’s, is murdered, and Anjum is spared only because it’s considered bad luck to murder a Hijra. Deeply traumatized by what she has seen, she returns to Delhi, lapses into silence, and leaves the House of Dreams.
In one of several plot turns that require the kind of suspension of disbelief that magical realist fiction asks of its readers, she sets up a dwelling, then a community, then a guest house in one of the city’s more humble cemeteries. Anjum’s sojourn there occasions some of the book’s most evocative writing, and the section ends with a mysterious, suspense-inducing sentence: “And miles away, in a troubled forest, a baby waited to be born…”
Though we will return to Anjum periodically throughout The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and at greater length in its final chapters, we begin to lose track of her and her friends when, in the third section of the book, we’re distracted by an abandoned infant lying “on the concrete pavement, in a crib of litter: silver cigarette foil, a few plastic bags and empty packets of Uncle Chipps.” The novel’s perspective broadens to offer us a portrait of Delhi as an elderly grandmother:
Gray flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe, looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheater where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries.
Delhi’s new masters have plans for her future, schemes that involve the city selling herself for money:
She was to become supercapital of the world’s favorite new superpower. India! India! The chant had gone up—on TV shows, on music videos, in foreign newspapers and magazines, at business conferences and weapons fairs, at economic conclaves and environmental summits, at book festivals and beauty contests. India! India! India!
The baby has been left in the small park surrounding the Jantar Mantar, an eighteenth-century astronomical observatory in central New Delhi, where “a tubby old Gandhian, former-soldier-turned-village-social-worker [has] announced a fast to the death to realize his dream of a corruption-free India.” The old man becomes a media sensation and, not to be outdone, other groups—survivors of the Bhopal disaster, supporters of farmers and indigenous tribespeople—join the protest. Soon the demonstration devolves into chaotic disorder, providing the kind of instability that right-wing politicians can exploit to advance their authoritarian agendas. The abandoned baby is discovered, fought over, then disappears from the book for a while.
A newsletter written by Dr. Azad Bhartiya, a “revolutionary” who has been on a hunger strike for over eleven years, is reprinted in its entirety; in passing, it mentions a woman named S. Tilottama, known as Tilo, who will soon supplant Anjum as the novel’s heroine. But first we will spend a section inside the consciousness of a man called “the landlord.” Even before we learn his name—Biplab Dasgupta—we find out that he has a drinking problem and has worked as “a servant of the Government of India” in Kabul.
Dasgupta describes a complicated romance that began in Delhi in 1984, at the rehearsals for a college play. The love triangle involved Tilo, an architecture student, and two men: Naga, an iconoclastic master’s candidate in history who becomes an ambitious journalist covertly cooperating with the Indian government, and Musa, a Kashmiri who will return home to become a leader of Kashmir’s war for independence. In fact, the triangle is a quadrangle if we include the landlord’s infatuation with the beautiful architect. (“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”) Dasgupta has worked as an intelligence officer, posted to Srinagar in the 1990s, during the war in which his three former schoolmates/fellow actors were, in different ways, involved.
It’s a daring strategy: introducing us to the conflict in Kashmir through the eyes of a man who has been called in to put down the insurgency, and to whom lying, torture, and murder are regrettable but necessary tools for social control. Only later, after Dasgupta has rented a Delhi apartment to Tilo, do we hear a more critical version of the anti-insurgency campaign. Searching Tilo’s apartment, Dasgupta finds some photos taken in a public toilet, along with an account of a Kashmiri man who was tortured, killed, and stuffed into the latrine drain by men from the Indian special forces. The landlord questions what he is seeing (“How does one verify these things? People aren’t reliable. They’re forever exaggerating. Kashmiris especially…”) and maintains his composure until he finds more photos—pictures of a sadistic army commander, Amrik Singh, who shot himself and his family after moving to California, where he had been granted political asylum.
Dasgupta’s discoveries trigger a hallucinatory episode, a confusion that carries over into the following section. His explanation of Tilo’s relationship with Musa and Naga isn’t quite clear enough to help us untangle the convolutions occasioned by the trio’s arrivals and departures: a marriage, a separation, ruptures and recombinations. A careful reading is required to make sense of Tilo’s shifts from one man to the other. One may think of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, and of the academics’ love triangle in the first book of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, though here the lovers aren’t literary critics but two revolutionaries and one journalist-turned-government-stooge.
Tilo marries Naga, and as the marriage unravels, she goes to Cochin to visit her dying mother, then returns with notes documenting her mother’s descent into psychosis:
I’ll just take two sheets. But what should our legs do?
Will there be a horse?
A great war has started between me and the butterflies.
Throughout the novel, one is heartened and impressed by Roy’s respect for the intelligence and attentiveness of her audience—for its willingness to follow the plot as it tracks back and forth in time, for her readers’ ability to recognize (or failing that, to look up) the historical figures and events to which she refers. But only the most devoted will be able to resist skimming six full pages of Tilo’s notes on her mother’s ravings. In the final hundred pages, we may feel our endurance waning ever so slightly. One might wish that Roy had included fewer “found documents”: official statements by witnesses to a killing; a compilation of stories, diary entries, and press clippings that Tilo assembled during the war in Kashmir. And perhaps we might have welcomed a bit more authorial guidance on the mysteries that these sections introduce.
The abandoned baby reappears, now named after another child who was martyred in Kashmir, where in the interim Tilo has gone to take part in the struggle and be reunited with Musa. Is the child hers, conceived with Musa—or is the mother someone else? Has Musa been killed—or has he survived? These questions will be answered, but by then the solutions will have almost stopped mattering, because our attention—and Roy’s, we feel—has been so fully absorbed by the horrors of the war.
Once more, we can surmise that Roy has witnessed and heard about too much brutality to keep it from spilling out onto the pages of the first novel she has written in two decades. It’s all too easy to understand why she would want to inform her readers about the era’s crimes and human rights abuses. When Tilo is arrested in Kashmir and accused of being “the accomplice of a terrorist,” she is brought into a torture chamber euphemistically termed an “interrogation center”:
At first glance it looked like a rudimentary tool shed, kitted out with a couple of carpenters’ worktables, hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, ropes, what seemed to be scaled-down stone or concrete pillars, pipes, a tub of filthy water, jerry cans of petrol, metal funnels, wires, electric extension boards, coils of wire, rods of all sizes, a couple of spades, crowbars.
On the shelf there was a jar of red chili powder. The floor was littered with cigarette stubs. Tilo had learned enough over the last ten days to know that those ordinary things could be put to extraordinary use.
She knew that the pillars were the instruments of the most favored form of torture in Kashmir. They were used as “rollers” on prisoners who were tied down while two men rolled the pillars over them, literally crushing their muscles. More often than not, “roller treatment” resulted in acute renal failure. The tub was for waterboarding, the pliers for extracting fingernails, the wires for applying electric shocks to men’s genitals, the chili powder was usually applied on rods that were inserted into prisoners’ anuses or mixed into water and poured down their throats.
One can sense Roy’s passion and rage seeping through the quasi-clinical detachment of this passage. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes advantage of what fiction can do better than polemic or history: put us in the room with those implements repurposed to inflict maximum pain on other human beings. It can make us feel what it is like to be there, in peril, hoping—as Tilo does—to find the words that can save us.
By the end of the novel, we have returned to the graveyard that Tilo and Anjum have transformed into a modest sort of social utopia. There is a wedding, a celebration. We check in on the landlord, Dasgupta, who has not gone into rehab, as he once considered doing, but has at least changed his mind about Kashmir. “Things will get better,” he thinks. “They must.”
We last see Anjum out for a late-night stroll with the once-abandoned infant, now a thriving child named Miss Udaya Jebeen, whose parentage we have learned. Anjum takes the child to the grave of Bombay Silk and explains how she first saw the Hijra buying bangles from Mir the bangle-seller, and followed her through the streets.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think Roy means us to read this as a happy ending, a balm to salve the wounds inflicted by the painful passages that have preceded it. Guih Kyom, the dung beetle whose name provides the title for the final chapter, thinks that “things would turn out all right in the end.” But that’s a dung beetle’s opinion.
Look, Roy seems to be saying. This is all of it; this is the country I live in. This is a nation whose citizens are capable of greed, corruption, indifference, horrific mob violence—and a place where, despite everything, an elderly Hijra and an adopted child can amble through a thousand-year-old city on a starry night.