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“A Radical With a Pen ”  

(The TLS, June 2017)  

A Radical With a Pen  
On the writing of Arundhati Roy and her long-awaited second novel  

The TLS, May 31, 2017  
By Hirsh Sawhney 

Arundhati Roy’s bleak and brilliant debut novel The God of Small Things (1997) earned its author the  Booker Prize and turned her into an international celebrity. One of its feats was to bait readers with the superficial exoticism that Western publishers so relentlessly crave when it comes to India: there are mangoes, jackfruits and a monsoon on its very first page. The book contains paeans to ancient  Indian cultural traditions, such as kathakali dance; its central plot is intertwined with the oppressive caste system. Lurking below this veneer of seductive tropes, however, are pointedly subversive ideas and images. Roy’s fruit trees sit beside rivers that smell of “shit and pesticides bought with World  Bank Loans”. Her kathakali dancers are wise and graceful, but they live a life of humiliation performing for tourists at heritage hotels. She depicts caste as a uniquely brutal institution, but its  brutality is seen as the by-product of ideologies and power structures derived from across the world,  including those left behind by British colonialists.  

Indeed, in this novel, colonialism casts a long shadow over the psyches and systems of post 1947 India. Most of the coverage that followed the novel’s publication, however, failed to grasp the  totality of Roy’s vision. One can now smirk at USA Today for heralding the novel as “exotic” and  applauding its depiction of “sensual passion”, “misery” and “caste”. One can shrug at Publishers  Weekly for calling it “sensuous” and praising its “dreamlike style”. And one can sigh at Michiko  Kakutani in the New York Times for focusing on the book’s “backdrop of traditional religious and  caste taboos” but failing even to mention the word “colonialism”. Michael Gorra, writing in  the LRB, might more reliably elicit a scoff for his conclusion that Roy is “not especially interested in . . . colonialism”. Such complacent and anachronistic reactions to The God of Small Things– of a sort  that continue to burden outsider perceptions of India – whitewashed its iconoclastic signposting and  co-opted the novel into the very Orientalist machinery it sought to undermine. And perhaps, to  some extent, they explain Roy’s subsequent rejection of the novel form and predilection for the  activist-oriented non-fiction that would come to define her literary career over the next two decades.  

Roy’s penetrating sociopolitical essays, which have been collected in more than fifteen  books, recall the writing of Noam Chomsky. They are resolutely unsubtle – and thus less prone to  misinterpretation. In her non-fiction Roy uses a novelist’s knack for irony and metaphor to force  readers into confronting the tyrannies and hypocrisies of allegedly egalitarian societies. In a recent  book written with the actor John Cusack, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said (2016), she cautions  American readers about fixating on violence perpetrated by Islamic State when their own  government once perpetrated far greater devastation during the Vietnam War. In countless other  pieces, she highlights the callousness of Indian elites, who reap the material rewards of globalization  while the dams and mines that uphold their new-found wealth wreak havoc on the environment and  turn the impoverished into refugees. She acquaints readers with the perspectives of Maoist and  Kashmiri insurgents who have been labelled enemies of the state, and considers how brutal  government policies have driven these people to armed resistance. Roy’s unabashed radicalism has  landed her with lawsuits and a day in jail. It has elicited the ire of internet trolls and politicians. And  yet she continues to root for the underdog. She remains focused on disrupting official notions of  right and wrong, which tend to serve the interests of the powerful and keep marginalized people  trapped in a cycle of humiliation and injustice.  

Given her atypical trajectory, it has been hard to know what to expect from her long-awaited  second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Could it possess the throbbing emotional intensity of  her debut? Or might Roy have created a dry, didactic novel after so many years of activism? The  book arrives to reviewers in proof form, and this proof might make some readers even warier. It is  

printed on thick, fancy stock with shiny gold lettering, resembling a wedding invitation. It contains a  stern message about the embargo that prevents the media from discussing its “confidential”  contents in advance of publication. Has the author succumbed to the very elitism and institutional  secrecy that she so vehemently derides?  

Such worries, it turns out, are unfounded. Primarily set in modern-day Delhi and  Kashmir, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a passionate political masterpiece delivered in an enchanting array of narrative styles and voices. Some of its set pieces contain starkly realist asides  about the urban poor, whose eyelashes and lungs are “pale with stone-dust from cutting stone and  laying floors in the multi-storey shopping centres and housing estates springing up around the city  like a fast-growing forest”. These people sleep close to the road, for “diesel exhaust fumes from passing trucks and buses were an effective mosquito repellent and protected them from the outbreak  of dengue fever that had killed several hundred people”. Other sections may include a fateful  horseback ride, or an amorous tryst on a houseboat, and these have the feel of a surreal epic, as if the author has been binge-watching Game of Thrones. One section takes the form of a letter from a  communist insurgent who has been gang-raped by the police and then mistreated by the male  leaders of her party; another contains a wry meditation on the YouTube broadcast of Saddam  Hussein’s hanging. What binds these disparate modes are Roy’s well-honed characters, whose lives  are enmeshed in the bleak headlines of their times.  

Anjum, one of the book’s two main characters, was born into a Muslim family and now belongs to a community of hijras (transgender people) in Old Delhi, where Urdu couplets roll off the  tongues of residents as easily as invectives like “go fuck your sister” and “I swear by your mother’s  cock”. Anjum lovingly cares for Zainab, the abandoned child she has found outside a mosque,  buying her “Made-in-China squeaking shoes with flashing heel-lights” and sending her to the Tender Buds Nursery School to learn English. When Zainab falls ill, Anjum travels with an old family friend to a mystic’s shrine for a cure. Before returning to Delhi, the pair are caught up in the Gujarat riots  of 2002, in which Hindu extremists, tacitly supported by the state’s BJP government, murdered  hundreds of Muslims and displaced thousands of others. Anjum’s family friend, a Muslim man, is killed by these zealots. Her desolation rises up around her like “a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden  dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob. She rattled through its gilded chambers  like a fugitive absconding from herself”. She cannot overcome visions of the “saffron men with saffron smiles who pursued her with infants impaled on their saffron tridents”. Roy pulls no punches when confronting the consequences of Hindu extremism, which has been emboldened by  the US-led War on Terror. Members of the Hindu Right “openly admired Hitler” and “compared the Muslims of India to the Jews of Germany”. Nor does she shy away from lambasting the centre left Congress Party, whose former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is described as a “Trapped Rabbit” who “spoke like a marionette”. Roy focuses on the fact that the apparently progressive  Congress presided over the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, as well as the brutal Emergency of 1975, during which Anjum was battered by government goons.  

Thanks in part to the traumas of Gujarat, Anjum grows distant from her beloved Zainab,  and she yearns to have another child. She spots a dark-skinned baby languishing on a Delhi sidewalk  during an anti-corruption demonstration and decides to recue this girl and raise her as her own. But  an English-speaking woman named Tilo absconds with the child. Tilo – who appears to have much  in common with Roy – studied architecture but now works designing labels for cosmetic companies. In her spare time she publishes radical manifestos and records the oral histories of beleaguered Kashmiris in a notebook that will never be published. She is trapped in a love rectangle that once led  her to the Kashmir Valley, the site of an unending conflict between the Indian military and Kashmiri insurgents. More than 500,000 Indian soldiers are currently deployed to the region, in what Roy has elsewhere called the “most brutal military occupation in the world”. While narrating the suspenseful  story of Tilo’s romance with a freedom fighter named Musa, the author delivers haunting truths  about life on the ground in Kashmir.  

It transpires that Indian soldiers recklessly murdered Musa’s daughter and wife during a funeral procession. The army kills countless innocent Kashmiris, pitching these victims to the press as fallen militants. It props up dubious squads of Muslim counter-insurgents, “extortionists and  petty criminals” who murder civilians. According to one character, the army even supplies its own adversaries with ammunition in order to perpetuate a war that is extremely lucrative. Roy sets several scenes at the defunct Shiraz Cinema, which was originally shut down by an Islamist group for showing irreligious films and is now being used as an interrogation centre by the Indian army. Here, after being tortured, Kashmiri men are forced to sit “bound and handcuffed”, barely alive, beside advertisements for Cadbury’s chocolate. In this novel, however, it isn’t just the Indian army that maims and butchers. Muslim militants murder Hindu Kashmiris. Some hardline militants with links  to Pakistan assassinate a popular Kashmiri professor for not falling in line with their harsh ideas.  Contrary to the beliefs of her critics, Roy approaches the Kashmir conflict here with notable even handedness and empathy. Her sophistication only falters when she narrates a scene in which a female Indian officer hopes to inflict harm on Tilo out of jealousy over a man. This somewhat  hackneyed evocation of gender is jarring in a novel that is otherwise concerned with the damaging consequences on women of globalization and warfare.  

Roy is particularly shrewd when casting a spotlight on the nexus between the Indian state and the media. One of Tilo’s admirers, an intelligence officer, describes how the government funds  anti-Indian Urdu newspapers with extremely radical views in order to demonize the Kashmiri people. His cronies feed false information to Tilo’s future husband, Naga, a journalist who is known  as a maverick but reports government spin as news. Foreign journalists aren’t any better in this  novel. European and American reporters flock to Anjum for authentic insights into life as a hijra. When she explains that her loving Muslim family hasn’t been cruel, these hacks alter her story “to  suit readers’ appetites and expectations”. But it isn’t just foreigners or journalists who are doomed to misconstrue reality. In the world of this novel, most forms of knowledge, art and storytelling are  either incomplete or evasive, and they sometimes help to perpetuate grave injustices. And yet despite  all this bleakness, Roy’s characters manage to attain some modicum of peace. In fact, Anjum and  Tilo eventually unite, and they do so in a surprising and moving way. Unlike Arundhati Roy’s first  novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness delivers readers to a place of quixotic hope – a conclusion that feels earned. As Roy writes, “pretending to be hopeful is the only grace we have”.  


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