You need to stay with this book. It is dazzling, but puzzling, gutting but ultimately uplifting, farcical at times, unimaginably cruel at others. It is both real and hallucinatory. But then, this is Arundhati Roy after all, and what would we expect?
It has been 20 years since Roy published The God of Small Things, her debut novel about a pair of twins born in the south-west city of Kerala in India. It was an immediate success, one of those storeyed books that break through from nowhere, a success that publishers are always trying – and failing – to replicate. It won the Man Booker prize and racked up impressive sales – Roy still lives on the royalties, although she gives much of the money to her favourite causes.
On the one hand The God of Small Things is an intimate family saga; on the other it is an intensely political story, sharply critical of the caste system.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness jostles politics to the front of the stage: the occupation of the Kashmir Valley, Hindu nationalism, the massacre in Gujarat of Muslims in 2002.
On the telephone from London, Roy is softly spoken and quietly furious. “India manages to pass itself off as this cuddly democracy but if you really look at it … do you know there hasn’t been a day since 1947 when it became independent, that the army hasn’t been actively deployed within the borders of India against its so-called own people? Not a day! Whether it’s been in Assam, Punjab, Hyderabad, Kashmir, the number of people who have been killed or maimed or tortured, it’s just flown under the radar while this narrative has been confected.”
Just after The God of Small Things was published, politics in India took a sinister turn; what Roy calls a right-wing Hindu-chauvinist government came to power. Within months it conducted a series of nuclear tests and the author launched into years of activism (see Human Writes below).
‘It’s a book about borders’
While the new novel lays bare the violence of the Indian system, Roy is too clever a writer to make it a manifesto. Her imagination and descriptive powers lift it far above the polemical.
It opens in a graveyard in the Old City of Delhi where a middle-aged woman has made her home. She is Anjum, a Muslim transgender person. “She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite.”
Anjum is a “hijra”, the South Asian third sex that refers to hermaphrodites, eunuchs and transgender people. As a young man she leaves her home and joins a community of hijras called a “khwabgah” and embraces her femaleness. “In Urdu it means a house of dreams,” explains Roy. “The city is divided into zones and each hijra community has a zone. The way they used to earn money was to go to weddings or births, and they would be given money because they’re considered lucky.”
Anjum is exuberantly happy until she travels to Gujarat where she is caught up in the massacre of Muslims in 2002, escaping the butchery only because the soldiers believed it would be unlucky to kill her. “Something breaks in her after that and she becomes silent.”
She moves to the cemetery and gradually builds rooms around the graves. It becomes known as the Jannat Guest House, drawing the liminal people of the city to it.
“She’s the hub of all kinds of other people who don’t fit into the cast-iron social grid, the social mesh that Indian society is forced into,” Roy says. “It’s a book about borders. Obviously the incendiary border of gender; there are dalits, or untouchables, who convert to Islam, a porous border between human beings and animals, and between the living and the dead in the graveyard. And then there’s Tilo, with the border of caste running through her.”
Tilo is the other main character of the novel, around whom an intense love story swirls. Three men, friends from university days, are in love with her. “She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash,” observes a friend. “As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked – like pets.”
Through one of the men Tilo gets caught up in the protracted, violent struggle for independence in Kashmir.
“You can only tell the truth about Kashmir in fiction,” says Roy. “The disappeared, the unmarked graves. How the air gets seeded with terror. You can’t tell it through human rights reports.”
‘I was waiting for something complex to say’
Roy waited this long to write another novel because, “I wouldn’t write another one until I was sure there was something complex to say. I’m not in that thing of producing a book every year. If I hadn’t written another it would have been fine with me. But I had something that would not remain unwritten.”
Still, it was 10 years in the writing.
“Suddenly I started getting colonised by these people, and then obsessed. Your mind is always working and the layers are building up and then there was a period when it was almost like breaking stone. How do you go about building this city? In the last couple of years it’s just insanity because you’re up all day and all night, you’re worried about your house burning down. Writing is a combination of discipline and madness.”