Sunday, April 8, 2018

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy

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.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in the high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren't altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited the story.

Anjum is a Hijra - a transgendered woman.  In Delhi, she is forced to live apart from society and for the first third of the novel she lives in a kind of commune for Hijra's, where she is something of a celebrity.  But as Muslim-Hindu tensions invade her life she chooses greater independence and moves to a small shack in an neglected graveyard, which she refers to as the "Jannat Guest House," sometimes with her adapted daughter, Zainab.  Her story takes up the first @150 pages of this novel and it is thick with the despair and grittiness of third world city life.

Tilo is a well-educated, middle class woman who lives in a world completely unlike Anjum's.  Her story takes over the novel about a third in and for three hundred pages we follow the story of her marriage to Naga and her somewhat tortured relationship with Masa.  Slowly, her personal life is engulfed in the violence of Indian politics and she slowly circles towards a kind of retreat in the Jannat Guest House.

Pick up any page of this and you may well be seduced by lovely descriptions of people and places, of their psychology and their surroundings.  I was alternately entranced and frustrated by Roy's prose as we followed tangents and learned of corners of contemporary life in India that seemed to have little to do with the main thrust of the narrative.  I was compelled to keep reading - you are given clues early on that Anjum and Tilo will occupy the same world before the end of the novel - but frustrated by the dense thicket of detail I had to slice through to get to the plot I was trying to follow.

Roy has been a highly successful but somewhat ambivalent novelist - her first book, The God of Small Things, won The Booker Prize, and she was nominated again 20 years later, for this her second novel.  In between she has been highly involved in the human rights movement in India, particularly in support for independence for Kashmir.  Much of the violent politics recounted in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is drawn from that work.

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