Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view
Roy's The God of Small Things is one of my all time top five favorite books, so I've basically been waiting the 14 years since I read that for Roy's next novel. In the interim, Roy has been a prolific writer of nonfiction, documenting the injustices of the caste system, anti-Muslim fervor, and the turbulence in Kashmir. Her years of research and passionate outrage shine through in this novel. Her return to fiction gives us the intertwined stories of Anjum and Tilo. Anjum--to whom the first half of the novel is dedicated--is a hijra. Born a hermaphrodite and raised as a boy, Anjum leaves her family to join a Khwabgah where "Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated." She is surrounded by women on the fringe and is able to build herself up until her depression and desire to be a mother is so strong that it forces her exile. Tilo, around whom the second half of the book centers, is a woman at the center of various love triangles who also refuses to fit into India's mold of a woman. She is headstrong and brilliant and alienates herself from all of those who love her over the course of her life.

The book is massive and about so, so many things: gender, class, religion, and, at its core, belonging. This is a novel about India, but even with relatively little cultural context, it can be read and internalized as a novel about finding and creating spaces of belonging and support. Specifically, it is about women creating and sustaining those spaces for each other--a theme missing not only in literature but in society in general.

Even though Roy writes eloquently about war and suffering and loneliness, my favorite moments in her novels are when she takes a break from devastation to touch on love. She writes about it with a violence and sadness that echoes her other themes, but the push-and-pull is that much more beautiful when she surfaces for a moment for air. One of the narrators describes the moment he first sets eyes on Tilo this way: "The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains." She doesn't dwell on it--there aren't paragraphs of swooning, just these tiny, suckerpunch moments.

The novel delves pretty deep into the Kashmir conflict, and I did find myself consulting Wikipedia repeatedly to keep track of the atrocities described. On some level, it is a novel about the human manifestations of a centuries-old conflict, and Roy is able to synthesize and humanize the conflict well if you go into it with some background knowledge. I went in with almost none, so I needed a lot of support. Early on, she offers this description of the chaos raging inside the hijras in the Khwabgah:
I don't mean you, but grown-ups like you--what makes them unhappy? Price-rise, children's school-admissions, husbands' beatings, wives' cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war-outside things that settle down eventually. But for us the price rise and school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can't.
Roy's protagonists carry their history within them and it spills out throughout the novel, sometimes messily.

There were parts of this that felt like Roy trying to do too much--in some ways, this felt like three or four novels worth of ideas, and there were digressions that I had trouble following or tying back in later. There are letters and journals and manifestos sprinkled throughout that are jarring and often un-introduced. At one point, I fell asleep reading with my bookmark about 100 pages ahead of where I actually was, and it took me 25 pages the next day to realize that I had skipped a fifth of the book--as with The God of Small Things, disorientation is part of the experience of reading this novel, and sometimes it can put the reader distractingly off-balance. That being said, Roy is such a gorgeous wordsmith, that even those digressions were perfectly formed and poetic.

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