Monday, November 20, 2017
Books

Review: Arundhati Roy's 'Ministry of Utmost Happiness' worth the 20-year wait

RECOMMENDED READING


Fans of Arundhati Roy's first novel, The God of Small Things, have had to be patient.

That 1997 book became a bestseller and modern classic, winning the prestigious Booker Prize. It has taken her 20 years to publish another novel, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is worth the wait.

Not that Roy has been dawdling all this time — she has become as well known for her political activism as for her fiction, in her native India and around the world. She has spoken and worked widely for environmental, antiglobalist and antinuclear causes and for Kashmir's independence from India. She has written more than a dozen nonfiction books and scores of articles, mostly on political topics, and received the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize and the 2011 Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing. In 2014, she made Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Given all that, it makes sense that it took her a while to write another novel, especially one as complex and rich as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. With its diverse and populous cast and many skeins of plot, it actually reads like several novels layered together and, in the end, skillfully woven into one.

The first part of the novel revolves around the story of Anjum, who begins life as a little boy named Aftab. The morning after his birth, his mother discovers "nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part."

She keeps her child's secret for years, even from the rest of her Muslim family, raising him as a boy. But as an adolescent Aftab learns of a place in his Delhi neighborhood called the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams. Its denizens are Hijras, transgender people who were born male, a group recognized as a third sex in South Asian cultures — sometimes accepted, sometimes persecuted. The Khwabgah is one of a network of houses in the city providing a community to those often treated as outcasts. Aftab steps through "an ordinary doorway into another universe" and becomes Anjum.

During her years at the Khwabgah, Anjum will become something of a celebrity, a popular interview subject for journalists and documentary filmmakers. She will develop a warm and eccentric circle of friends and even become a mother when she finds an abandoned toddler in the street and takes her in.

But the Duniya, as Hijras call the real world, intrudes. After surviving a wartime atrocity, Anjum leaves the Khwabgah and starts another new life in a nearby cemetery, a place for outcasts dead and living. There, over time, she builds a sort of village, shacks that surround the graves first of her own family, then many others as she gathers a new circle of friends around her in what comes to be called the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services.

About halfway through the novel, Roy catapults us from Anjum's life to a seemingly unrelated one, that of a young woman named Tilo, also the product of an unorthodox upbringing. Her story is woven with those of three men she first meets while they are all college students: Biplab, Naga and Musa. All of them love Tilo; one she will use, another she will marry, and the third she will love in return. Anjum's story is fairly linear, but Tilo's leaps around in time, keeping the reader in suspense about her enigmatic life.

Biplab, who narrates a few chapters in first person (the rest of the novel is in third person), has a career at India's Intelligence Bureau and the deep cynicism to go with it. Naga is a famous journalist, Musa a legendary Kashmiri freedom fighter. Tilo's relationships with all three move the book's plot onto a scale larger than the personal one that dominates Anjum's story, into politics and war.

For many American readers, the details of politics and wars in India in the last several decades will be hazy at best. In a way, that won't matter. Roy is writing powerfully about specific wars but also about all wars, which inevitably blur together in their pointlessness, violence and waste of blood and treasure. As Biplab wearily says, "What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt."

Roy is certainly political, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does not read like a polemic. Instead, she focuses on the impact such epic events have on individuals. One character's beloved wife and young daughter are killed by the same bullet when soldiers guarding a funeral procession hear an explosion and begin shooting in panic.

"Later," Roy writes, "it was established that the explosion had been caused by a car driving over an empty carton of Mango Frooti on the next street. Who was to blame? Who had left the packet of Mango Frooti (Fresh 'n' Juicy) on the street? India or Kashmir? Or Pakistan?"

The world may be stunningly, absurdly cruel to her characters, but Roy is always tender with them. Despite the novel's often harrowing events and the difficult lives of many of its characters, it brims with lush description and humor of the most affectionate kind. Roy brings her large cast to life so vividly that when she zooms off from the main plot to fill us in on a minor character's back story it's a delight, not a delay.

Eventually, Roy gracefully brings her two main stories together. One of Anjum's best friends, a man whose own life is so dire he adopts the name Saddam Hussain in an effort to improve it, is with her one day when another abandoned baby appears on a city sidewalk. During an avid discussion with the authorities about whether Anjum can take in another foundling, someone else makes off with the baby. Riding his skinny white horse, at once a cartoon hero and a real one, Saddam pursues the baby through Delhi — a quest that will lead to Tilo.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness brings characters and readers alike to that place where "the battered angels in the graveyard that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack), so that the souls of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party. It made life less determinate and death less conclusive. Somehow everything became a little easier to bear."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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