Why Arundhati Roy's new book failed to impress me

With The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the goddess of political fiction returns with a whimper.

 |  4-minute read |   04-06-2017
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In August 1999, soon after Buddha smiled on the sands of Thar, Arundhati Roy, fresh from her Booker glory two years ago, wrote an article, The End of Imagination, arguing how her “world has died” after India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran. With her latest offering, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 18 years later, it’s déjà vu time.

For, the book marks the end of imagination for Arundhati Roy as a novelist. When Roy won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things, a story about twins struggling to make sense of themselves and the dystopian Malayalee world they lived in, she inspired the subcontinent to come out of the colonial stupor of the West’s intellectual supremacy.

It’s another matter that, a few years later, when the works of other Booker nominees reached Indian shores, it appeared Roy was plain lucky, especially vis-à-vis Jim Crace’s Quarantine, an intrepid reconstruction of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and Tim Parks’ Europa, a quirky tome on love affairs of Europe’s highbrows.

The God of Small Things was on the shelves at a time when the West was looking at the East, especially India, for inspiration, exotic or otherwise. Yet The God of Small Things, to its credit, had well etched out plots and characters skillfully defined and woven into the existing socio-political milieu.

The author’s latest book, in comparison, is a colossal chaos, giving credence to what has already been alleged by her adversaries: that Roy the Activist has brusquely overpowered Roy the Novelist.

min_060417023515.jpgThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy; Penguin; Rs 599.

She is today the sum total of her activism, passionate but overbearing. Quite predictably, Roy has put everything she’s got as an activist into this one book — India’s Partition, the 1975 Emergency, the Bhopal gas tragedy, the 1984 Sikh riots, Babri Masjid, Kashmir, Godhra, Maoism, and even cow vigilantism.

The characters, sadly, appear as mere props created inorganically to link, even if tangentially, these otherwise disparate events. One feels the novelist had an inkling of these flaws.

“How to tell a shattered story?” Roy lets one of her characters ask towards the fag end of the novel. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”

Clearly, the author understands the challenges she faces. But in her endeavour to envelope everything, she fails to showcase anything in particular. Her obsession with “everybody” and “everything” not only turns The Ministry of Utmost Happiness into a sloppy and uneven book, but also ensures most of its characters are deformed and half-baked, thus eliciting little attention and sympathy for the plight they are in.

The book starts sluggishly with Anjum, a trans woman or hijra, who “lived in the graveyard like a tree”. There’s nothing revelatory about her life that would provoke the readers, especially Indians for whom she doesn’t hold any exotic value, to flip through the pages. The only redeeming feature is the author’s refusal to portray Anjum in a caricaturish way.

“Over the years, Anjum became Delhi’s most famous hijra. Filmmakers fought over her, NGOs hoarded her, foreign correspondents gifted her phone numbers to one another as a professional favour,” writes Roy, adding how they were “invariably disappointed when she told them how much her mother and father loved her and how she had been the cruel one”.

One again gets a glimpse of her craft as an astute novelist when — in order to show how these people are not at peace with themselves — she makes Nimmo, another hijra, say: “Riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down.”

Alas, these moments are few and far between. The book picks up momentum only after it shifts focus from the graveyard of Delhi to the Valley of graveyards — Kashmir. And what Anjum couldn’t do, Tilottama — the other main protagonist — did well, only if marginally.

She evokes some sympathy as she moves in with her three lovers one after another, the most momentous being her relations with Musa which trapped her into Kashmir’s “freedom struggle”. One feels sad for Tilottama, though this feeling is momentary as the activist in the author rises again and she bombards the readers with one tragic "fact" after another — and facts are never Roy’s strength.

Moreover, instead of creating sympathy for victims, they end up diluting the impact of the event. For, a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic!

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an ambitious book that should have been a blockbuster film but turns out to be a documentary — and a dud one. It marks the end of an imagination.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: Can Rushdie and Roy save the novel in the age of Trump and Modi?


Utpal Kumar Utpal Kumar @utpal_kumar1

The writer is Associate Editor, Mail Today.

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