July 2017

Arts & Letters

Her eloquent heart

By Helen Elliott

Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ was worth the 20-year wait

“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.” Each night Anjum unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet and, in a sweet jest with the universe, chooses two new graves to sleep between. She talks with the ghosts of the friendly old birds, the vultures who used to live there but have now excused themselves and exited. Maybe they are not too fussed about having to leave the world?

The story ends, 415 pages later, in the same Delhi graveyard, which now has a name, the Jannat Guest House. In Urdu Jannat means Paradise, the place of rest and reward. The name is used with lazy irony but Anjum has made the graveyard into a real guesthouse, enclosing graves and building over them, filching electricity from the nearby mortuary and water from the public handpump. The Jannat Guest House is home, a connecting point for the humans – and animals – who live through the pages of this ravishing novel.

Novel? Well. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99) is a cavalcade of extraordinary imaginative beauty. It has characters who will remain with you until you are snug in your own grave plot, it has nervous tension and emotional pulse, it shimmers with the myriad nuances of beauty in the physical world – but to call it a novel is limp. It is as sprawling as life itself and exactly as plotless.

Arundhati Roy sailed into world view 20 years ago when her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize. As the screenwriter of two films directed by her then husband, the independent filmmaker Pradip Krishen, Roy was already a glamorous if unconventional public figure. In 1994 she infuriated many of her friends in the film industry with a review of Shekhar Kapur’s film The Bandit Queen, a supposedly biographical account of Phoolan Devi, the child bride, accused murderer and bandit leader who became a politician. While most reviewers extolled the film as a virtuous plea against the rape and exploitation of a poor woman, Roy read differently. “It’s a sort of reversed male self absorption. Rape is the main dish. Caste is the sauce that it swims in.” The real Devi, she wrote, had been appropriated without politesse.

The review is uncomfortable to read because the tone is hectoring. Roy has a similar public presence to Germaine Greer, and a similar trajectory of fame. Young, articulate, confident, brainy – both were susceptible to the love–hate of public attention.

Greer and Roy also share a talent for righteousness. It is not endearing. Yet in fiction Roy transforms the righteousness into compassion, filtered through the sensibilities of a poetic imagination where emotional coherence is what matters. The well-chosen epigram that ushers the reader into the novel, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart …”, is a quotation by the Turkish poet famous as a romantic revolutionary, Nâzım Hikmet.

Roy has poured her money and energies into raising awareness of local and global injustices. She is a committed anti-globalisation activist, an environmentalist and a champion of Kashmiri independence. She is scathing about Mahatma Gandhi and his apparent acceptance of the caste system. All of these urgencies fly into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as Roy tracks connectivity and cause, both human and geographical.

She is also funny. The peripheral – if any character in this book is peripheral – figure of Dr Azad Bhartiya might be droll self-satirisation. Dr Azad Bhartiya (not a real doctor, he explains, but a title adopted because he knows how people respect it) has been on a hunger strike for 11 years and lives on the pavement. He fasts because he is “against the Capitalist Empire, plus against US Capitalism, Indian and American State Terrorism/ All Kinds of Nuclear Weapons and Crime, plus against the Bad Education System …” The manifesto of “against” is immense, but the reasoning behind everything is sound. Dr Azad, fool and saint, lives his life hungry and perilously on a pavement with his writing around him for the sole purpose of trying to save the world. He wants to make those who pass him by stop, look and see.

Polemical writing is Roy’s pavement. In the 20 years between her two works of fiction she has addressed her concerns with rigour and passion, but it confines her as much as absorbs her. Fiction sees her unleashed, playful, vivid, poetic. And, most importantly, available to a further audience that is open to hearing her eloquent heart.

Hundreds of small stories whirl around the two central figures, Tilo and Anjum. Both are women, yet that, like many things in this book, is not quite true. Anjum is a Hijra, a member of South Asia’s legendary third sex. She is born Aftab, a much-desired boy baby after three girls. But Aftab’s mother discovers “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part”. It terrifies her. In Urdu, the only language she speaks, everything, not just living things, has a gender. “Everything except her baby.” She resolves to pray at every shrine she can that the girl-part will heal, and seal, and she tells no one, not even her husband, what she has discovered. Aftab is a clever little boy, musical with a sweet, true voice. But as he grows up there are certain practical difficulties, not the least being that he identifies more with his girl-part. Aftab understands who he is and senses where he belongs, but it does not bring him ease in the world. He is attracted to the house of the local Hijras, who, with their blend of beauty, glamour, cynicism, generosity and seediness, fascinate and educate him. God made people like them as an “experiment”, one of them explains. “He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.” At 15, six feet tall, Aftab steps into a fresh universe when he leaves his parents’ house and enters the shabby compound of Hijras as Anjum. Her father, educated, sensitive, a poet in refined Urdu, will pass her in the street but never acknowledge her again. Anjum lives in the Hijra compound until she is in her 40s, when tragedy drives her to seek the peace of the graveyard. In that place alone she finds consolation.

The graveyard is not a refuge but a home for those who do not have one. In Gaston Bachelard’s terms “home” is the manifestation of the soul. Anjum’s guesthouse ministers a sort of happiness, although because of their uneasy lives all the residents understand that utmost happiness is elusive or imaginary. Happiness at any level cannot be purchased.

The residents and wider connections of the graveyard live according to principles rather than rules in a country where religious rules are intricately tied into daily behaviour. They are outsiders. In the guesthouse, religions and castes mix. As Anjum explains to a beautiful, gentle young man who, for particular complex reasons, calls himself Saddam Hussein, “Once you have fallen off the edge like all of us have … you will never stop falling. And as you fall you will hold on to other falling people … This place where we live, where we have made our home, is the place of falling people.”

Some have fallen further than others, but they are all an uncomfortable fit with the new economic India as it hurtles towards the future. A graveyard, after all, is the most peaceful place to contemplate the past. And it is undeniably the universal, un-economic future.

Anjum’s story gives a spine to this novel, but, imitating the noise of life itself, the book is stitched from narratives, tracts, poems, interviews, reminiscences. Tilo is as central as Anjum, but where Anjum, all six feet of her, is earthy, real, Tilo is elusive. One of the three men who love her – she loves one, marries the other and relies on the third – writes this about her: “Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked – like pets.”

Two of Tilo’s would-be lovers are charming and interesting, conventional enough, but Musa, the one she loves, becomes a Kashmiri freedom fighter. Roy’s commitment to Kashmiri independence, the story of an occupied country and the consequent brutalities, burns throughout the tale of Musa and Tilo. It’s an education in violence and the violent power of money. Kashmir will never seem romantic again.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is ambitious and beautiful as it examines things that make us human and other things that undo our humanity. And it is about what freedom means in personal and national terms. For Western readers, some of the shock, and joy, is because it is so resolutely outside the familiar – so familiar we cannot see it – Christian narrative of love, kindness, forgiveness, humility and turning the other cheek. All of these have their place in this ministry, but here they scintillate in unexpected moments that endow them with a fresh truth. Reading this book is a process of un-learning and re-learning. As with the surprise of new great poetry, Roy reminds Anglo readers of the parochialism of too-lived-in lines of thought and perception. The Ministry is a shake-up, so I tentatively reach for words written by the 22-year-old male Keats 200 years ago in wet, cold England to illuminate what 55-year-old female Roy in hot, steamy India is doing in the restless glory of this novel: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and the truth of Imagination.” Roy’s novel is dedicated to “The Unconsoled”. This caste will find it useful, especially if they take note of Nâzım Hikmet’s direction: “It’s all a matter of your heart.”

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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