To Overflow Every Division Between Human Beings

The run-down Delhi graveyard where the two women whose stories run through Arundhati Roy’s second novel finally meet is a surprisingly convivial necropolis. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s long-awaited follow-up to her celebrated Booker-winning debut The God of Small Things—published 20 years ago—follows Anjum, who has a complex gender history (she was born intersex, with both male and female genitals, and in her prime lived within a community of transgender women), as well as Tilo, an illustrator who wanders through the world as a mostly solitary observer.

The Muslim cemetery is where Anjum, “like a fugitive absconding from herself,” withdrew from the bustling, gossipy world of the Khwabgah—a sort of dormitory for hijra, an officially recognized “third gender” with an established, if marginal, role in Indian culture. At first Anjum is little better than a specter inhabiting a tin hut built near her relatives’ burial sites, but over time old admirers and new friends (including an open-minded imam) begin to coax her out of her desolation. She expands the shed into a small house and then adds rooms on to that. She calls the place Jannat, or paradise, and rents to a motley assortment of outcasts. This is the ministry of the novel’s title, a home where each room contains not only a bed but also a grave.

Social boundaries and the importance of transgressing them have long fascinated Roy. In the luxuriantly Faulkner-esque God of Small Things, tragedy, but also hope, hinges on a forbidden affair between a Dalit (or untouchable) servant and a higher-caste woman. It’s one thing to defy an unjust taboo, but that novel also ends with the tender, incestuous union of its two central characters, a twin brother and sister. Roy is not the sort of author who likes to let her readers get too comfortable. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it’s the living and the dead who sleep together, although only in the most literal sense of the word. This is a weird but also very Arundhati Roy vision of domestic (and political) bliss: to overflow every division between human beings, even the most profound division there is.

What first drives Anjum out of the Khwabgah and into the graveyard is trauma. While making a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine in North India, Anjum and a friend get caught up in the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002. Hindu nationalists, a rising force led by the state’s chief minister, whipped up anti-Muslim fury to such a pitch that the violence lasted for three days and killed as many as 2,000 people. So terrible was Anjum’s own experience during the riots (her friend did not survive) that she refuses to talk about it but instead renounces her hijra finery and adopts unisex clothes in drab, penitential colors.

Brutal sectarian violence, especially when perpetrated by the powerful, plagues Roy’s novel as well as her nation. For her part, Tilo travels to Kashmir, where she meets up with an old love, Musa, a local man whose wife and 3-year-old daughter have just been shot in another riot. He tells her that soon she, like him, will support the Muslim separatist insurgency in Kashmir, which fights to overthrow Indian rule. “When you see what you see and hear what you hear,” he says, “you won’t have a choice.” Much of Tilo’s half of the novel, the second half, is taken up with what she learns about the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir, particularly those committed by a sadistic army major in charge of counterinsurgency efforts there.

Like The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is full of chronological switchbacks. Characters brood over events that haven’t yet been explained or refer to people before Roy introduces them. This is the novel’s greatest weakness, because unlike The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t knit together by the tight bonds of kinship. Longer and looser, it ranges across the past two decades of Indian history, taking in politics and several momentous events. Probably this breaking of the ordinary sequential style of storytelling is another of Roy’s willful transgressions, and possibly it’s meant to suggest the cyclical nature of human cruelty and the exploitation and neglect of the poor by the rich. But even if that’s her intent, the result is confusing and oddly discordant with Roy’s own activist outlook.

Between The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy published five volumes of nonfiction, all of them in support of political causes: anti-nuclear campaigns, environmentalism, land rights, and anti-globalization. To demand political change is to endorse the logic of cause and effect; Anjum’s traumatization isn’t inevitable but the consequence of an intolerance that Roy clearly believes can be stemmed. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be agitating against it. Perhaps Roy, raised by a Syrian Christian feminist in a culture infused with Hindu cyclicalism, feels that this tension between activism and fatalism defines her work. She wouldn’t be the only crusader to grapple with the dispiriting knowledge that injustice can’t be conclusively defeated, that she can’t save everyone. Even the New Testament says that the poor will always be with us. But if the scrambled chronologies of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are meant to communicate this paradox—that we must go on fighting for change even as we accept that we can never entirely win—the effect is merely confusing, and doubly so for readers unfamiliar with recent Indian politics.

Even so, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness remains a deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. First, there is Roy’s justly lauded prose style, which manages to be lush without pretense or affectation: “a wispy man with a prayer cap striped like a bee’s bottom.” Specific images in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—like a crow tangled in a nearly invisible kite string, dangling in midair and circled by distressed, cawing comrades—wedge themselves in the mind like memories of lived experience. Then there is Roy’s humor, which ranges from the fond—her depictions of the soap-operatic life within the Khwabgah—to an irony so pitch-dark it’s barely detectable: The chief detention and torture center in Kashmir is a commandeered movie theater where prisoners are checked in at the former concession stand, under advertisements for Cadbury bars and popsicles.

And sometimes Roy’s sequence-swapping works beautifully. Two particularly strong chapters are narrated by a former college friend of Tilo’s, now an Indian intelligence officer with a drinking problem. Like a Graham Greene hero, he delivers his own jaded take on Tilo’s history as he sorts through a cache of documents she abandoned in the flat he rented to her. One of the papers is a “Psycho-Social Evaluation” written by a California social worker on behalf of a middle-age Indian couple seeking asylum in the U.S. The wife relates a heart-rending tale of being terrorized and tortured by Kashmiri police and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder in California, where she believes “Muslim terrorists” have tracked her family down. The narrator reviews this account with an amused cynicism that seems inhuman. Only later is it revealed that the husband is the novel’s chief villain and that the tortures his wife relates as part of her own past have actually been stolen from the lives of his victims. The reader has been played, just like the American social worker.

In the face of all these horrors—and Roy does not spare her readers much in that department—The Ministry of Utmost Happiness offers the counterpoint of love, the repository of all Roy’s faith. Love, particularly maternal love, which in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has less to do with blood ties than with an irresistible desire to protect and nurture the vulnerable, is the only force capable of resisting the tide of stupidity and hatred. Roy’s story is full of abandoned babies and of women (not all of them born women) who scoop them up and cherish them. She still writes with unabashed beauty about romantic love, as well:

They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle—the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the strangeness of her into the straightforwardness of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him.

While protest and political action are how the activist in Roy responds to the injustice and inequality she sees all around her, the novelist in Roy seems less sure. Tilo’s lover worries that defeating the Indian occupation will require that Kashmiris unite by reducing themselves to the most simplified form of their own identity: “this standardization, this stupidification. … First it will be our salvation and then … after we win … it will be our nemesis.” A politics of identity, even when imposed upon a people, tends, over time, to fracture them into smaller and smaller opposed groups. The only force capable of subverting this Catch-22 is as fragile, and as indomitable, as the butterfly residents of the Khwabgah, those keepers of paradox and contradiction, those leapers over all the divisions that hold us so cruelly apart.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Knopf.

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