With Partition, in 1947, Roy writes, “God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.” The consequences of that terrible event form the main story of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”
June 5 & 12, 2017 Issue
Arundhati Roy Returns to Fiction, in Fury
After twenty years of activism, the author of “The God of Small Things” delivers a scarring novel of India’s modern history.
By Joan Acocella
Roy’s second novel, coming twenty years after the first, is steeped in her politics.
Photograph by Bharat Sikka for The New Yorker
Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (Knopf) is a book that people have been waiting twenty years for. In the late nineteen-nineties, when Roy was in her thirties, she did some acting and screenwriting—she had married a filmmaker, Pradip Krishen—but mostly, she says, she made her living as an aerobics instructor. She had also been working on a novel for five years. In 1997, she published that book, “The God of Small Things.” Within months, it had sold four hundred thousand copies and won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to a non-expatriate Indian—an Indian who actually lived in India—or to an Indian woman. Roy became the most famous novelist on the subcontinent, and she probably still is, which is a considerable achievement, given that, after “The God of Small Things,” she became so enmeshed in the politics of her homeland that, for the next two decades, she didn’t produce any more fiction.
Now, finally, the second novel has come out, and it is clear that her politics have been part of its gestation. “The God of Small Things” was about one family, primarily in the nineteen-sixties, and though it included some terrible events, its sorrows were private, muffled, personal. By contrast, “The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness” is about India, the polity, during the past half century or so, and its griefs are national. This does not mean that Roy’s powers are stretched thin, or even that their character has changed. In the new book, as in the earlier one, what is so remarkable is her combinatory genius. Here is the opening of the novel:
At magic hour, when the sun is gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke. When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out. The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase the production of milk, works—worked—like nerve gas on white-backed vultures. Each chemically relaxed milk-producing cow or buffalo that died became poisoned vulture bait. As cattle turned into better dairy machines, as the city ate more ice cream, butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy and chocolate-chip, as it drank more mango milkshake, vultures’ necks began to droop as though they were tired and simply couldn’t stay awake. Silver beards of saliva dripped from their beaks, and one by one they tumbled off their branches, dead.
This is l’heure bleue, beloved of poets, but now it is filled with bats and crows, like a haunted house. We get ice cream—butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy—but it is made out of poison. The birds have silver beards, like Santa Claus, but that’s because they’re drooling, in preparation for dying. And what kind of birds are they? Vultures, which live by eating the dead. This paragraph is a little discourse on industrial pollution, but it is also an act of irony, almost a comedy. At the same time, it is very sad. Once we’ve eaten our ice cream and died, there won’t even be anyone to clean up the spot where we fell. All the vultures will have died before us.
As the book begins, in what appears to be the nineteen-fifties, Jahanara Begum, a Delhi housewife who has waited for six years, through three daughters, to get a boy baby, goes into labor, and soon the midwife tells her that her wish has come true. She has a son. That night is the happiest of her life. In the morning, she unswaddles the baby and explores “his tiny body—eyes, nose, head, neck, armpits, fingers, toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed girl-part.” Her heart constricts. She shits down her leg. Her child is a hermaphrodite.
Jahanara thinks that maybe the girl-part will close up, disappear. But month after month, year after year, it remains stubbornly there, and as the boy, Aftab, grows he becomes unmistakably girly: “He could sing Chaiti and Thumri with the accomplishment and poise of a Lucknow courtesan.” His father discourages the singing. He stays up late telling the child stories of heroic deeds done by men, but, when Aftab hears how Genghis Khan fought a whole army single-handedly to retrieve his beautiful bride from the ruffians who have kidnapped her, all he wants is to be the bride. Sad, alone—he can’t go to school; the other children tease him—he stands on the balcony of his family’s house and watches the streets below, until one day he spies a fascinating creature, a tall, slim-hipped woman, wearing bright lipstick, gold sandals, and a shiny green shalwar kameez. “He rushed down the steep stairs into the street and followed her discreetly while she bought goats’ trotters, hairclips, guavas, and had the strap of her sandals fixed.”
Roy’s copy of the final proof of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” at her house in New Delhi, India.
Photograph by Bharat Sikka for The New Yorker
That day, and for many days, he follows her home, to a house with a blue doorway. He finds out that her name is Bombay Silk, and that her house—called the House of Dreams—shelters seven others like her: Bulbul, Razia, Heera, Baby, Nimmo, Gudiya, and Mary. All of them were born male, more or less, and all of them want to be women, or feel that they already are. Some have had their genitals surgically altered; others not. They make their living mainly as prostitutes. Aftab thinks that he will die if he can’t be like them. Finally, by dint of running errands for them, he gains entry into their house. The following year, when he is fifteen, they let him move in. He becomes a full member of the community, and changes his name to Anjum. His father never again speaks to him—or to her, as we should say now. Her mother sends her a hot meal every day, and the two occasionally meet at the local shrine: Anjum, six feet tall, in a spangled scarf, and tiny Jahanara in a black burqa. “Sometimes they held hands surreptitiously.”
To American readers, no subject could seem more timely. Transgender people and the issues surrounding them are in the news nearly every day. (And this is not the first important novel about a hermaphrodite in recent memory. Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Middlesex,” published in 2002, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold four million copies in the United States.) In India, hijras—people who, though biologically male, feel they are female, and dress and act as women—constitute a long-recognized subculture. They have certainly been subject to persecution, but they are now edging their way toward acceptance, as a “third sex.” They have the right to vote in India (as of 1994) and Pakistan (2009). In 1998, India’s first hijra M.P., Shabnam (Mausi) Bano, forty years old, took her seat in the state assembly of Madhya Pradesh.
That is what they are legally. As for how they function poetically in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” Indian storytelling, from the Mahabharata onward, has tended to favor fantasy, transformation, high color. Hijras contribute to this tradition. People who are defending their right to be women, not men, do not, as a rule, wear pin-striped suits. They wear golden sandals and green-satin shalwars. In Roy’s House of Dreams, they also paint their nails and sing songs from Bollywood movies. They are fancy; they are fun. At the same time, they are the book’s ruling metaphor for sorrow. “Do you know why God made hijras?” Anjum’s housemate Nimmo asks her one day. “It was an experiment. He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.” Think about it, she says. What are the things regular people get upset about? “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. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.”
Anjum will not contradict Nimmo, her elder, but in time she finds out for herself. On her eighteenth birthday, a big party is held in the House of Dreams. Hijras come from all over the city. For the occasion, Anjum buys a red “disco” sari with a backless top:
That night she dreamed she was a new bride on her wedding night. She awoke distressed to find that her sexual pleasure had expressed itself into her beautiful garment like a man’s. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but for some reason, perhaps because of the sari, the humiliation she felt had never been so intense. She sat in the courtyard and howled like a wolf, hitting herself on her head and between her legs, screaming with self-inflicted pain.
One of her housemates gives her a tranquillizer and puts her to bed.
That is the last orgasm of her life. She has genital surgery, but her new vagina never works right. Sex is the least of her problems, though. Nimmo had said that for most people Hindu-Muslim riots and the Indo-Pakistani war were outside matters, things that happened in the world, whereas for hijras conflict was an internal condition, and ceaseless. Accordingly, what the hijras in this novel represent, more than anything else, is India itself. With Partition, in 1947, Roy writes, “God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.” The consequences of that terrible event form the main story of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”
But this is not a tale that can be told by Anjum. Although she’s a perfect emblem of India’s predicament, she is too vulnerable, too marginal, to take Roy’s story where it needs to go. I think Roy may have been reluctant to see that. She stays with Anjum too long, and allows the hijra’s story to devolve into anecdotes. Some are wonderful, but they pile up, and they all carry much the same package of emotions: sweetness and recoil, irony and pathos. Finally, however, Roy takes a deep breath and changes her main character. Just as she started the book with the birth of Anjum, she now stages another nativity. “Miles away, in a troubled forest, a baby waited to be born. . . .” The first part of the novel ends with those words. [cartoon id=”a20283″]
In a 2014 interview for the Times Magazine, Roy told the novelist Siddhartha Deb that she was always rather annoyed with the people who, however well meaning, expressed regret that she hadn’t “written anything” since her first novel. “As if all the nonfiction I’ve written is not writing,” she said. Suzanna Arundhati Roy, born in 1959 in Shillong, a small town in India’s northeast, grew up strong-minded, and had to. Her mother was a Syrian Christian from Kerala; her father was the manager of a tea plantation, and a Hindu and a drunk. Because of their differing backgrounds, their marriage was frowned on; its ending was even less approved of. When Roy was two, her mother, Mary, took her two children and returned to her family. But, in India, daughters who insist on choosing their own husbands are not necessarily welcomed home when the union doesn’t prosper. Mary Roy and her children lived on their relatives’ sufferance. Roy told Siddhartha Deb that her mother would send her and her brother into town with a basket, and the shopkeepers would put in it whatever they could spare on credit: “Mostly just rice and green chilies.” The mother was chronically ill, with asthma. Later, she started a school and was busy there. Her children were on their own, and, still bearing the stigma of their parents’ divorce, often found their companions among lower-caste neighbors.
When Roy was sixteen, she left home for good, soon landing in an architectural college in Delhi. Much of the time, she lived in slums, because that was all she could afford. After graduating from college, she hung out with her boyfriend for a while in Goa, where they would make cake and sell it on the beach. Among the poor, Roy told Deb, she learned to see the world from the point of view of absolute vulnerability: “And that hasn’t left me.”
Indeed, that is what occupied her during the years when, to her fans’ disappointment, she was not writing novels. Journalists are always telling us about the interesting play of contrasts in the “new India”: billionaires walking the same sidewalks as beggars, Bentleys driving down roads alongside oxcarts. Side by side, business and charm, the modern world and the old world. But, as Roy has argued in the eight books she has brought out since “The God of Small Things,” the two aren’t separate. The new India was built on the backs of the poor. One of her first targets, in a widely circulated 1998 essay, “The End of Imagination,” was the nuclear tests India carried out that year. To many Indians, these were occasions of pride: their country was a player at last. To Roy, the nuclear program was a sign that the government cared more about displays of power than about the appalling conditions in which most of its billion citizens lived.
Her next subject was the series of dams that the government was constructing in the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Again, the project was hailed as part of the new India, and again it was the poor who paid. Farm families were broken by debt, and thrown off their land. (By 2012, a quarter of a million farmers were reported to have committed suicide, and those are only the fatalities that were recorded. A common method was by drinking pesticide.) After the dams, Roy took on the 2002 Gujarat massacre, in which around a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims suffering at the hands of Hindu nationalists. (India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was Gujarat’s Chief Minister at the time, has been criticized for looking the other way as this took place.) Next, Roy denounced the paramilitary attacks on the tribal peoples of central India, whose land, rich in minerals, the government wanted. (She spent close to three weeks tramping through the forests with Naxalites, Maoist defenders of the tribes, and reported on this in her 2011 book, “Walking with the Comrades.”) She later denounced the military occupation of Kashmir, where the largely Muslim population is trying to secede from India.
These books—most of them were collections of previously published essays—were really all about one subject: modern India’s abuse of its poor. The country’s new middle class, Roy writes, lives “side by side with spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists . . . of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.” Twenty rupees is thirty cents.
Roy is a good polemicist. She writes simple, strong expository prose. When she needs to, she uses words like “stupid” and “pathetic”—indeed, “mass murder.” She checks her facts; most of her books conclude with a fat section of endnotes, documenting her claims. Many people on the right hate her, of course, and not just for her skill in argumentation. There is a Jane Fonda-in-Vietnam element here: although Roy, unlike Fonda, grew up poor, to many she looks like a fortunate person. She may have sold cake on the beach when she was young, but that sounds a little bit like fun.
This problem often comes up when the rich plead on behalf of the poor. The less rich say, Well, why don’t you give your money away? That, of course, is not a solution. And, in fact, Roy has given a lot of money away—for example, all her prize money. She certainly has no financial difficulties. “The God of Small Things” has sold more than six million copies. But should only the poor be allowed to argue for the poor? If so, the poor would be in much worse trouble than they already are.
In the long second section of the novel, once Roy leaves Anjum and goes out into the great world you see what she learned in her twenty years of activism. And above all in Kashmir, where most of the latter part of the book takes place, we are shown horror after horror. People bash one another’s skulls in, gouge out one another’s eyes. Bodies are everywhere, hands tied to feet behind their backs, and they are covered with cigarette burns, which means the person was tortured. In some scenes, Roy kills us quietly. Here is the Indian Army’s “liberation” of the town of Bandipora: “The villagers said it had begun at 3:30 P.M. the previous day. People were forced out of their homes at gunpoint. They had to leave their houses open, hot tea not yet drunk, books open, homework incomplete, food on the fire, the onions frying, the chopped tomatoes waiting to be added.” Elsewhere, Roy just lets everything be as appalling as it was. Dogs wander through hospitals, looking for arms and legs severed from diabetics. That’s dinner.
Books at Roy’s house in New Delhi, India.
Photograph by Bharat Sikka for The New Yorker
Our new main character is Tilo, the illegitimate child of an Untouchable man and a Syrian Christian woman, who, to cover her sin, consigns her newborn to an orphanage and then goes back and adopts her. Tilo is one of a group of Kashmiri independence fighters. She may or may not have married one of the others, Musa. In any case, she has a steamy night with him on a riverboat. After Musa is gone—the authorities are after him—Tilo, too, goes on the run. She has a baby with her, not hers; it was born in the forest to another resistance fighter. With this baby, she gets into a truck, driven by her friend Saddam Hussain (not that one), with a dead cow in the back. The animal burst from eating too many plastic bags in a garbage dump.
They go to live in a new place, a graveyard where, the story having circled round, Anjum now lives. Anjum has converted the cemetery into a guesthouse, with roofs and walls enclosing the burial plots. The guests lay out their bedding among the graves. Tilo and the baby have a room with a vanity (Lakmé nail polish and lipstick, rollers, etc.) and, under the ground, the body of the woman who was the neighborhood’s longtime midwife. They are welcomed with a feast—mutton korma, shami kebab, watermelon—which they share with the homeless people who live on the edge of the cemetery, in a nest of bloodied bandages and used needles. They also save food for the police, who will soon come and will beat up everyone if they aren’t given something. Tilo and the baby settle in. Tilo misses Musa, but “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.”
Roy’s scenes of violence are hallucinatory, like the chapters on the Bangladeshi independence movement in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” or the union-busting at the banana plantation in García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” She’s often said to have learned from Rushdie, and she may be a little tired of hearing that, because it is to García Márquez (who surely influenced both of them) that she tips her hat, describing post-colonial India as “Macondo madness.” In fact, all three writers are practicing variant forms of magic realism, which, for each of them, is, among other things, a means of reporting on political horror without inducing tedium. In Roy’s case (Rushdie’s, too, I would say), the effort is not always successful. At times, between the things flying this way and that—who is this new narrator who is talking to us, telling us that he needs to go to a rehab center?—you lose your bearings. Roy knows this, and apologizes. In Kashmir, she writes, “there’s too much blood for good literature.” Confusion is not the only problem, though. The tone is too even: sarcastic, sarcastic.
You feel the need for some large-scale salvation, some great cleansing, which, when it comes, of course can’t really do the job. In the last scene of the book, Anjum, unable to sleep, goes for a midnight stroll in the city, taking the baby, now a toddler, with her. They wind their way through the people sleeping on the pavement. They pass a naked man with a sprig of barbed wire in his beard. The child says she has to pee, and Anjum puts her down. When the little girl was done, she “lifted her bottom to marvel at the night sky and the stars and the one-thousand-year-old city reflected in the puddle she had made. Anjum gathered her up and kissed her and took her home.”
After the tortures and the beheadings, this is a little too cozy. I expect someone to pop up, any minute, and say, “God bless us, every one!” But maybe, if I’d been to North India recently, I’d be grateful for a little sweetness, if only reflected in a puddle of urine. The conflict is still going on. Roy’s narrator says that aspiring Hindu politicians in Kashmir have themselves filmed beating up Muslims and then upload the videos onto YouTube. The Indian government—the real one, not Roy’s version—recently banned most social media in order to crack down on dissent. But you can sample videos that pre-date the ban. In one, soldiers beat a man while their colleagues hold him down. Musa says that, in Kashmir, “the living are only dead people, pretending.” ♦
This article appears in other versions of the June 5 & 12, 2017, issue, with the headline “Civil Wars.”
Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker, mostly on books and dance, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998. She is the author of “Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints.”Read more »