I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens, there’s lots to write about. This can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.
Q1. Why is it not sophisticated?
Q2. What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?”
The air was filled with anticipation a couple of months ago when the world woke up to the news that Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was coming out in June 2017, 20 years after her first novel, the Booker Prize winner The God Of Small Things.
Her first novel not only happens to be one of my favourites, but also happens to be the only book that I’ve read three times. I read it the first time because it was my then best friend’s favorite book, and I hated it. I was disappointed in Ms Roy, and more so in myself for failing to find whatever it was that my friend found in it. Almost ten years later, I picked it up again (I can’t say why – once a book fails to impress me, it usually goes into my pour-vitriol-over-this pile). It may have been a whole other book, because I found myself falling in love, page after page, line after line. The reason why I hadn’t liked it the first time (and let me be the first to admit it) is that I hadn’t understood a word of it!
The third time was last year (two years after my second reading), and I discovered many things I had missed the previous time. I won’t be surprised if two years from now, I’ll be reading it a fourth time, discovering even more things, hidden in plain sight.
That is the draw of Roy’s writing – the nuances, the layers. The strength of its subtleties. It does not reveal itself at once and it does not reveal all of it unless you’ve revisited it a few times, with fresh eyes each time.
To follow in the shadow of something that’s both widely loved and extremely successful is a monumental task (siblings, teachers, lovers, ministers, they will all vouch for this). The weight of expectations alone would crush it, and in the case of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, add to it, the 20-year gap. Whispers of anticipation in the crowds of readers and writers aside, I decided to plunge in with lowered expectations to be fair to the book. But the first page said, “To, The Unconsoled.” The second page was a quote by Nazim Hikmet, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart…” The third page was a story of vultures dying, and on the fourth page began the first chapter titled, “Where do old birds go to die?”
I can’t say what it was about those first four pages, but I felt like I’d been kissed for the first time.
The book begins with the story of Anjum, who lives in a graveyard and sleeps on a different grave every night. It is she who poses the question, “Where do old birds go to die? Do they fall from the sky?” and receives a stony silence in response – the effect she was hoping for.
And because Ms Roy can never tell a story with a linear timeline, we go back to take a glimpse at Anjum’s history. Anjum, who was once Aftab.
In this way, several other main characters are introduced – Saddam Hussein, Musa, and the woman who carries the story on her shoulders – Tilo. Each of these interconnected stories is laid against the backdrop of the Indian political climate – especially the volatile situation in Kashmir. From the militants, to the military, to the Holy Cow, to the cow-related lynchings, Arundhati Roy holds nothing back. She writes about a certain former CM, current world traveller, and his rise, in a way that’s a political satire as well as black comedy as well as horror. The line, “A devotee gifted him a pinstriped suit with LallaLallaLalla woven into the fabric. He wore it to greet visiting heads of state.” made me laugh out loud, just as the account of the 2002 riots filled me with rage. It is no wonder that this is a book that will more than just upset Lalla’s insecure troll army (*cough* saffronparakeets *cough*). I imagined a Nazi Germany-like scenario where this would be one of the first books in a pile to be set on fire (and I hope someone like Liesel Meminger will rescue at least one copy).
At first I felt the book had too much of non-fiction in it to qualify as a work of fiction. I even wondered how much of Tilo was Ms Roy herself (much like I thought about Rahel from her first book). I had reached about four-fifths of the book when I understood, truly understood, what the book was about. I took a few moments, sitting very still, to process it all – to process how the various parts worked together. In the beginning, I was a little put off because there were too many characters – they took away from the reading experience, but by the four-fifths mark, I understood they were all a part of the same tapestry, and they were all essential.
My knowledge on the subject of Kashmir is too limited to form an opinion. A conversation I had with someone from Kashmir a while ago tallies with what is written in the book, and my mind kept going back to that conversation as I read. But I have so many questions, and I wonder whether there will ever be a solution.
Reading this book made me feel that every other author (with the exception of maybe Salman Rushdie) should just retire and go home. I didn’t intend to write this review at first. The reasons were many – including the fact that I know I will read it again, and discover new things and this review will then seem unjust and insufficient. If I said the book is about India and its new regime, I would not be wrong. If I said it is the story of Tilo and Musa, I would not be wrong. Or even if I said it is the story of how a graveyard turned into a guest house, I would not be wrong. But in all these cases, I would not be right either, because while it may be those things, it is also much bigger than the sum of its parts. Someday I hope more writers write as fearlessly as Ms Roy, shattering rose tinted glasses and the comfort of common ignorance. And to acknowledge that is why I decided to go ahead and share my thoughts.
From a literary standpoint, a few things to note: the (irritating and fascinating) non-linear timeline. I call it the one-step forward, three-steps back timeline. Those who’ve read The God of Small Things are familiar with this style. Others will find it confusing at first. Those unfamiliar with Indian politics will also find it difficult to follow the story, or at least to connect with it. I found the prose to be less… musical… that her first book, but that’s just me.
On the whole, an excellent and bold piece of writing that’s unassumingly charming, yet somehow aware of itself. It is dark and terribly disturbing, yet poignantly romantic. If I had to choose, I’d still choose The God of Small Things over The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At the moment, I do think her first novel is superior to her second. But call me after ten years and see if I’ve changed my mind.