- - Thursday, July 6, 2017


Arundhati Roy hit the literary news big time when her first novel, “The God of Small Things,” won the Booker Prize in 1997. Now 20 years later she has published a second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” She notes has been working on it “for many years,” and it shows.

Its long incubation is evident in the many narratives. They swirl round two main nodes. One is the life of Anjum, a transgender woman relegated to the remotest reaches of Indian society. The other is Tilo, an artist, activist and lover of a Kashmiri militant wanted by the government for terrorism. Neither woman fits into conventional Indian life but in other ways the mood and mode of their stories and the trajectories of their lives are different.

Anjum and Tilo don’t meet until late in the novel, so when the focus shifts from Anjum’s life to Tilo’s it’s a startling wrench, partly because Anjum is the more potent and interesting character and partly because it prompts a hunt for a plot that connects the two women.

That hunt is fruitless. Each woman could have starred in a separate novel, and this suggests that during the long course of writing “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” the stream of the author’s attention meandered, so new perspectives came into view.

This is not surprising because though Ms. Roy did not publish novels between 1997 and 2017, she did produce numerous articles and books on problems of Indian life and politics. Among much else she has highlighted the cruelties of the caste system, the plight of tribal peoples in India and elsewhere, dam projects that displace thousands of villagers, corruption in government, and the horrors of India’s policy in Kashmir.

In 2010 she was charged with sedition when she asserted that Kashmiris had shown they wanted to be an independent state rather than a part of India used as a battleground with Pakistan.

Her history of political and social activism underpins “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Together the life stories of Anjum, Tilo and their multitude of friends, acquaintances and enemies dig into the recent history of India, mining rich and sometimes horrific material. Some topics initially presented in small nuggets later become foundation stones.

The Bhopal disaster of 1984 is one example. At first its victims appear as just one of many groups left to struggle in undeserved misery. Later that year, the assassination of Indira Ghandi by her Sikh bodyguards, unleashed savage reprisals against Sikhs, and the execution of a Kashmiri, Maqbool Butt, for murder and treason, are linked to Bhopal as game-changers.

Tilo’s militant Kashmiri lover Musa says that for him “history began” when Butt was hanged — a comment that illuminates the thematic network of the novel.

The central chapters focus on the tragedy of the devastating war waged to secure Kashmir to Hindu India rather than Muslim Pakistan. Eventually Tilo retreats from it to join a community literally built by Anjum. It’s in a graveyard that lies behind a mortuary. Anjum retired there, then built a shelter for herself, then another and another, all the time taking in people who couldn’t live in mainstream society.

In time she installs televisions and even starts building a swimming pool. Surrounded by salvaged people living in community built of salvaged things, she is a survivor. She is compared to Mr. Aggarwal, an accountant infuriated by the financial chicanery of those it power.

Both wanted to “escape the past and all that had circumscribed their lives so far. And yet in order to arm themselves for battle, they retreated right back into what they sought to escape, into what they were used to, into what they really were. He a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind. She a woman trapped in a man’s body. He raging at a world in which the balance sheets did not tally. She raging at her glands, her organs, her skin, her hair, the width of her shoulders … He reduced by his certainties. She augmented by her ambiguity.”

Ambiguity characterizes much in this novel and that makes it unsettling. So much of what happens — and is still happening — is cruel and oppressive. So much of India is hard for western readers to understand.

Take hijiras like Anjum, for example. They have played a role in Indian life for centuries. Traditionally and legally they are accepted as a third gender. Nonetheless, they are marginalized, as are millions of low-caste people who perform essential functions. Amid all the problems and tragedies, Anjum shines out as a great comic character — an inspiration — and Arundhati Roy’s prose is always a joy to read.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •

By Arundhati Roy
Penguin Random House, $28.95, 464 pages

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