The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness: A Novel That Is Neither Creative Nor Fiction




Kashmir Guideline News Service

Dozens of Cattle Cross Line of Control (LoC) in Rajouri

At least 33 cattle including 29 buffaloes have crossed over to Pakistan side in Nowshera sector of Rajouri district in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to KGNS, the cattle crossed the LoC in Kalsian sub-sector. ‘The cattle which belong to Ram Saroop, Ashok Kumar, Charan Das, Ved Prakash and others were grazing near LoC when they crossed over to other side,’ locals told KGNS.

Tick the Box:

Q 1: Why did the cattle cross the LoC?

(a) For training

(b) For sneak-in ops

(c) Neither of the above.”

You must be thinking what nonsense I have been quoting. Wait. If you do have a copy of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, flip the pages and go to the 272nd page. You can see what I have quoted above there. And don’t think that Ram Saroop, Ashok Kumar, Charan Das and Ved Prakash are the characters of the ‘novel’. They are not. Their names occur only on this page and in this passage. The Ministry is filled with such dry passages and we can quote umpteen numbers of them.

Arundhati Roy is the only writer I love and respect in our country for her writings that are both compact and straightforward and enable the readers see things in the real socio-political perspective. (See my article “Gandhi, Ayyankali and Arundhati Roy,” Mainstream, October 4, 2014). She is the only writer who is politically correct and sane. And I have personal copies of everything she has written and published from The God of Small Things to Broken Republic. Once started to read, nothing she has written so far bored me and prompted to stop reading.

But when I started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, often and again I kept looking at the cover page to ascertain whether it is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness or The Ministry of Utmost Boredom. I have never read such a novel like this, because it is not a novel. A novel must have characters who make us feel their feelings. The God of Small Things does have such characters—Ammu, Rahel, Estha, Ammachi, Mammachi, Velutha…But in The Ministry, everybody is a mere conduit to express Arundhati Roy’s views about everything—Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the 1984 riots against the Sikhs, Babari Masjid demolition, Narendra Modi (Gujarat ka Lalla), Vajpayee (the Poet-Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh (the ‘blue-turbaned Sikh economist who replaced him’. Singh is also called the Trapped Rabbit), the WTC attack, Iraq occupation, Kashmir issue, Gujarat genocide, Medha Patkar, Anna Hazare’s movement and even the Una flogging! (Of course, I strongly subscribe to Arundhati Roy’s views on every one of the above mentioned socio-political and international issues. But those views put together won’t make a good novel.) The things she used to say in her powerful essays like “Broken Republic”, “Walking with the Comrades”, “Listening to Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial and Celebration”, “Democracy: Who’s she when she’s at home?”, “Custodial confessions, the Media and the Law”, “Azadi”, she says in the ‘novel’. And the novel turns out to be neither a beautiful creative work as The God of Small Things is nor a powerful essay like everyone of her essays is.

In the novel, the Emergency is seen through the eyes of the protagonist—Anjum the Hijra: “…the incident had happened in 1976, at the height of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi that lasted twenty-one months. Her spoiled younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, was the head of the Youth Congress (the youth wing of the ruling party), and was more or less running the country, treating it as though it was his personal plaything. Civil Rights had been suspended, newspapers were censored and, in the name of population control, thousands of men (mostly Muslim) were herded into camps and forcibly sterilized.” (Do you see and hear the character or the author?)

And Gujarat 2002 is seen through Anjum: “The killing went on for weeks…The police would not register murder cases. They said, quite reasonably, that they needed to see the corpses. The catch was that the police were often part of the mobs, and once the mobs had finished their business, the corpses no longer resembled corpses.” (Do you see and hear the character or the author?)

The 1984 riots against the Sikhs is seen through the eyes of one of the three lovers of Tilottama: “…who in Delhi can forget 1984?…Mrs G—Indira Gandhi—was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. For a few days after the assassination, mobs led by her supporters and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lived were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city…It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores —as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers—life went on as before. …It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist— continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another.” (Do you see and hear the character or the author?)

Such things we can read in her articles and when she crammed the novel with such stuff, it turned out to be something else that is neither creative nor fiction. Through every character the author speaks. And almost everything she has written in the ‘novel’ we have read in her essays!

Tilottama, one of the main characters who fails to be a character because she is haunted and possessed by the spirit of Arundhati Roy, as is the case of every character, says in the final chapter of the novel: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”

In the novel, Arundhati Roy tries to become everything and fails to become anybody or anything and she succeeded to make The Ministry incredibly boring. As Somak Ghoshal says in his review of the book (HuffPost India, June 2), “Apart from being frustratingly rambling, The Ministry is shockingly uneven in its register. Soaring to flights of irony and poetry one moment, plunging into anodyne reportage the next, it appears to be composed by several minds and hands, unable to decide its tone and texture. …When Roy is in form, the crystalline clarity of her prose glitters off the page, the less she labours over a point, the more effectively it pricks our conscience….. Had those precious moments been gathered together with more ruthlessness and craft, we would have had superior fiction from her—not just a gargantuan handbook to modern India and its injustices.”

In a review of the book (All too obvious) published in The Irish Times (June 3, 2017), Eileen Battersby rightly observes that “the Booker winner’s polemical instinct is far more developed than her art,” and says: “Roy’s new book resonates with the confidence of a writer aware she can now get away with anything…so the narrative slides between the two-dimensional characters and Stark factual anecdotes…”

Even if I do have genuine respect and love for Arundhati Roy the writer, I can’t but say that the suitable title for the ‘novel’ is notThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but The Ministry of Utmost Boredom.

Sukumaran C. V. is a former JNU student and his articles on gender, communalism and environmental degradation are published many publications. Email: [email protected]

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