Arundhati Roy’s latest novel which is being released at Vancouver Summer Festival on June 26 gives voice to the most condemned groups in the world’s so called largest secular democracy.
From the transgenders to the tribals and Dalits or the untouchables to the religious minorities, especially Muslims who are forced to live under constant threat in a country currently being governed by the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) find their voices heard in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Through many characters with numerous stories that constantly intersect, Roy who has consistently written though poor man’s lens presents a case that challenges the myth of a great country that is said to have benefited from neoliberalism.
All these narratives woven together in large fiction unmask the real face of India where the dominant culture has frequently othered powerless sections of the society. Under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who has been referred to as Gujarat Ka Lalla in the novel, this tendency has rather grown.
Modi’s complicity in the 2002 anti Muslim pogrom in Gujarat finds a mention in the novel, even as major part of the story is dominated by the conflict in Kashmir where the Indian forces continue to suppress Muslim population and its struggle for right to self determination. The novel also touches upon other human tragedies that happened in the distant past such as the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and anti Sikh massacre of 1984.
Anjum, the central character of the story is both Muslim and eunuch and therefore remains more vulnerable in a society where religious orthodoxy against LGBT and non Hindus prevail. She survives Gujarat massacre and remains anxious about the future of her own community, especially the younger generation. However, she gives hope for all the condemned groups to live with self respect and dignity through Jannat Guest House in Delhi that becomes refuge to an orphaned child of a tribal woman who dies as a Maoist insurgents after going through state repression and a Dalit man who lost his father at the hands of Hindu fanatics who terrorize people in the name of cow protection campaign.
Roy’s imagination is at its best when she makes Anjum use the expression, “Laal Salaam Vaalekum” – a combination of the communist slogan of Red Salute and Muslim greetings as a last respect to the dead Maoist militant. It is a statement against the growing onslaught on the left wing activists and Muslims who are often harassed as potential terrorists by the state agencies in India.
In a nutshell, the novel makes one see an unseen India that remains obscured and hidden because of the hype created by India’s growing economy and the global power’s capital greed for investment in that part of the world.
Though some passages give an impression that the author is too overwhelmed by her social justice activism and non fiction political writings, overall the story is very gripping and makes one angry and sad, and yet ends with an optimism for a future that lies in the hands of the people who can resist unitedly against power.
Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.