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In her novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, published in 2017, Arundhati Roy traverses the borderline between political and aesthetic in very vivid terms. When writing fiction of historical and political kind, writers often appear to be grappled by the binary of ‘topicality’ and ‘literariness’. However, critics often seem to overplay this debate. What is essential in fiction in general and political fiction in particular is how it enagages with the dialectic of reality and creates its “topicality” and “literariness” out of that. Literature distinguishes itself from other forms of writing in “how” it narrates that dialectic of reality through its own self-contained imaginative world. As the eminent writer and critic Olive Senior says: “We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere – even writers – and we cannot escape being shaped by political decisions, big and small.

Does this mean that I am advocating that literature as I have narrowly defined it should be in the service of Politics? Absolutely NOT…The raw material of writers is the entire world that we live in; a world that continuously shapes us as we in turn shape it, through our poetry or fiction. The writer is someone who has no choice but to be engaged with society, which means political engagement…The difference lies not in what we write but in the how…The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask ‘What is it about?’ It asks ‘How do we tell it to make it real?’. “(Edinburgh Writers Conference 2013)

In “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” her second novel after the publication of the much acclaimed “The God of Small Things” in 1997, Roy enters into the arguments concerning our contemporary political existence which often bears starkly contested discourses. The novel indeed makes for a compelling fiction. Roy often argues for a fiction which agitates the human sensitivity towards the issues of grave importance. In her works, fiction and non-fiction alike, she seems to have appropriated what Salman Rushdie wrote way back in 1984: “If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications…there is a genuine need for political fiction, for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world…we see that it can be as false to create a politics-free fictional universe as to create one in which nobody needs to work or eat or hate or love or sleep.” (Outside the Whale;1984).

The implied lesson is that in the times we are currently living in, where fake news and false information arguably accentuated by the space of social media and technology, writers do need an active engagement with “how” of the storytelling in reflecting the human condition with an exploration of all of its probabilities and improbabilities.

Now coming to the subject-matter of the novel, anyone interested in a passionate understanding of the modern Kashmir’s predicament, its fall into the total abyss of conflict and violence punctuated by occasional illusory calm, with an increased emphasis on New Delhi’s ever diabolic treatment of Kashmir and Kashmiris, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a good read. The novel, in an Orwellian vein, also paints a rather dystopic picture of the contemporary India. An India which seems a far cry from the utopia envisaged in the “Tryst With Destiny” dreams. An India, which overtaken by the pernicious neoliberal lords, exploits and pulverizes the lives of its marginalized classes like Dalits,Adivasis and religious minorities. An India which has a ‘democracy’ to show, but is not able to give dignity to its minorities–political, caste, gender and religious. This dystopic picture painted in the novel may not be that far away from the realities of the contemporary India.

Having amply reflected New Delhi’s political chicaneries in Kashmir and the undeniable oppression of Kashmiri Muslims by India, the face out of this narrative’s layer presumes to talk about the deep intricacies of the Kashmir conflict but yet, it denies representation to the other side of the conflict—it doesn’t not dwell on the question of Kashmiri Pandits fairly. Though it gives the impression of talking about them, it fails to fully expose the deep faultlines and contradictions within the broader politics of Kashmir. As American New critics, Wimsatt and Beardsely would object to and caution against the ‘intentional fallacy’, between the lines of Roy’s narrative, what comes to the fore is Roy’s own anarcho-syndicalist and radical left outlook which seems too overawing in it. It also appears that the novel seems to have committed a classical fallacy when it comes to any writing–fiction, journalistic and academic about Kashmir–that the Kashmir conflict/issue/tragedy is all about ethnic Kashmiri Muslims because it is they who they take the centre stage, either as sufferers or collaborators. All other minorities, ethnicities and sects who represent diverse political shades are relegated to the margins of invisibility as if they have come across nothing. This is a contradiction or an “instability”, to put it in the Derridean terms, which belies the narratives’ own assumptions about the Kashmiri reality.

Basharat Shameem, Blogger, writer, Kulgam, J&K

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