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Posts Tagged ‘Arundhati Roy’

ministryutmosthappiness

After a twenty year wait Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy is back with her long anticipated new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. One of my birthday gifts last month was a ticket to see Arundhati Roy in conversation at Birmingham Town Hall, this beautiful limited signed edition was part of the ticket price. It was a fascinating evening, which really only gave us the merest idea of the novel as so much of the questioning and Roy’s answers were political. While some of it went a little over my head, I was fascinated by the complex politics that Roy discussed, and realised that my knowledge of modern Indian politics is very poor.

“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. 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 continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.”

Among the reviews of this novel I have already seen, there is some criticism. Perhaps that is inevitable with such a long-awaited novel. Written in the most gorgeous prose The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is a novel of big ideas, and a large cast of characters, it has the complex political divisions which exist in India, at its core. It is both difficult to review, and endlessly quotable. (I don’t apologise for including so many quotes – they speak of this novel, far better than I can). Perhaps some readers got a little lost in those politics, I don’t know, but for me The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a remarkable novel – and I loved it. Roy tells the stories of Anjum, Tilo and Musa, an abandoned baby an intelligence officer and others against a background of seething, politics. The novel spans many years, moving between Delhi and Kashmir, changing viewpoint, moving back and forth across the decades. It is I suppose, the politics, the stories of huge injustice and harrowing conflict that Roy most wanted to portray in a novel she took around a decade to write, but it is the stories of her wonderful cast of characters that make the reader keep coming back for more.

“She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches. She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb. She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.”

It starts with Anjum – born Aftab – part of Old Delhi’s Hijra community – a community which has existed since long before the more accepted term of transgender came into use. Born with both male and female genitalia, Anjum leaves her family and finds a home of sorts with the Hijra community. She longs for motherhood, her desire driving everything she does. Later Anjum takes up residence in a graveyard, where surrounded by the dead she builds a makeshift shelter – which over time becomes the Jannat Guest house – home to other waifs and strays.

At Jantar Mantar gather many groups, intent upon political protest of varying kinds. The grievances of each group are explained and I assume it is this kind of detail that some readers got a little bogged down by. Anjum and several of her friends join the throng. Dr Azad Bhartiya is another of the many people on the pavement during those protests – a hunger striker he’s always there – and he sees everything. TV cameras have arrived to report on the protests, taking up much of the valuable space allowed to the protesters. In the midst of all this chaos a newborn baby is left on the pavement under the stars. kashmir

“Down below, on the pavement, on the edge of Jantar Mantar, the old observatory where our baby made her appearance, it was fairly busy even at that time of the morning. Communists, seditionists, secessionists, revolutionaries, dreamers, idlers, crackheads, crackpots, all manner of freelancers, and wise men who couldn’t afford gifts for newborns, milled around. Over the last ten days they had been sidelined and driven off what had once been their territory – the only place in the city where they were allowed to gather by the newest show in town.”

The baby is claimed by Tilo – spirited away – with the help of Anjum and others. Tilo was an architecture student once, from a Christian community in Kerala, she is – at the moment she rescues that child – a woman separated from her husband, enduring a difficult, painful relationship with her dying mother, still connected to the Kashmiri conflict through her great love for Musa, who she first met as a student. The narrative takes us to different periods in Tilo and Musa’s relationship, theirs is a love story which survives conflict, marriage to other people and years of separation.

“The silence between them swelled and subsided like the bellows of an accordion playing a tune that only they could hear. He knew that she knew that he knew that she knew. That’s how it was between them.”

This is a novel about people who search for a place of safety. It’s a novel of great beauty, and brutal conflict. It is brilliantly complex, breath-taking in its scope and ultimately a very human novel, there are tears and laughter, love and hate. There are images that will stay with me for a long time, particularly those of the Jannat Guest House, and the people who live there, and a father, deep in a valley in Kashmir writing a letter to the memory of his little daughter – who had always insisted on being called Miss Jabeen.

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