The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

Reviewed by Alan Taylor

DESPITE all that we have learned of it in recent times India remains an enigma to most Westerners. EM Forster, considering his own novel, A Passage to India, described it as “an unexplainable muddle” but that hardly helps us reach a deeper understanding.

For English writers, from Rudyard Kipling to Forster and Paul Scott, the Raj was the lens through which the country was viewed. The real India, that in which the majority of Indians lived, was unrepresented and largely invisible.

It was not until the emergence of native writers of the stature of Mulk Raj Anand and RK Narayan that it felt at all graspable. But it was Salman Rushdie who, in Midnight’s Children, gave us the first authentic picture of modern India as it wrestled with its colonial past and embraced independence and partition, and the creation of Pakistan. Many Indians thought Midnight’s Children bleak. That was not how Rushdie saw it. For him, the novel was ultimately uplifting, reflecting the country’s capacity endlessly to regenerate and reinvent. Moreover, it teems, not just with people but with stories.

Arundhati Roy, who was born in India in 1961, owes much to Rushdie, good and bad. Her debut novel, The God of Small Things, for which she won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, was a critical and commercial success, selling around eight million copies. It was transparently autobiographical, as so many first novels are, drawing on its author’s hybrid roots: her father was a Bengali Hindu tea planter while her mother was a Malayali Syrian Christian active in the women’s rights movements.

In the two decades since its publication, Roy has become an influential public figure, serial protester and high profile activist. She embraces causes as some do slimming diets, writing ceaselessly and appearing in the media. She has campaigned for Kashmiri independence and against government corruption, railed against Hindu nationalism, condemned environmental despoliation and was vociferous in her condemnation of Union Carbide, the US company which owned the gas plant at Bhopal – scene of the world’s worst industrial disaster. Consequently, there have been threats on her life and she has faced innumerable legal challenges. She has been jailed, albeit briefly, and last year, fearful of her life, she fled Delhi for London when she was named on India’s main news channel as “the mind” behind student riots.

Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, embraces all of this and more. Like Midnight’s Children, it thrums with stories and people, issues and interventions. There is much violence and conflict; domestic, generational, national, religious. ethnic. For a lot of the time we are in Delhi, with its “famously filthy” air. Large and “bristly” rats are conspicuously present. India, however, is changing. Young people wear Western clothes and watch television and use the internet. It is fast becoming part of the global village.

After 9/11, Delhi is flooded with Afghan refugees fleeing American warplanes “that sang in their skies like unseasonal mosquitoes, and bombs that fell like steel rain”. Among Roy’s many targets is Atal Bihari Vajayee, mockingly dubbed the “poet-prime minister” who, we’re told, believed that India was essentially a Hindu nation and that it should declare itself as one. Apparently, some of his supporters and “ideologues” admired Hitler and “compared the Muslims of India to the Jews of Germany”.

At the novel’s core are two main narratives which Roy struggles to make cohere. It begins with the story of Anjum, a once-celebrated Hijra – “a female trapped in a man’s body” or “a counterfeit woman”. Having for years lived in a community called the Khwabgah – aka “the House of Dreams” – she sets up home in a graveyard which attracts a cast of exotics, including “the Lime Man” who has stuck limes to his body with superglue, a mortuary worker who has renamed himself Saddam Hussain, and a baby girl who is discovered in litter in the midst of a protest by the Kashmiri “Mothers of the Disappeared”.

About a third of the way into the novel, however, Roy changes tack and we are introduced to Musa, a fighter involved in the separatist movement. Narrated in the first person, this section of the novel is conventional only in comparison to what has preceded it. The action has now moved to Kashmir. The priggish narrator – a proud “servant of the Government of India” – is not in favour of its independence. “The only thing that keeps Kashmir from self-destructing like Pakistan or Afghanistan,” we’re told, “is good old petit bourgeois capitalism. For all their religiosity, Kashmiris are great businessmen.”

Like Dickens, Roy does not like loose ends and by transporting Musa to Delhi and the Jannat Guest House – Anjum’s melting-pot in the graveyard – she contrives to pull them satisfactorily together. But while one can admire the brio she brings to each page and the many sentences that sing with irreverent wit and inventive irony, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness left me bemused. Like a curry to which has been added a surfeit of spices, it offers a taste of everything and nothing. By its end do we know India any better? Perhaps a little. But Forster’s “unexplainable muddle” still seems apt.