‘So Many Lives: a Review of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’, by Pema Monaghan

I haven’t been to India since I was eleven, but as a child I loved it there. My mommola and poppola lived in a one-room house covered in carpet. Each morning mommola would be cooking chapatis on a little paraffin stove, ready with butter and honey for us (herself, my sisters, my poppola, and my mother) to eat. Not having been back since then, India has become something special and pure in my mind. My memories of it are only vignettes, and in them I practice an undeniable romanticisation and exoticisation of a complicated place.

These are some of my memories of India.

I walk outside, very slowly, with little legs. It’s snowing, I’m wearing a tiny sweat suit, very nineties baby. The snow is white. It’s coming down. I turn around, and my mother leans out the doorway of a tiny house. The yellow light is strong out of the door. I toddle back.

A graveyard, just outside McCleod Ganj, Dharamsala, where my grandparents lived, and my mommola still lives. It’s off a road heading into town, it is on a cliff, it is a green, black, and wet place encircled by trees.

A tawny cow with black irises appears one day just outside mommola’s house. She stays there all month, we don’t know where she came from. We name her Lakshmi – Lucky. She gives us gentle looks and licks our hands.

For me, it is easy to feel like I understand certain things about India. My mother was born there, I grew up with Indian popular culture, and Indian food. My mother’s family still live there, in McCleod Ganj. But my mother is Tibetan, not strictly speaking Indian, despite being a citizen. I—an Australian-raised woman, many varied migrant and refugee histories ribboning out from behind me, and now all but divorced from my mother – am not really Indian at all.

I thought I would be able to use this review as a way to begin decolonising my own complex memories and thoughts around India, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a novel that absolutely refuses the treatment I pitched before I began the book. Any attempt to place your own narrative upon Roy’s new work is doomed.

Coming twenty years after her last, the Man Booker-winning God of Small Things, Roy’s new novel depicts ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion, and regionalism in ways that are stupefyingly complex. Set predominantly in the 2000s with references back to the second half of the twentieth century, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness dramatises the immensely complicated history of Hindu/Muslim aggression and retaliation. It is entrenched in plot and character and one simply doesn’t have the time to place oneself in the text – it’s so difficult to keep up. I think this is a technique; it disallows a simplistic or reductive reading of the issues.

The Ministry talks around a number of periods and landmark events of ethnic cleansing and oppression in India, specifically: the battles for Kashmir between the Pakistani and Indian Armies, the fight for Kashmir Azadi (independence), and the Gujarat Riots of 2002. In complicating narratives of good and bad India by depicting atrocities committed by multiple elements of Indian nationality, Roy resists any easy alliance or identification with causes. What she does allow, however, is identification with characters from various ‘sides’ of these issues. Each character, even the most minor, is cleverly drawn. She dashes off one-line descriptions with the humour and confidence of Dickens. She forcibly makes you see the person. You feel gripped by the wrist and led.

When Roy has Biplab, a bureaucratic Brahmin official, tell us that Tilo “gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash,” we immediately understand that it is Biplab who feels leashed, while Tilo never has. And even Biplab, who is not a sympathetic character, is sympathetic and complex in his allegiances. Though constantly minimising the physical impact of the Indian army he works for and scornfully diminishing ‘leftist’ journalists and activists, Biplab occasionally speaks glistening, bipartisan sense: “What we have on our hands is a species problem.”

This man, Biplab, tells his story in the first person. The first section, about Anjum, her friends, and family in Delhi, is told in the third by an omniscient narrator. Because, I think, of the first-person perspective of Biplab’s section, it is much more vital than Anjum’s. Biplab is a bad man, an apathetic, apolitical person in politics. His life is sometimes interrupted frighteningly by the friends he had at university; artists and radicals on the other side, one of them a women he loved/loves. Despite being directly involved in the giving of kill orders, he is surprised by and dismissive of people who are politically furious. He cannot understand why someone might be so hurt as to actively seek “some sort of voodoo revenge fantasy.”

Anjum, the Hijra who badly wants to be a mother, is the first character we meet. She is vividly rendered. I felt that I could gently press my finger into her arm and see the skin spring back out again. Reading her, I could see the puckered burn mark as big as a five-cent coin that my biological mother has on one of her own brown arms. However, Anjum is done disservice by the magical-realist elements in her story, which are used to describe both political events and Anjum herself. Anjum and her companions, appearing suddenly on a literal white horse, are presented as not quite of the world. These are all marginalised individuals: Hijras, Untouchables, LGBTQI, orphans. To depict them as somehow otherworldly – ‘She lived in the graveyard like a tree’ – even while writing them as complex individuals, seems an odd choice to make.

Ustad Kulsoom Bi, the leader of the Khwabgah (a home of Delhi Hijras), directly contradicts this depiction, telling her family:

this household [which] has an unbroken history as old as this broken city… Always remember – we are not just any Hijras from any place. We are the Hijras of Shahjahanabad. Our Rulers trusted us enough to put their wives and mothers in our care. Once we roamed freely in their private quarters, the zenana, of the Red Fort. They’re all gone now, those mighty emperors and their queens. But we are still here.

It seems that Roy is trying to establish the historical place of the Hijra community in India by presenting them as almost out of time, both respected, desired, derided (spat on), and feared by their neighbours. But I worry that this normalises an othering attitude and allows for a view that mistreatment is beyond history, that it is simply part of the Hijra experience.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness insists that a homogenous idea of Indian nationhood, of Indian people, of Indian culture and religion, is absurd. The people of India, The Ministry says, are fighting any number of serious battles on any number of fronts:

Manipuri Nationalists asking for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which made it legal for the Indian Army to kill on ‘suspicion’; Tibetan refugees calling for a free Tibet…the Association of Mothers of the Disappeared, whose sons had gone missing, in their thousands, in the war for freedom in Kashmir.

In this brief passage alone we are presented with a multiplicity of groups with serious and conflicting concerns: the ‘Bhopal gas leak victims’ and the lower-caste inhabitants of the cities expelled from their apartments and the city-centres after government-funded gentrification; The Hijras; the fractured Muslim families; the Tibetans; and the militant Nationalists. Attempting to follow all the concerns stuffed into this epic is difficult, close to impossible. The novel was slow to grip me: the initial lack of a narrator to lead me through these Dickensian plot layers made the first two hundred pages seem like a lot of work. However, the ambitious impossibility of this book is itself meaning-creating. How can one novel render the social complexity of India, of any fractured, populated place? Perhaps, as Roy writes towards the end of the novel in words carefully placed on the page:

By slowly becoming everything.

Pema Monaghan is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia. She is currently researching a PhD on depictions of sensory experiences of the department store in novels.