Book Review : The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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What can be expected of a novel dedicated to ‘the unconsoled’, with its very first page relating in a matter of fact manner that, even the vultures, the nature’s scavengers, died of diclofenac poisoning? Imagine the nature of unbound terror when the eaters of the dead are themselves dead. That appeared to be the tone for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMOUH), where you knowingly anticipate something almost prophetic and appalling is going to happen soon; like some perpetual, fine-looking destruction, stormed together with such an impeccable ease that it would almost eradicate the naked horrendousness of the state of affairs of the world in which we exist today. Roy is her usual self; assembling all the right ingredients for a cocktail of melancholia and futuristic hope, which might seem like a stretch at times, but is still very truthful to its subject matter like a dedicated nurturer.

The world of this 445 paged TMOUH is undoubtedly poetic; you will find Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Agha Shahid Ali, Jean Genet and James Baldwin being quoted while transiting among its chapters and then there is Anjum, who quotes nostalgically apt verses of classical Urdu poets here and there. Then there’s Dr Azad Bhartiya, who while rioting for every human cause, relates the collective angst of the disenfranchised through verses. And finally, there’s Tilotama and Musa, who cultivate their mutual understated yet deep rooted esoteric intimacy through verses, thus making poetry as an overall potent mode of communication in the novel; not only adding value to the verbal emotional geography but also emancipating the non-verbal emotional topography, thus enhancing the expressive landscape of the characters and the novel itself.

TMOUH is primarily a story of margins and marginalized; the ones who are ‘misfit’ for the soceity, the dunya as Anjum rightly called it, where hegemonic majoritarian politics make identities like being Queer, Woman, Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, Kashmiri, Drug Addict, Syrian Christian, Poor and Uneducated the easy target of unbridled and insatiable hatred.

These ‘others’ then find solace at Jannat Guest House, an abode of and for disenfranchised, built on an old graveyard in Delhi. It appears to be a nihilistic project, a weird form of existence at the beginning, but as the story progresses lopsidedly, and unveils the pull all the ‘outcasts’ feel towards this epicenter of apparent death, we realize that it’s actually an alternate universe in creation; a parallel form of possible existence and living, found in a totally unexpected place. This ‘coming together’ of all the marginalized intersections of the society is a powerful statement in itself thus bringing consolation for the unconsoled.

Although, its multiple sub-plots and dozens of characters, may appear to be overwhelming at times, but in the end the converging down of all the ‘outcasts’ into the form of a community at Jannat Guest House seemed the most rationale and inevitable poetic justice to the plot. Because all forms of oppression are connected, originating from similar institutes of hegemonic and unchecked power, privilege and control, and affecting at both personal and collective social level. Hence, making TMOUH a conducive queer intersectional space, both literally and figuratively.

While Jannat Guest House seemed to be thriving in Delhi, there is another jannat ablaze among the mountain confines of Pir Panjal. The issue of Kashmir takes center stage in the second half of the novel, and is served as the main interaction point of plot as well as reference till the end of the novel. We are introduced to many characters, Kashmiris and Indians, with different stories to tell. But interestingly, although every character is following a script, what is striking is the fact that Roy never denies any of the characters of their humanness, their vulnerabilities and their insecurities; even if it’s for a few moments. The events and happenings in Kashmir are profoundly painful to process if it hadn’t been for the excellent narration style of Roy, who will show you all the bruises, cuts and deaths in such an engagingly objective manner that you feel unaffected, though momentarily. But it stays with you with all its subtle horrendousness and monstrosity for a very long time. Like Musa said, ‘You may have blinded all of us, every one of us, with your pellet guns by then. But you will still have eyes to see what you have done to us.’

It is what you can call a great Indian novel, not because of the fact that it has documented almost every major socio-political event and struggle of the marginalized in it, but for the fact that it’s a highly political and much needed text of our times. It provides voice and space to the bruised and defiant yet resilient souls and empowers the disenfranchised sections of the society whose struggles are usually ignored or tokenized by the state directly or through its various daunting actors. It’s like Roy’s doppleganger in the form of a book, an extension of her personal politics and non-fiction writings, with the strong belief that ‘things would turn out all right in the end. They would, because they had to.’

Hadi Hussain

Hadi Hussain is a social researcher, writer and activist who is continuously struggling to resist, exist, indigenize and decolonize. His interests include intersectional politics, feminism, South Asian LGBT discourse, body politics, cultural anthropology, peace initiatives, decolonization studies and transnational indigenous social movements