Shit is one of Arundhati Roy’s favourite words: you can hear her use it on Desert Island Discs. She uses it literally and metaphorically when talking about India and, in particular, her home town of New Delhi. It is there in various forms in her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which has just been published after a 20 year gap in fiction writing.
Since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, Roy has been writing political non-fiction. The titles: The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic and Capitalism: a Ghost Story, suggest that, not only in terms of subject matter, but also in use of language, those, what Roy calls, pamphlets, feed into her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Roy writes non-fiction mainly because in this ‘globalised’ world she is ‘Brand India’. Her presence is sought by activists who need a writer, such as the jungle- based Maoists in India’s secret war zone. Roy writes polemics. Compatriots, especially the corporate and governmental middle-classes, find her work extreme. But, says Roy, when she publishes, she has redacted most of her anger leaving just enough to structure her argument.
The anger is there in the novels too. Roy is particularly exercised by the caste system and the treatment of the lowest caste, those who dispose of waste, the ‘untouchables’. In The God of Small Things, the central love affair is between a woman, based on her own ‘headstrong’ mother and a Charmar or Dalit (untouchable).
In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness this caste is again centre stage, particularly in the character, Saddam Hussein. He renamed himself after seeing a video of the execution of the ex-president. He admired the dignified exit, whilst knowing nothing about the violent tyrant’s life. This is one example of Roy’s pervasive humour.
Saddam Hussein has been working in the mortuary handling corpses, making incisions and disposing of ‘viscera and organs’. The high caste Hindu doctors shout instructions from a distance, handkerchiefs covering noses. It is impossible to avoid smirking at such a ridiculous system.
Saddam Hussein’s family business is removing the cadavers, on which only an untouchable could lay hands, of sacred cows.
Holy cows and bulls pepper the pages; often alive and well, sometimes tall enough to peer through second floor windows, but equally likely to be dead and stinking. They serve as symbols of several things: the unwieldy caste system, mysterious religious beliefs and careless producers of shit.
The novel is crammed with animals. Smelly old dog, Biroo; the fertile bitch, Comrade Laali and her litters; Payal, the scrawny white mare; two delightful kittens, Khanum and Agha and the rooster, Sultan, all play important roles. Finally, Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, introduced only on the last page, ‘lying on his back with his legs in the air to save the world in case the heavens fell’.
Ruling the roost, so to speak, are the vultures in the prologue. In the 1990s cattle were given Diclofenac to increase their milk production and when they died the white-backed scavengers or, waste removers, ingested the cow meat. The drug caused the ‘vultures’ necks to droop’ resulting in them ‘tumbling off their branches, dead’. Ethnic cleansing. Vulture genocide.
Roy uses creatures to symbolise various aspects of Indian life, especially political ones. The dung beetle, characterised as unclean, untouchable, is able to drag 1,141 times its body weight of faecal matter. But is it possible that Guih Kyom is also a symbol for hope, a cleanser of the vast, chaotic, filthy, rancid democracy that is India?
It’s hard to decide whether The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is magic realism. In the first chapter, ‘Where do old birds go to die?’, it is unclear whether Anjum, one of the central characters, is still alive or whether she is now a tree. She has branches and leaves and can feel the ghostly talons of vultures but also sleeps on a carpet ‘between two graves at night’.
There are also the preternaturally tall bulls. I think that Roy takes her characters to the edge of sanity, into a place where the Duniya, or real world, thins out into a transparent layer in which the laws of physics don’t quite work.
Anjum, born with two sets of primary sexual organs, is a Hijra. Identifying as a woman, she moves in with others into the Kwabghar, a sort of brothel. I am not sure whether Roy’s understanding of transgender issues is sufficiently wide-ranging to be politically acceptable. She is accepting and not hostile but maybe naïve. She is, however, depicting a number of decades from the early 1980s to the present day. Attitudes change over time.
It’s clever when her colleague, Nimmo, explains that the two of them cannot experience the normal worries of people in the Duniya, because Hijras’ problems come from two warring genders. For she and Anjum ‘the war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t’.
It is hard to say why Roy chooses to place Anjum at the core of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The mutilating and unsuccessful surgery that Aftab undergoes to become Anjum, could symbolise, oppression of minorities. Or it could just be that Roy is pointing out that transgender people can be victims of unscrupulous quacks.
On the other hand the war inside Anjum is a way for Roy to talk about the war that modern nationalist India is waging on her own insides – her regions and peoples, a kind of internal ‘Indo-Pak’? Roy suggests that India ‘is colonising itself, turning on its own poor to extract raw materials.’
‘Fiction’ says Roy, ‘is less a book than a city or a sedimentary rock. You know it has layers and layers and layers. It’s mysterious and esoteric and you know you have to wait for it. It’s a dance and never in a hurry.’ The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is one such city. It is the city of New Delhi.
But it is also its own city, which is both more and less than New Delhi. Its characters are as much the bricks and mortar of the city as the mortuary, the Red Fort or the sewage system. Roy writes mainly about ‘non-citizens’ who do not own the city or have a place in it. She writes about the people who live ‘between the cracks’ of the institutions. In one short section she describes some untouchables who are employed in the city sewers but have no access to any toilets themselves. Much of the novel is scatological – perhaps because Roy considers her country, on a number of levels, to be full of excrement.
Kashmir, beautiful, in spite of occupation by India, forms the backdrop for an exquisitely written sub-plot. A primal love/hate story, played out between eight characters. There may be something of Roy herself in Tilo: a young woman from Kerala, raised by a single mother, and whose head is shaved during a short stay in jail. This is Roy’s story too.
Roy says that the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have ‘conspired to confound accepted categories and notions – including my own – of identity, gender, nationhood and patriotism, faith, family, motherhood, death – and love itself’. It’s an extraordinary and exciting novel.
Roy, A. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Hamish Hamilton. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend Section of the Irish Examiner on 2nd September 2017.