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5 June 2017

Arundhati Roy returns to fiction after 20 years – but can she move on from The God of Small Things?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells the story of a middle-aged hermaphrodite, or hijra.

By Leo Robson

Arundhati Roy has said that after winning the Booker Prize in 1997, for The God of Small Things, she felt no desire to become a machine that produced novels, and she could hardly have done a more thorough job of realising that anti-ambition. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness marks a return to fiction after 20 years, a period she has spent mostly as a public intellectual, worshipped and despised for her censure of the Indian government. It is always tempting to diagnose a novel by drawing on knowledge gleaned from the broadsheets or Wikipedia, and although The Ministry of Utmost Happiness exhibits some of the supposed vices of the activist and the polemicist, it displays no sign of rustiness, or lack of practice. Roy is clearly seeking the effect she achieves, which might be considered all the stranger.

The novel is composed of two strands, pursued one after the other, before a convergence in the final pages. Initially the focus is Anjum, a middle-aged hermaphrodite, or hijra, who has started a hotel in a New Delhi graveyard. For a long time she lived at the Khwabgah (the name means “the House of Dreams”), a home for hijras, a place where, unlike in her parents’ Muslim household, she could indulge without fear of judgement her taste in sequins and bangles. But she eventually tired of “the wild jealousies, endless intrigue and continuously shifting loyalties”, among other factors, and the Jannat Guest House was born. Then a newborn baby is discovered near the cemetery and ends up in the care of Tilo, the novel’s other heroine, a beautiful, shaven-headed loner who shares much of Roy’s biography (raised among Syrian Christians by a progressive schoolteacher, trained as an architect, highly politicised, divorced).

All the while, Indian history is rumbling away, robbing Delhi of charm, soaking Kashmir in blood, growing ever more consumed by “the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism”, and dividing the characters when it doesn’t destroy them.

The novel wants to cross-breed the saga with the harangue, but Roy has settled on a style better suited to a campus novel or bedroom farce – jaunty, all-knowing, slightly hectic. Some set pieces might have been written by either of the Amises, as in a scene where the police slap someone around “not seriously, just from habit”, and then kick him over “(as a matter of routine)”. The targets are mostly pre-approved: bureaucracy, media rapacity, historical amnesia (“The Americans are currently lecturing the Vietnamese about human rights”), internet phenomena, conceptual art (“stainless steel” appears seven times in two sentences), gentrification, globalisation in its sillier forms (jihadis plagiarising speeches from the IRA). Roy exhibits a desire to shock the reader less with the enormities of history than with her own refusal to be shocked, as when the Bangladesh Liberation War is called “the holocaust in East Pakistan” in parenthetic commas, during a potted history of a brand of sherbet – a strategy so offhand that it can’t help feeling in-your-face.

One of Roy’s favourite devices is to question an idea she has just introduced, either in a parenthesis (they’re everywhere) or in a brisk, corrective sentence, the condescending implication being that without this tutorial in the art of unillusioned seeing, the reader would be doomed to credulity. “It was peacetime. Or so they said.” “Someone heard her prayer and answered it. It was ­unlikely to have been God.” The complexity of the world is rhetorically asserted but in the process denied, as in the phrase “pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle”, where the supposedly ineffable is exploited as an occasion for glibness.

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In The God of Small Things wordplay was elevated to a kind of private poetry. Much of the descriptive language in the new novel has been pulled straight off the peg (“a sly, sidelong glance”, “dying like flies”) while the more ambitious phrasing tends towards the pat. We read of a “day-mare” and “by-sitters”. Tilo is said to live in the country of her own skin. “A country that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates.” Excess is embraced in phrasing (“Life went on. Death went on. The war went on”) and imagery, too: “Cold soldiers from a warm climate patrolling the icy highway that circled their neighbourhood cocked their ears and uncocked the safety catches of their guns.”

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The mode of exposition is always blunt and often artless, having recourse to the digest-flashback, guided tour, annotated litany and text-within-the-text, from transcript to letter to mission statement (“My News and Views”). Roy doesn’t present her case against the corruption of the ruling classes so much as presume its validity – or the reader’s assent – with a treatment of cynicism that is reflexively cynical: “She was soon married to the Chief Editor of a TV news channel. They made a handsome, happy couple and went on to have many healthy, happy children.” The impression is of complete mastery over human possibilities, total faith in the wisdom of stereotype. One character “had the curt, authoritative air of a bureaucrat, which was indeed what he had been until recently”. “Indeed” – but it’s no feat to win a game you’ve rigged.

For all its tonal indignities, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness achieves a sort of old-fashioned stateliness. Told like Bleak House in a mixture of first and third person, it uses the discovery of fate-laden, class-bridging foundlings as a vehicle for analytic portraiture and impassioned exposé. A number of details, not least Anjum’s gender fluidity – flagged as a symbol of the India-Pakistan rift – bear the imprint of magical realism. It’s practically an Indian genre by now, though The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, despite feeling at times like Midnight’s Grandchildren, points to its Latin American (specifically, Márquezian) origins with a reference to “epic Macondo madness”.

As in those forerunners, the possibilities of peace are embodied, often movingly, in the idea of the family, elective rather than blood-tied. Anjum’s inner-city haven, established as a rebuke to more institutional modes of living, soon becomes a magnet for the dispossessed. In the rare moments when Roy stems the flow of incident, the onrush of ironies, we snatch a glimpse of what is being fought for – the title refers to the Jannat Guest House – as well as the ethos of the struggle, which veers between thinking of the wishful or magical variety (“Things will get better. They must”) and a dogged belief in the power of action: “There is weariness. But there is also defiance.” 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Arundhati Roy
Hamish Hamilton, 445pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning