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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 16 February 2018

"The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" by Arundhati Roy

The story starts in a graveyard in Delhi where Anjum (born Aftab, a hermaphrodite s/he has had surgery to relinquish her male parts to transgender to the female she wants to be) now lives after leaving the house she lived in for years with a community of hijras (eunuchs and transgenders who are officially recognised as a third gender in some parts of India). Nimmo, a hijra in the community, tells her that God made Hijras because "He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us." And when Anjum (still Aftab) says thay the hijra community seems happy she replies "Who's happy here? It's all shame and fakery ... No one's happy here ... For us the price-rise and the school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can't." (p 23)

This is the story not of Aftab/ Anjum but of India. And India is one country at war with itself. The war is between the castes, between the Moslems and the Hindus, between the various terrorist factions and the military in the hatred-ravaged state of Kashmir. "in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one - the war of the rich against the poor."(p 392)

"How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
No.
By slowly becoming everything." (p 436)
This is the technique Roy adopts. This story has multiple narrators and over fifty other characters. It jumps around in time. It is as chaotic and confusing as the slums in Delhi it describes. Pinto (2017) compares it with postmodernism: "This is fiction as kaleidoscope, constantly changing, and flirting with failure."

It is, I suppose, a three part structure. The first third of the book is set in Delhi and recounts the adventures of Anjum the hijra. It ends with the arrival of a baby, abandoned on the pavement, an arrival heralded in quasi-Biblical terms which leads one to believe that something special and magical is about to happen.
  • She appeared quite suddenly, a little after midnight. No Angels sang, no wise men brought gifts. But a million stars rose in the east to herald her arrival.” (p 95)
  • A thin white horse tethered to the railing, a small dog with mange, a concrete-coloured garden lizard, two palm-striped squirrels who should have been asleep and, from her hidden perch, a she-spider with a swollen egg sac watched over her.” (p 96)
Then suddenly we are into the second third of the book. Delhi and Anjum are forgotten. Now we learn, from a variety of sources, including the first hand testimony of the only first person narrator, a government official (suggesting that it is only when a representative of the government is speaking that we can use the form 'I'?) and from her childish short stories and from pages of random invective from her mother about the adventures of Tilo, a well-to-do high caste girl who is well-fancied by three men, one a Kashmiri freedom-fighter, one a campaigning journalist and the third the naforementioned government official. Perhaps the symbolism is that these are the three (male) interests who are fighting over Mother (if only by adoption of the quasi-miraculous baby) India. This part of the story explores the terror and counter-terror in which ordinary Kashmiris are slaughtered by the thousands to satisfy the political machinations of cruel and uncaring men (and one woman).

And then comes the third part of the story. Back to Delhi. Loose ends tied together. More testimonies.

But she can write. Her descriptions bring life to her characters and the city of Delhi is just another wonderfully colourful and complex character:

  • "She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches." (p 3; opening lines)
  • "When people called her names - clown without a circus, queen without a palace - she let her hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain." (p 3)
  • "He laughed. She laughed at his laugh." (p 4)
  • "Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty." (p 6)
  • "The first time she made her way past the crowd - the sellers of ittars and amulets, the custodians of pilgrims' shoes, the cripples, the beggars, the homeless, the goats being fattened for slaughter on Eid and the knot of quiet, elderly eunuchs who had taken up residence under a tarpaulin outside the shrine" (p 11)
  • "God's carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred." (p 13)
  • "brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own hubris." (p 15)
  • "it was the only place in his world where he felt the air make way for him." (p 19)
  • "The fan had human qualities - she was coy, moody, and unpredictable. She ... wasn't young any more and often needed to be cajoled and prodded with a long-handled broom and then she would go to work, gyrating like a slow pole dancer." (p 20)
  • "Anjum began to rewrite a simpler, happier life for herself. The rewriting in turn began to make Anjum a simpler, happier person." (p 34)
  • "They were buried in unmarked graves that disappeared over time and contributed to the richness of the soil and the unusual lushness of the old trees." (p 58)
  • Shadows just a deeper shade of night” (p 61)
  • Nothing scared those murderers more than the prospect of bad luck. After all, it was to ward off bad luck that the fingers that gripped the slashing swords and flashing daggers were studded with lucky stones embedded in thick gold rings. It was to ward off bad luck that the wrists wielding iron rods that bludgeoned people to death were festooned with red puja threads lovingly tied by adoring mothers.” (p 62)
  • Around her the City sprawled for miles. Thousand-year-old sorceress, dozing, but not asleep, even at this hour. Grey flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements,, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe. looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each Street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheatre where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries. But this was to be the dawn of her resurrection. Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore.” (p 96)
  • Shit was just processed food” (p 107)
  • “The sharp smoky smell of stale urine” (p 112)
  • They had told their stories at endless meetings and tribunals in the international supermarkets of grief, along with other victims of other wars in other countries. They had a wept publicly and often, and nothing has come of it. The horror they were going through had grown a hard bitter shell.” (p 115)
  • A part of the city they oughtn’t to be in. No signs said so, because everything wash a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold.” (p 135)
  • People crowded the counters of the all-night chemists, playing Indian Roulette. (There was a 60:40 chance that the drugs they bought for genuine and not spurious.)" (p 136 - 137) 
  • I could picture the string of pearls she sang about being broken in the urgency of love making, her voice languorously following the beads as they skittered around the bedroom floor.” (p 171)
  • I am being made an escape goat.” (p 203)
  • She thought of the city at night, of cities at night. Discarded constellations of old stars, fallen from the sky, rearranged on Earth in patterns and pathways and towers.” (p 224)
  • R.C. often dropped his voice mid-sentence and spelled out random words, as though he was hoodwinking an imaginary eavesdropper who didn't know how to spell.” (p 232)
  • Friends turn into foes. If not vocal ones, then silent, reticent ones. But I've yet to see a foe turning into a friend.” (p 268)
I just don't know. Is this the classic Indian novel to rank with the greats such as Finnegan's Wake and War and Peace? Or is it a mess?

I suppose I am really asking whether the Delhi pavement is the epitome of vibrant, vigorous, chaotic life or whether the chaos overwhelms and it becomes a hellish horror of over-activity.

Your call.

February 2018; 437 pages

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