by Bakul Banerjee
Encounters with Hijras, now identified as transgender, in Indian cities were rare, even during my teenage years, decades ago, but they were always memorable. They appeared from nowhere, coinciding with births and marriages, usually accompanied by the jarring noise of singing and dancing. They demanded money loudly. Although not true, it was generally believed that they would kidnap small children if they were not rewarded adequately. Teenage boys hurled insults and stones at them. Family heads tried to send them away with the minimum amount of money negotiated while women and girls watched hidden away behind the curtains. Their peculiar brand of defiant stances and the fear they could instill in the hearts of genteel folks intrigued me, perhaps with a tinge of envy, as a young girl. That envy returned as I followed Aftab, later known as Anjum, along the winding, narrow streets of Old Delhi in the second chapter of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. It propelled me to finish the book. Aftab follows a tall Hijra who ambles through the streets, shopping and getting the strap of her golden sandal repaired. The thrill of following such a strange person through the intriguing streets of Old Delhi, ones that I visited when I was of Aftab’s age, was infectious.
“No ordinary woman would have been permitted to sashay down the streets of Shanjanabad dressed like that. Ordinary women wore burqas … Like her, he wanted to shimmer past the meat shops where skinned carcasses of whole goats hung down the great wall of meats.” Along with him and later with Tilo, I became a sojourner of Arundhati Roy, effortlessly completing the book.
A powerful storyteller she certainly is, but she is also a poet. Except for the middle of the book, she weaves into the fabric of the story, shimmering metaphors, choosing them carefully from her rough experiences as an activist. The book begins with the effect of Diclofenac on old vultures, members of nature’s own cleaning crew. She talks about cows dying eating plastic bags.
The cast of characters is culled from every aspect of India’s postcolonial history, spanning the geography of the country, often moving beyond its borders. Ironically, it seems that she took her cue from the famous lady standing tall by the American shore, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Even the privileged ones like Garson Hobert, one of the three men who obsesses over Tilo, cannot escape the shroud of despair that Ms. Roy spreads over them.
Anjum, the transgender protagonist, travels only once and experiences a terrible loss, but escapes death during a race riot simply because it is considered bad luck to kill a Hijra.
“They left her alive. Unkilled. Unhurt. Neither folded nor unfolded. She alone. So that they might be blessed with good fortune.” Arundhati Roy writes.
Anjum stays anchored in her Jannat Guest House, the ever-expanding graveyard dwelling. However, the other main character, Tilo is assigned the burden of travelling to remote and dangerous places to explain India’s post-independence tortured history.
I had the opportunity of attending Arundhati Roy’s book tour appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival in June 2017, before I could read the book or browse through the reviews. John Cusac, her kindred spirit, introduced her. Wisely, she chose poetic passages to read. When the interviewer brought up the subject of plot, she avoided the question with tact. In this rambling novel, the author does not concern herself much about the plot. Still, the story, along with its characters, come together to a delightful end at a most improbable location, a suburban mall. There, the young Muslim woman, Zainab, recites the ancient Gayatri hymn, the most sacred to Hindus, to pray for the soul of a Hindu untouchable who was murdered just because he was transporting the carcass of a cow. The use of such a plot device is a testament of modern India.
Although it has become one of my favourite books, competing with her first novel ‘God of Small Things’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I must admit that I do not have a strong argument against folks who say that “[it] has a shaggy structure and polemical bent that might confuse and disappoint some readers.” (Kathleen Rooney, Chicago Tribune). Ms. Roony is correct. Anybody who cannot take a healthy dose of polemics should not attempt to read this book. Although Ms. Roy complains about the Diclofenac, a powerful painkiller, is it possible to dissuade a person with severe arthritis who won’t be able to cook or clean without swallowing one of these pills? In recent months, our TV/phone screens are flooded with pictures of uninhabited Henderson Island covered with plastic water bottles. To keep Henderson Island pristine, do I have the will to argue with regular folks against their wishes to cart away stacks of plastic water bottles?
As pointed out by most reviewers in the US, Arundhati Roy has made no real effort at crafting a novel in the conventional sense. However, it is a messy, compelling chronicle of modern India, cruel, torturous and dishonest, yet uncomplicated, often joyous, like most of its characters who cannot be suppressed, in spite of their poverty and social humiliations. Like her first book, this book will spawn a lot of public outcries in the Indian diaspora. It is certain that some critics would spew out hateful comments without even reading it, as they did for her first book. To those, I say give this book a chance. As our brains are getting liquefied by the newsmen and women debating the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon, one might feel hopeful about our world just because somebody had the courage to write a book about finding some measure of happiness in the middle of hopelessness. Fortunately, there are many other readers who would be impressed by it. It is no wonder that the book was long-listed for the Booker Prize.