The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This is not a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. One can read it is as a guide map to the major civil and political movements taking place in 21st century India. The Kashmir insurgency, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the left-wing extremism in central India form crucial plot points in this story. Other political movements, the ones against big hydroelectric power projects for example, make cameo appearances. I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the insurgency movements in North-east India, considering the wide scope of this book.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, for me, was Anjum; the presence of a transgender protagonist. Not only does Anjum transition from male to female, but also she belongs to the minority Muslim community. By no means can I claim to have read a lot,  but a quick Google search reveals no mainstream book featuring a transgender protagonist. Definitely not in India. And you can’t get more mainstream than Roy, Man Booker Award winner who also features in this year’s longlist.

The action is divided between Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar and the Kashmir valley. While the Delhi section is concerned with Anjum’s journey to find peace within herself and her world, the Kashmir section is a story of the insurgency. Tilottama, the second protagonist, writes a Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar, a macabre documentation of the atrocities committed on the civilian population. She also devises the Kashmiri-English Alphabet to show how the warped the idea of normalcy can become if one gives it enough time.

This book gave me a lot to think about. I kept wondering, while reading the Kashmir portion, about the line between truth and fiction. The bit about the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen is true, and so is the practice of men being paraded, during cordon-and-search operations, in front of jeeps with their headlights on full beam, forming a kind of one-way mirror where they could be (mis)identified by informants sitting next to the driver. But is it also true that army men sell weapons and ammunition to the very militants they are supposed to be fighting? Or that the 2014 floods were used by the army as a photo-op and they didn’t really help the Kashmiri civilians if the media weren’t around to broadcast it?

Another sentence that disturbed me was in the preface to the book, about how the vultures are dying to satiate urban India’s appetite for icecream and milkshakes. I have been thinking long and hard about turning vegan and reading this line made me feel even more guilty for continuing to consume dairy products.

This book is not an easy read and it isn’t meant to be. A less charitable title could have been A Litany of Sorrows. It’s meant to make us think about where we are heading. And we have Roy’s beautiful prose to carry us through.

“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

 

Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Location: Delhi, Kashmir
Language: English

Extremely […] and Incredibly […]

‘Eating Animals’ was the first book by Jonathan Safran Foer that I had read. I came across it while waiting to meet a professor, on the fourth floor of the library. It stood out in a law library, placed amongst tax codes and other commercial law stuff (I can’t even remember what was in that section). Having been a vegetarian for most of my life (except for a short, parent-enforced stretch in the middle), I was extremely curious to know how he would advocate this life choice (let’s just say I was looking to stock up some ammo for the next time I was made to defend my position). It was a book well-written, simple in style, light on indoctrination. It gave me a lot to think about and made me a wiser person. It also gave me something to talk about with my co-worker, who had read the book and went on to remind me about its more famous sibling. 

Another reason I set about reading ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ was that I wanted to watch the movie. As a rule, I read the books before I watch the movies because usually the book turns out to be the better version. Except for Twilight. I have been disappointed many a times to find out about the book after watching the movie and then disappointed again because I knew the ending (and most of the plot) when I got down to the book. Except for Twilight. [I have both seen and read the entire series. Go ahead, judge me!]

This book is incredibly good. It’s made me realise that I clearly have a long way to go if I want to come up with something that is even halfway decent. I didn’t want the book to end, didn’t care where the plot went, I just wanted to keep on reading and reading. JSF’s style of writing is resonating, like ripples created in a calm lake when a pebble is thrown in. No water drop is left unaffected. To echo a character in the book, every sentence moved me. The sum of this book is bigger than its parts– the guy who communicates only in (written) words, the search for a lock, the messages being intercepted by unintended recipients, the bed of trees and nails, the pain of carrying English, one word biographies, the reluctance to come home, New York’s Sixth Borough, Something and Nothing. This book is ‘one hundred dollars’, I’m going to recommend that everyone read it (and read it again if they’ve already done so).

I was so engrossed with JSF’s style of writing that I didn’t really register the theme of trauma and loss that runs through the story. Probably because I don’t really register things like these anymore. Maybe I’ve become too used to the death and destruction around me. It took me back to the time when I first heard about the twin towers. I was in a boarding school then, getting ready for lights out at 9. Our dorm didn’t have a TV but the next one did. Somebody from that House came running to us (or maybe it was a junior of my House who shared the dorm with them) to say that a plane has crashed into a building in the US. We ran to the TV set and watched the scene play again and again on the screen. A plane crashing into a building. Another plane crashing into a building. Then the whole thing again. We were too young to really understand what was going on. Next day at the morning assembly, the Headmistress/ Principal announced that a student’s uncle had died in this attack. Then it suddenly became very real.