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

Reading Around India

Sometime last year I came across a book review of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World. Morgan spent the entire of 2012 reading a book from each of the 196 countries of the world and then wrote about her experiences. Deciding which regions to consider as countries, sourcing books from remote African and Pacific nations, the challenges posed by translated texts, the cultural hegemony of authors writing in English, and North American and British ones furthermore. I was intrigued and started compiling a list of the nationalities of all authors I had read. Not unsurprisingly, it was predominantly American, British and Indian.

Sometime before this book review, I had also come across the 666 reading challenge at bookcrossing.com. The challenge requires one to read a book from six countries from each of the six continents within the span of 365 days. That means a total of 36 books from different regions of the world. I started this challenge this year and six and a half months in, have managed to read a book from each of the six continents (apart from finishing the European section and being one book short of completing the Asian one).

Wholly due to these two reading projects, I read my first books from Africa and South America this year. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not my first book from the African continent but it made a point that stayed with me. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. In their own way, and following their own agenda. As responsible consumers of literature, it behooves us to read authentic first-person accounts or stories rather than an outsider’s version (imagined or otherwise) of what has happened. Just as we travel to remote and offbeat locations to discover more about the world and ourselves, we should also be reading books written in and by people on the margins in order to widen our horizons, along with providing a platform for these voices. I was in my late teens when I realised that almost all books I read were authored by Americans or Britons. Thus began a conscious effort to read more by Indian authors writing in English. I am now in my late twenties when again it dawned on me that almost all of my reading is confined to the US and Northern Europe. Hence a conscious decision to stick with these two challenges and diversify what I read.

A few days I came up with another reading challenge for myself (since I obviously need to add more complexity to my book selection policy!). Why not apply the idea behind Ann Morgan’s literary exploration to the country I call home? India has 36 administrative divisions and despite being bilingual I rarely read Indian fiction. Most of the fiction books I read are based in Mumbai or Delhi. So starting this month, I will be reading a book based in each state/union territory of India, preferably written by an Indian author, whether written in English/Hindi or translated into Hindi/English, and blogging about it. I might also review any compelling book I read as part of the other two reading challenges.

Looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations.