Books

book review

Novel examines how sectarian hatred, violence shapes characters in India

For two decades, Arundhati Roy has kept readers waiting for a novel. If what you wanted was engagement with power, though, her pen has been busy indeed.

Since winning the 1997 Booker Prize for her fiction debut, “The God of Small Things,” Roy has produced more than a half dozen books, swift, searing essays directed at abuses of the weak, the occupied, the indefensible.

Advertisement

Roy’s outspokenness, as is so often the case for women, has not endeared her. She has faced charges of sedition and worse in India, while her critiques of American empire got her labeled into a corner.

This was not the shy, polite, lyrical writer of “The God of Small Things.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

One of the looming questions about Roy’s second novel then has not just been, would she finish it, but rather: What sort of novel would it be?

At last it is here, and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a fierce and fabulously disobedient novel, a book as fearless as her essays on the environment, nuclear proliferation, and Kashmiri independence are bold.

Whereas “God of Small Things” was lush and fragrant, its follow-up announces itself page by page in noisy, foul-mouthed, and staggeringly beautiful sentences. In moments it reads like a feminist version of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” only in Delhi instead of Bombay, 70 years after the partition of India and Pakistan, the event that sits at the heart of both books.

Advertisement

When Rushdie published his great post-colonial saga, the modern state of India was a mere three decades into its bloody back and forth with Pakistan over the border state of Kashmir, which itself sought freedom. India had yet to become capitalism’s latest laboratory. The etiology of terrorism in South Asia had yet to become so deeply connected to nationalism.

“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” does far more than chronicle and update these forces on its characters. Roy shows how sectarian hatred and violence shapes lives in a series of interlocking stories so fully realized they both feel intimate yet vibrate with the tragicomedy of myth.

The book feels written to be summary proof, but here is a stab. In contemporary Delhi, a middle-aged hermaphrodite named Anjum — part of a group who are called hijras in India — moves into a graveyard and forms a commune called Jannat guest house, a space that provides, among other things, a home and burial services for people like her, transgendered or cross-dressing or simply different, and so often denied proper burial.

Anjum, who is born Aftab, is one of many characters with at least two names. Many of Roy’s cast are outsiders or just plain illegal. So they improvise. One of Anjum’s friends, a freelance mortician, calls himself Saddam Hussain.

In the non-hijra world of Delhi, a trio of men — a journalist, a freedom fighter, and a state security agent — all revolve around S. Tilottama who simply goes by Tilo.

“When I asked what S stood for she said, ‘S stands for S,’ ’’ says the security agent, who speaks his section of the novel in first person and whom Tilo only ever addresses as Garson Hobart, the name of a homosexual character in a play that both acted in back in college. Even then, it would seem, Tilo knew his key skill to be acting. Later, uttering this nickname to a sadistic female interrogator in Kashmir will save Tilo’s life.

One of the powerful and (one would think) purposeful reversals of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” can be glimpsed in this tiny interaction. Although war is often conceived of and told in the terms of male heroics, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” revolves around the lives and sacrifices of women. Even when men are speaking — as Hobart is there — they are often wondering about women.

The book’s two worlds — of hijras and their domain, and the world outside it — collide at midnight during a protest when a dark-skinned child turns up motherless amid a crowd in Delhi. Anjum, who has decided she wants a child, rescues the baby from a conniving politician who is prepared to give the infant to state services. By some accident of fate, the child winds up in the hands of Tilo, who has never wanted to be a mother. It takes the rest of the novel to understand how and why.

The looping elliptical story can be difficult to follow, partly due to the doubling or even quadrupling of names, but also the reverse chronological fashion in which Roy tells it. Not until the novel’s very end do we understand the extent of Tilo’s trips into Kashmir, how much of her life has been lived in secret, and with what anguish. By which point Roy’s complex narrative design makes an elegant kind of sense.

A lesser novelist would lose readers along the way. Roy is writing at the height of her powers though. Her digressive chapters are powered by gusts of black humor. When police try to fine Anjum for squatting in the cemetery she “told them that she wasn’t living in the graveyard, she was dying in it.”

Later when the novel’s action shifts to Kashmir, Roy writes that “[i]n Kashmir, ‘interrogation’ was not a real category. There was ‘questioning,’ which meant a few slaps and kicks, and ‘interrogation,’ which meant torture.” Leaving the office of a sinister local Indian military man, Tilo’s friend, the book’s freedom fighter, observes that “[d]ownstairs in the cinema lobby there was a torture-break.” The soldiers are busy eating rotis to steel themselves for the hard work ahead.

This is a dark book that does not flinch at horrors often bracketed from the story of modern India. Among other ignominious chapters Roy touches upon include the massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal which killed thousands, and the many brutal acts of terror committed in the name of Kashmiri possession or independence — take your pick — such as the beheading of a Norwegian tourist by a group of Muslim separatists in 1995.

Throughout Roy displays a fine understanding of the absurdities that communicate menace and how these absurdities are used to inflict power by rewriting the rules of logic. The sinister Indian colonel says something stupendously untrue while meeting with Tilo’s friend, the freedom fighter. “The barefaced lie hung in the air unchallenged,” Roy writes. “That was its purpose — to test the air.”

It is hard not to take that line as a warning for our times. For, as beautifully local and specific as this novel is — many a reader will turn its pages with a dictionary in hand, looking up everything from plants to Hindustani musicians — the story it tells, of the abuse of power and the communities that rise in the ashes of that abuse, is eternal. Once a decade, if we are lucky, a novel emerges from the cinder pit of living that asks what increasingly appears to be the urgent question of our global era. How do you write fiction at a time when states are deformed by the violence they do in the name of nationalism and power? Roy’s novel is this decade’s ecstatic and necessary answer.

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS

By Arundhati Roy

Knopf, 430 pp., $28.95

John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, the latest issue of which is themed to home.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.