Late in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, a character whose story bears marked similarities to Roy’s own asks, “How to tell a shattered story?” “By slowly becoming everybody,” Tilo replies, answering her own question. “No,” she adds, “by slowly becoming everything.”
Ranging from the impoverished southern India of Roy’s upbringing, north to the killing fields of Kashmir, while mostly unfolding in Delhi, “Ministry” practices what Tilo envisions while moving from the late 1950s to the present.
“Ministry” opens with the story of a unique protagonist: Roy’s Anjum is a hermaphrodite who is classified as a hijra — a woman trapped in a man’s body.
That outsider status eventually lands her in a graveyard, where she takes up residence surrounded by her long-buried relatives. By novel’s end, she’ll be joined there by a “Noah’s Ark of injured animals” — not just goats and cows, birds and a tortoise, but also other human misfits.
There’s a blind imam, who only performs funerals for those rejected elsewhere. A music teacher. An Untouchable passing as a Muslim named Saddam Hussain. Two abandoned children raised by Anjum. Other hijras. And, on the periphery, peaceful drug addicts tending a vegetable plot.
Anjum calls it Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House. One might imagine it as the ministry of Roy’s title: an oasis of tolerance espousing alternative pluralisms, even as an increasingly violent Hindu nationalism seizes hold of the country.
Roy pulls no punches when describing a sectarian movement her narrator analogizes to the Nazis, while suggesting that India’s current prime minister was responsible for the 2002 Gujarat massacre targeting the country’s Muslim population.
But she saves most of her firepower for a separate narrative involving Indian atrocities in Kashmir. Roy recognizes that there are atrocities on both sides, and that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism leaves ever less room for the idyllic, more tolerant world Kashmir once was.
“The worst part of the Occupation,” one freedom fighter admits, is “what it makes us do to ourselves. Everyone has to think the same way, want the same thing. We have to make ourselves as single-minded … as monolithic … as stupid … as the army we face.”
As with Anjum’s Jannat Guest House, Roy imagines an alternative, involving the great love between the man speaking these words, Musa, and Tilo. She also gives us the back stories involving two of Musa’s rivals, a journalist and an Indian intelligence officer.
Roy herself ultimately seems less interested in her freedom fighters — a Maoist from the south or Musa from the north — than in Anjum and her graveyard ministry. One understands why Tilo, upon entering Jannat Guest House, felt “for the first time … that her body had enough room to accommodate all its organs.”
Child of an Untouchable father and a Syrian Christian mother, Tilo joins Anjum in being half one thing and half another. That’s par for the course in this ambitious novel, which dares to imagine that the pursuit of happiness might take many paths, and accommodate multiple versions of India.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Novel” by Arundhati Roy, Knopf , 464 pages, $28.95.