Twenty years after the publication of Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things (1997), it’s impossible to remember the Booker Prize-winning novel with anything besides admiration. The story is an unflinching picture of issues related to caste (untouchability), class, gender, and religion and their often-negative influences on love and family. These serious themes elevate the narrative far beyond the ordinary lot of romantic fiction, even though it is romance that gets trounced by duplicity and betrayal. When you write a novel as memorable as The God of Small Things, it’s always going to be difficult—if not impossible—to write another that will garner similar appreciation from readers. The history of literary fiction is replete with examples of first novels that were never equaled by the later works by the same writer.
Which is certainly true with Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But there’s another contributing issue. Roy has spent most of the last twenty years as a political and social activist, engaged with numerous issues that are not only central to her Indian heritage but, also, issues (such as nuclear proliferation) that ought to be crucial for all of mankind. She’s been gutsy in her willingness to take on these issues but obviously regards her fame and position as the conduit to such activity. Many of her readers were no doubt surprised to learn about a year ago that she has written a second novel and, indeed, more than curious and hopeful that it would equal her earlier fiction.
I absolutely adored the opening quarter of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but even the beginning paragraph in the prologue hints at an incipient social undercurrent: “white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years…have been wiped out. The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase production of milk, works—worked—like nerve gas on white-backed vultures.” So here it is, right at the beginning, environmental degradation because of chemicals. Birds of carrion have died. Not a good sign for what will follow later in the novel when Roy will whip up her multiple concerns about how man has mucked up the environment. Yes, they are legitimate issues, but best addressed in moderation.
A page later, however, Roy is at her most engaging, describing the birth of a child with organs of both sexes, a hermaphrodite, but gender preferences being what they are in India, the parents want a boy and name the child Atfab. The problem is that by age fourteen, Atfab wants to be a girl, especially after he observes the flamboyant beauty of Delhi’s most famous hijras (roughly, transgendered). So a year later, Atfab becomes Anjum and joins one of the celebrated Hijra communities. Surgery and hormones follow to remove the offending male organs and help with the transformation, and somewhat later Anjum becomes Delhi’s most famous Hijra, even in time adopting a three-year-old girl who has been abandoned and assuming the role of the child’s mother.
Hijras are considered special people, holy people, accepted as part of the community, and yet they are also the objects of discrimination. The time frame for events in the story is more or less contemporary, with racial tensions in India (between Hindus and Muslims) depicted as they have always been—subject to outbreaks of violence. Roy uses the Gujarat riots of 2002 as a turning point in Anjum’s life. On a trip away from Delhi, she is ensnarled in the massacre but survives, traumatized. After she returns to Delhi, she moves out of the community of hijras she has lived with, briefly assumes the identity of a man, and takes up residence in a graveyard near a hospital. That setting will become her new community as others join her and set up both a funeral parlor and a guesthouse. All of these activities are depicted with great color and character, including the introduction of a man who joins the community, who calls himself Saddam Hussain.
Then the story falls apart, shifting for a couple of hundred pages to other characters and other issues (besides the lives of hijras) but centering on the relationship of a diplomat who becomes a quasi-terrorist, fighting for Kashmir’s independence, and his on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named Tilo. Besides the issue of Kashmir’s independence, Roy touches on India’s move into modernity, which appears to mean for her capitalism and its worst aspects, including slums being cleared. The Union Carbide gas explosion in Bhopal is mentioned, as is Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and its bloody aftermath, India’s troubles with Pakistan (and the opposite), more abandoned babies, genetic engineering of food, the mistreatment of untouchables, “The war of the rich and the poor” in Delhi, and a quasi final observation: “Life went on. Death went on. The war went on.” In short the entire kit and caboodle, including a quasi-happy ending back at Anjum’s graveyard/guesthouse after a story that has shown very little happiness. Much of this is boring as hell, negating the earlier vibrancy that chronicled Anjum’s fluid sexual identity.
Remember when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, after he had published his major novels, Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983)? Because of the fatwa and the bounty on his head, Rushdie had to go into hiding, and The Satanic Verses became a huge best seller but a book few people ever finished reading. My hunch is that Roy’s readers will become similarly bogged down after reading about Delhi’s hijras and never finish her new novel, that the novel will become a huge best seller that people stop reading.
Will we have to wait another twenty years for Arundhati Roy’s next novel or will she leave fiction for the social and political issues she clearly finds more compelling?
Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Knopf, 449 pp., $28.95