Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.
Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.
Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra. Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.
Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.
For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.
The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.
Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.
At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:
“How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything.”
The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.