You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Arundhati Roy Has Reinvented the Social Novel

In "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness," the writer examines the injustices of Indian society. But how political should a novel be?

Photo-illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker (Photo/ Hindustan Times/Getty)

Lately, the novelist Arundhati Roy has been receiving death threats. Last month, the popular Bollywood actor Paresh Rawal took to Twitter to condemn her support of Kashmir’s bid for azadi (autonomy) from the Indian state. In his tweets, Rawal, who is also a Member of Parliament, said that Roy should be tied to the bonnet of an Army jeep as a human shield to protect the armed forces in Kashmir. The actor’s comments about Roy were reinforced by droves of nationalist supporters on social media, who echoed the threats. He seems to have made the comments after reading a bogus interview on a fake news site that misquoted Roy. But his Twitter rant was perhaps prescient, as Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, will almost certainly rankle India’s nationalist establishment. Roy’s return to fiction after two decades cements her long-running disapproval of Indian policy, particularly in Kashmir, and it’s a stance that has come with consequences: The threat of being branded a traitor whenever she writes, thinks aloud, or makes a public appearance has become the defining feature of Roy’s career.

Knopf; 464 pp., $28.95

Roy has been a challenge to the Indian state ever since she won the Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things (1997). In her subsequent career, writing anti-establishment non-fiction, she’s railed against India’s injustices: the inequitable distribution of wealth born of capitalist enterprise, for instance, and the enduring ills of the Hindu caste system. Roy’s idealism fits snugly with her unabated dedication to the others of Indian societyfrom tribal Maoists to Kashmiri rebels to Dalits (untouchables) to slum-dwellers. She writes from the cracks of the Indian democracy, prying them open with unforgiving resolve in her attempt to reveal a deeply fractured nation.

Over the two decades since the publication of The God of Small Things, Roy has also earned her stripes as an activist, spending a night in jail on charges of sedition, camping out with the guerrilla Maoists in Chhattisgarh for a few days, and being treated like a pariah by political elites and the privileged class. Roy’s radicalism is at odds with the nationalists’ support of free market economics and Prime Minister Modi’s ambitions for rapid economic growth. Her relentless agitations frustrate their narrative of India’s emergence as a formidable force in the new world order and question the spoils of India’s rich and the newly empowered Hindu nationalists. Roy’s crusades are validated by the various social injustices that are emergent under the pretext of economic development under Narendra Modi’s India—she’s right to rail against these injustices. But Roy never quite passed muster as a non-fiction writer: She lacks the cogency to make best use of the journalistic form. Her true talent was always in fiction.

The Ministry of Upmost Happiness, the highly-anticipated follow-up to The God of Small Things, was 20 years in the making. It’s an ambitious fictional treatment of the author’s political discontents. At its heart, the novel is an ode to the outcasts of India, highlighting the betrayals of a society that holds them in contempt, and the many ways that society has failed its minorities and marginalized communities. Almost every character in the book is a product of oppression, subject to the whims to corrupt political forces and the tyranny of Hindu nationalism.

The book starts out with the story of Anjum, a hijra (third gender person). As a Muslim hijra, Anjum practices her Islamic faith while also inhabiting a queerness defined by age-old Hindu tradition. Hijras date back at least as far as the Mughal Empire, when they were included in the queen’s entourage. The tension makes for an intriguing reflection on the evolution of identity politics in the Indian context, and Roy negotiates the dynamics between old world nostalgia and the modern-day notion of gender as a spectrum with a fine delicacy: The complications of Anjum’s positon aren’t shied away from, and her individuality is never compromised.

When Anjum’s (née Aftab) is born, her mother is forced to confront the narrow definitions of sexual identity and the politics of language: “Was it possible to live outside language?” she wonders, defining the question that will follow Anjum throughout her life. In her telling of Anjum’s story, Roy gracefully narrates the peculiarities and tragedies of the hijra community: though they’ve been a part of Indian culture for ages, hijras were not officially recognized as the third gender by the Indian state until 2014. In the novel, Anjum emerges as a matriarch of inclusion, who serves as a juncture for the complicated, intersecting lives of the other marginalized characters. But her suffering is acute. Having survived the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Anjum is traumatized. She’s debilitated by grief and rage, and begins to feel more and more alienated—from the Indian society that rejects her, and from those around her who cannot or will not help.

Anjum builds her home in the graveyard where her ancestors are buried—the better to be close to them, and to a phantom sense of community and belonging that she’s denied elsewhere. Gradually, her home doubles as a guest house for the lost, the downtrodden, and the discriminated against. It is “the ministry of utmost happiness” for misfits, their lives suspended and delegitimized at the whim of the state.

In her later life, Anjum finds a close comrade in Saddam Hussain. Saddam is a Dalit, or “untouchable,” who took a fake name to escape his position in the Hindu caste system—he chose Hussein’s out of naïve admiration for the dictator, after seeing a viral video of his execution. He is consumed by his desire to avenge his father’s death: He plans to kill the cop who riled up a mob of Hindu vigilantes to beat his father to death when they found a dead cow in his truck. Since the Modi administration’s encouragement of beef bans in India, not only have Muslims been targeted, but also Dalits, who are traditionally tasked with skinning dead cows.

In the midst of this, Roy counters with a sympathetic take on ritualistic sacrifice practiced in Islam. Anjum raises a goat with great affection and tenderness that is to be offered up on the holy festival of Eid. “Love, after all, is the ingredient that separates a sacrifice from ordinary everyday butchery,” she says. Anjum’s character arc is perhaps the book’s triumph, and one wishes Roy had not strayed from her to address a multitude of other social issues manifested in other characters and storylines. Any injustices of Indian society that can’t be embodied in Anjum’s story are represented by a motley crew of characters that populate her universe. In this regard, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness stands in stark contrast to The God of Small Things: The novel’s politics are aggressively present. This might be to the edification of her readers, but it is not always to the benefit of the story.

That’s not to say that Roy is an uncritical observer of the Indian left. For the most part, the novel is set in Delhi, and Roy explores the city’s new wave of dissent, centered around the Jantar Mantar—an ancient observatory where civil protests are authorized. Roy describes a circus of protestors, setting up shop for their various causes at the Jantar Mantar. She does not paint every protest with same brushlike those seeking delayed justice for the Bhopal Gas tragedy, for instance, are portrayed sympathetically—but she points to the personality cult that some of the leading activists furnish around themselves. Roy is wary of activists she considers deceptive—like those who are aspiring politicians, or journalists who engage in a kind of showmanship that Roy calls “performative radicalism.” Interestingly, the author’s activism has been viewed through a similar lens, with critics on both the left and right calling her insincere, self-righteous, or “performative” in her concern for India’s marginalized.

Another major storyline deals with the contentious question of Kashmir. This story is told through the character Tilo, who looks conspicuously like Roy herself: both are educated, both are political, and both have Syrian-Christian mothers. Tilo finds herself involved in the Kashmiri separatist movement. Her world is full of young idealists negotiating their politics and beliefs with the realities of life in Kashmir, which is beset by a vile government bureaucracy and the rise of rabid radicalism. Roy paints a picture of a dystopian Kashmir ravaged by human rights abuses and the cooption of the resistance by violent organizations. The author paints a grim picture of the brutality inflicted on Kashmiri civilians by the Indian army. There is no ministry of utmost happiness here: Anjum’s sanctuary house in the graveyard is a place of redemption and acceptance, but in Kashmir, we find only funerals.

Despite the 20-year wait, Roy’s fiction writing might leave fans wanting. There are strong echoes of her Booker-winning voice in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Her writing is still suffused with the delightful whimsy and levity of The God of Small Things. But in dealing with such weighty and dark themes, the book suffers from an inconsistency in tone—jarring transitions, from virtuosity and snark to heavy handedness and moralizing, make Roy sound unconvincing as a narrator. When she writes about low-wage laborers in the city, she does so with a conspicuous tin ear: “Their emaciated parents, hauling cement and bricks around in the deep pits dug for new basements, would not look out of place in a construction site in ancient Egypt, heaving stones for a pharaoh’s pyramid.”

Roy’s critique of Indian society becomes distracting, as the surfeit of social issues diffuse the book’s thematic core. It’s a labored chronicling of the tragedies that plague India’s conscience: the Indira Gandhi emergency, Sikh riots, Kashmir’s resistance movement, the Gujarat riots, the Maoist revolution, the oppression of Dalits, the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At times, the ambition to take on all of these tragedies undermines the intimacy of her storytelling. Eventually, most of the main characters meet in Anjum’s guesthouse: The moment is supposed to tie together the threads of injustice that run through all of their lives, but the scene is clumsy, and the ultimate resolution is as ambiguous as the future of India’s oppressed.