Arundhati Roy turns her attention to the Kashmir uprising in new book

by Michelle Langstone / 08 July, 2017

Arundhati Roy.

Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s 1997 debut, The God of Small Things, was a compelling, finely detailed and often brutal depiction of life and loss in Kerala, which won the Booker Prize and became a huge international bestseller.

In the two decades since, she has devoted her attention largely to essays, many addressing politics and culture, with a focus on the country of her birth. She has been outspoken in her support for Kashmir’s long battle for independence from India, and this conflict is one of the foundations of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which Roy says has been in her head for a decade.

Among the many voices that tell the story are those of Anjum, a hijra (transgender woman) who has established her home in a graveyard in Delhi; a doctor of philosophy on an 11-year hunger strike; a courageous woman in love with an insurgent; and her old university friend who still holds a flame for her.

The novel changes narrator frequently, as each voice shows us a period in time from the height of the first wave of the Kashmir uprising in the 90s, when insurgent groups fought violently for secession, through to what feels like present-day India.

Roy pulls no punches in her graphic depiction of the terror attacks, torture and murder on both sides, yet the book’s 438 pages are also jammed with life as busy as the Delhi streets she describes. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, as by the culture shock that assaults first-time visitors to India, but eventually the reader is immersed in a world brought to life with deft clarity: one of Anjum’s comrades “had a quick smile and eyelashes that looked as though they worked out in a gym”; the rebellious and brave Tilo, whose story takes over the last third of the novel, “gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash”.

Themes from The God of Small Things are revisited in this new work: the strength of the human spirit when pushed to its limits and the unifying power of love. India’s caste system is again examined, and Roy’s voice is fierce in the fight for equality and visibility for all people.

In one memorable scene, some characters take an unexpected ride in a Mercedes-Benz to a shopping mall erected where a village used to be and eat Nando’s chicken on what is ostensibly a giant grave. “One kind of world flew over another kind of world without troubling to stop and ask the time of day.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does not deliver the same kind of punch to the heart that The God of Small Things did, perhaps because of its busyness and clamour, but Roy’s energy provides a platform for a story that is bursting with spirit.

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS, by Arundhati Roy (Penguin, $38)

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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