Arundhati Roy, who had taken the literary world by storm with the publication of her quasi-autobiographical book, The God of Small Things, in 1997 which went on to win The Booker Prize, made her readers wait for twenty long years. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published in 2017, isn’t a sequel. Far from it. Years of social activism, protesting against corruption, living with the Indian Maoists in the jungle and finally becoming the poster girl for Kashmiri independence, perhaps, helped this immensely gifted writer to pen her second novel.
The same brevity and insight are evident in the opening lines of both the books. Whereas The God opens with the memorable line: “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month”, The Ministry opens with: “She lived in the graveyard like a tree.” As the first book spins the tale around the two ‘Dizygotic’ twins, Estha and Rahel, the second book revolves around a handful of characters. Anjum, born as Aftab, is told, “Always remember, we are not just any Hijras from any place. We are the Hijras of Shahjahanabad.” Rahel, in the former, “drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense.” Roy’s second novel ends with Zainab’s betrothal.
The strong Communist flavour (there are direct references to E.M.S Namboodiripad, ‘Kerala’s Mao Tse-Tung) in her first novel, dissolves into a stance for the prevailing sense of doom and insurgency in our northern state of Kashmir. “As the war progressed in the Kashmir Valley, graveyards became as common as the multi-storey parking lots that were springing up in the burgeoning cities in the plains.” Velutha, who is The God of Loss, The God of Small Things, is caught by the Kerala Police because of his illicit liaison with the twins’ mother and also because he is seen attending a procession in support of Naxalite Movement. Roy’s mastery lies in the fact that she’s been able bridge this divide between ultra radicalism, a Left wing mindset with a voice which is palpably humane. For who can account for her choice of the hijra or the eunuch as the foci of most part of her second novel?
The first chapter in The Ministry is named: “Where Do Old Birds Go To Die?” Readers can note here that in The God, Sophie Mol, who meets her death by an accidental drowning, asks her biological father Chacko, “Chacko, where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like stones from the sky?” There are the exactly the same number of words in the titles of both these novels.
In a candid interview to The Guardian in May 2017, Roy had said, “My characters all live with me.” And later, “To me there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing.” Yet she has been able to blend successfully fact with fiction. Her books can, at best, be described as perfect marriages between the mastery of language with the succession of events. In The Ministry, Roy writes and points her finger at the ruling party. “Gujarat Ka Lalla was still a year away from taking the throne, the saffron parakeets were still biding their time, waiting in their wings.” If only Roy had centred her attention to this agenda alone, then the book would have been more focused and easier to grasp. When she decides to delve into the Kashmir problem, (“These days in Kashmir, you are killed for surviving”) she not only mixes up her priorities, but deviates from the principal concerns of her book, about which even we, the readers are left guessing about.
There is the character of the enigmatic S. Tilottama, right in the middle of The Ministry. ‘Tilottama’ means ‘sesame seed’ in Sanskrit. She, the author writes, is of a South Indian lineage. Her mother, Maryam Ipe, belongs to a Syrian Christian family with her hometown in Kerala. Tilo herself had studied Architecture initially. It is here that I find the autobiographical element slowly creeping into the novel. Roy herself had studied Architecture before turning towards her writing career. She, like Tilo, had a Syrian Christian mother. From here fiction takes over. Tilo’s mother is admitted in her ailing health at the ICU in a Cochin hospital, where she finally dies. But she wanted to know whether her attendants at the hospital were ‘Paravans’ or the Untouchables. Readers can recall that Velutha in Roy’s Booker-winning novel was a ‘Paravan’, with the birthmark of a tree leaf on his back which ‘made the monsoons come on time’.
The prevalent ardour of Communism that permeates The God can be accounted for by the fact that the Naxalite Movement or Operation Spring Thunder was ushered in Kerala as far back as 1967. Roy writes: “Marxism was a simple substitute for Christianity. Replace God with Marx, Satan with the bourgeoisie, Heaven with a classless society, the Church with the Party, and the form and purpose of the journey remained similar.”
In his praise for Roy’s debut novel, William Dalrymple had said, “The joy of The God of Small Things is that it appeals equally to the head and to the heart. What had appeared to be the diction used by a child at first, slowly turns out to be an ultra-modern and novel treatment of an adult subject altogether. It is clever and complex, yet it makes one laugh, and finally, moves one to tears.” This is where Roy fails in her next novel. Perhaps her strong-willed and dedicated social activism had removed that element in her which made her readers move to tears. Because The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at best be called a social treatise rather than a gripping novel. Her style has converted many into an ardent admirer. Because as someone had said, either you’ve it in you or you don’t. Arundhati Roy certainly has it in her. But her second novel, in the final analysis, does disappoint. She has far too much to say and the borders of the book are too narrow to confine her ever-broadening spectrum