In her most recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy talks about modern India (which is not as modern as you would like it to be). Two women are the focus of her story, Anjum and Tilottama. However, this is really a story of human rights and human intolerance and finding happiness when and where you can.
Anjum is born a boy. However upon closer examination he has the organs of both of the sexes – a hermaphrodite. His mother is able to keep this biological state a secret until puberty. At puberty the boy, Aftab, realizes she is not a boy. Are such things accepted in India? Yes and no. Anjum would never find a life in “normal” India society but one day she follows a transgender shopper from the market and she learns that there is a separate society of transgender Indian people, that the name for some transgender persons, including Anjum, is “hijra,” and in her neighborhood the hijra live in a house called the Khwabgah.
Within this group she is able to have a circumscribed but full social life. She adopts a homeless child and becomes her rather jealous mother. Although she must face a life separate from her parents and siblings, she is protected by superstition and left to her own devices. Fortunately, although feelings about Muslims are running high (as they do periodically in India), and although Hindus are attacking and slaughtering Muslims with little provocation, it is bad luck to kill hijra. This does not prevent Anjum from experiencing something so horrifying that it turns her life upside down.
Tilottama is a young woman with considerable charm despite her dark “café au lait, except very little lait” skin, which is not considered desirable. In fact she is desirable enough to attract three men (and more) who are in school with her. Naga, Musa, and “Garson Hobart” meet Tilo when practicing to stage a play (which never opens). These four are caught up in the off again – on again brutal war for control of Kashmir, a province coveted by India proper, Pakistan and China. Kashmiris want only to be a free and independent nation. Musa becomes a Kashmiri spy and a fighter for the independence movement. Tilo loves Musa who she can connect with only in the moments he snatches away from the movement.
The lives of our two main characters, Anjum and Tilo, become intertwined over, of all things, a homeless child.
Now it may seem as if I am telling the whole novel and that this will make it unnecessary to read this book. But that is not so. Arundhati is a prize-winning author and not by mistake. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a 400+ page book. It is detailed without being dry; it is instructive without being pedantic, and long without seeming long. This book cannot be summarized. It must be experienced.
Arundhati Roy never sugarcoats political flaws of corruption and religious intolerance in India, corruption that possibly tops the corruption we lament in our own government. She also explores the courage of people who lead authentic lives.
If you enjoy travelling to another culture without leaving your comfort zone and you want to avoid the touristy spots and get some in-depth exposure to the true spirit of a nation, Arundhati Roy is your ticket. You will gain exposure to an internal turmoil that inspires people, frightens people, and generates great courage and great grief. Don’t be a chicken. What you learn makes the journey worthwhile.
I’ll end with Roy’s beginning quote, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart…” –Nâzim Hikmet