Roy’s new offering, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey from the vintage Delhi to shattered Kashmir and back.
The foxtrot dance on words as you would have experienced in Roy’s previous novel, ‘The God of Small Things’ is apparent & beautiful but prepare yourself for utter bloodshed.
The first few chapters weave the story of Anjum who was once known as Aftab. Living up to the exotic persona of the Delhi ‘Hijra’ (a word used in Urdu and other languages to describe trans women and other gender identities), you meet Aftab who later evolved into the exotic transgender creature of Anjum.
I was taken on a joyride experiencing the emotive elements of not only Aftab/Anjum but that of the characters that shaped her existence – some painful and others soothing the wounds that played out in my mind.
Anjum shapes her life in the Khwabgah ‘haveli’ that is called home to a close-knit community of transgender beauties, where their legacy dates back to the ruling kings & queens of India’s royalty. This is also where a princess is raised in the form of Anjum’s daughter.
Neither here nor there, this is the unfortunate life that the transgender community that which Roy exposes us to, apart from the political plays that unravel out in her novel.
The power that lies between your legs
A courtesan’s dance by a ‘Hijra’ is a magical marvel of swirling hips, clapping hands & imposed sexual prowess that brings fear to its intended audience. Traditionally a ‘hijra’ will coerce the patron to give up money in exchange to not exposing their mutilated genitalia, a cultural practice that has lasted centuries.
In India, ritual and religious respect is not given to them; they negotiate and command this respect in order to empower their marginal identities as a parallel society.
‘Hijras’ belong to a special caste and are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, Lord Shiva, or both. Some ‘hijras’ undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles.
While a few ‘hijras’ are born intersexed (which is rare), most are men who undergo voluntary castration and penectomy while “possessed” by the Goddess Bahuchara. They consider themselves to be sexually impotent.
All Hail Narendra Modi except for Roy
Roy is unabashedly vocal in the book taking shots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s other legacy is bathed in the blood of Muslims & Hindu’s – the famed #GujaratRiots – which also added a cloud of abhorrence to Anjum’s soul.
“ . . . the news from Gujarat was horrible. A railway coach had been set on fire by what the newspapers first called ‘miscreants’. Sixty Hindu pilgrims were burned alive. They were on their way home from a trip to Ayodhya where they had carried ceremonial bricks to lay in the foundations of a grand temple they wanted to construct at the site where an old mosque once stood . . . the police arrested hundreds of Muslims – all auxiliary Pakistanis from their point of view – from the area around the railway station under the new terrorism law and threw them into prison.”
After Anjum’s return to Delhi, the Khwabgah wasn’t home anymore, I suppose the rape of her soul in Gujarat gave way to her pilgrimage to her new home – a graveyard.
Her new home amongst the dead gave her life again, it gave meaning to the India that she saw it to be – dead. Where birth of new politicking upon injustice made the crime acceptable to some.
The other woman you will encounter is Tilo who seems to be the conscience in some manner of speaking – of Anjum. Tilo reminds me of a powerfully beautiful South African woman I know of the same name.
The character is woven into a love interest with a Kashmiri rebel fighter, the passion is never complete without foreplay of conflict of Jammu and Kashmir.
“To tell a shattered story,” claims Tilo in one of her poems, one should slowly become everything.”
This character is laid bare in the shrouds of Roy’s imaginative mind with very little dialogue. You might find the lack of that in this character to be just too much and you’re allowed to take a break from completing the book straight away.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a fractured novel without a beginning nor an end but you will encounter a fork in the road both take you to the undeniable fact, Roy has given us a literary marvel with the saffron government of India going – “Fuck you Arundhati!”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is published by Penguin Random House, June 2017 and available at your nearest book store or online with a recommended retail price starting from R295.00 (ZAR).
Haveli is generic term used for a traditional townhouse or mansion in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, usually one with historical and architectural significance.