July 13, 2024

Arundhati Roy and Her Suicidal Mission: A Conspiracy Theory

Reading Time: 11 minutes
C P Surendran

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy challenges the format of the novel 

One of the traditional prescriptions for writing lasting fiction, authenticated, among others, by Anton Chekhov, is to keep politics at length out of the pages.
Writers like Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa — The Feast of the Goat, a portrait of a despot — have occasionally gone against this recipe of cooking fiction. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls which, to my mind, is a political novel that is saved from its own implosive, didactic attitudinising by sheer strength of characterisation and details of the drama.
More recent political novels include Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a novel about America as it confronts the beginning of the sea changes that that 20th century brings and its impacts on a particular family. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is another well-paced political novel. There are others, I am sure, that I don’t know about.
Despite Chekhov then, the political novel is an active animal. Recently, Zoe Williams said fiction is a luxury when reality is too pressing. She, therefore, advocated non-fiction.
I do not subscribe to that view. I believe there is space in fiction for non-fiction; but it’d be self-defeating if non-fiction has its share of fictive elements.
Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is rooted in reality. Especially in Indian reality. It is a teeming, rich, decaying reality; a majestic but rotting corpse faintly breathing; the kind of reality that is hard to distinguish from the comic if morbid imagination. Magic and mayhem await around every corner. The odds favour the improbable. The average Indian’s acceptance level of magic, even black magic, is high. Even a deformed cow, or a strange-shaped tree, could endorse it.
Since just about everybody seems to have reviewed The Ministry, I would only sum up the book as the map of India’s massive shift in emphasis from a reasonably secular, chaotic but democratic history and geography, to a clearly defined Hindu nation, a purity of race concept that empowers the “normal” Hindu to thump his chest at the prospect of believing bloodily a monolithic Cause, whose ways of assertions could include the seemingly harmless folklore, or the direct bullying by a political party that derives its righteousness — even to kill — from ancient myths.
The Cause is both godly and imperial in its dimensions. It’s a certified way of life. This is not an easy thing to achieve in these fraying times. In India the Cause is the unity and consolidation of the Hindus as well. How can you not believe in it if you are a Hindu? If you are an Indian, why are you not a Hindu?
Roy’s novel is about that; and not. The reason for that ambiguity lies at the bottom of the basic ironies guiding the narrative. Kashmir, a central fulcrum of the novel, comes across as a puzzle India must figure out, both in terms of its militancy and its militant excesses. How do you deal with religious nationalism in a country that is not quite aghast at the possibility that it is an oppressor? When did the victim turn a tyrant?
The secular part of the narrative is where Roy’s heart is: the world of the marginalised Muslims, further marginalised by gender and sexuality, the world of the fringe elements, and their shambles of a ministry. In between somewhere, comes the ubiquitous cow, the new animal of terror, divine to the majority, biryani to the minority.
The material of the novel then, as you can see, is plagued by the immediacy of its setting. It is what is happening. What Roy has done for the most part is merely copy-paste the reality she is living day in and day out. There is a reason for it, perhaps even a deliberate, calculated quality to the project she has undertaken. As Tilo in the book says: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens, there’s lots to write about… That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.”
I assume Roy is serious about her pronouncements. Because to read this in one uncharitable way is to say that Roy is bent on writing poor literature, redeemed possibly by the truth that it represents. Wallace Stegner says somewhere (in words to that effect) that truth is a fine thing, and that you must treat it as delicately as an eggshell. That sounds simple, but it demands a sense of balance that is hard to achieve, especially when you are writing a political novel in which the richness of the reality deludes you into believing its reproduction is as good as recreating it in words.
The trouble is that she has chosen a format that resists truth naturally. Fiction is a lie. And that lie has to come across as a truth. This is of course easier said than done. But the fact that Roy knew the dangers attendant on her choice of narration and emphasis are what makes for me a beguiling work; beguiling because The Ministry’s ultimate objective is not only to question the “Nationalist” narrative, but also to self-destruct the myth of Roy herself as a novelist burdened with the task of representing the rights of the underprivileged in fiction. Perhaps this is a self-styled role. But in practice it makes no difference: Roy is serious about destroying her persona as a novelist and has opted for the role of the activist.

The friction of that conflict is evident throughout the book. For instance, the whole idea of seeing magic in the most ordinary things like a horse being ridden through a crowded bylane in Old Delhi. If it is indeed meant to be magical, it comes across as a forced effort at painting squalour pretty. Like romanticising rot. It’s a desperate attempt on the part of the author to impart hope, a flimsy mythical dimension to despair; a last resort of sorts to stay on the side of fiction even as Roy’s writer persona senses the reality is crowding in on her inescapably.

The only way I could interpret Roy’s extended treatise as a novel is if one reads the entire work as a series of extended ironies that finally dissolves the novel into a naturalistic listing of India’s political problems in relation to Kashmir. Admittedly, that doesn’t quite make it first rate fiction. And it has a Borgesian collateral damage: the dissolution of the novelist herself. Of this, later.
The contemporary history of India is so rich in ironies that one would find it difficult to unravel the truth which is at their operational centre. As I write this, there is the abysmal news that Junaid, a boy aged 16, has been roughed up and finally stabbed to death on a train by a bunch of Hindus because they believed he, along with his brother, were beef-eaters. The incident shows the depth to which the at once comic and brutal actors — as in a Stoppard or Pinter play — of Ram’s Caliphate have descended, and the proportionate ascent of the quasi-religious but evolutionary impossibility of the cow as their mother.
Apart from the fact that the boys are Muslims, there is no reason why this need have happened. And this is not the first of such incidents. In the last three years since Narendra Modi has come to power, the very many lynchings this country has seen on account of the cow should equal the toll in a minor war.
But how to turn this real incident into fiction? All the fictive elements of the imagination are already ironically at work in the murder of Junaid. From taking a ticket to fate guiding the two children to a particular compartment, the fact they have nothing to do with cow or bull, Junaid’s last journey would be fiction even for the murdered boy, had he come back to listen to it. It is unreal.
The matrix of Roy’s novel is made of incidents like this which happen now on a weekly basis. Since it is nearly impossible to improve upon the fictional qualities of the Indian reality, Roy’s method could be charitably interpreted as material to work against as much as with, and in that friction and fluidity, bring out the ironies abounding in the texts available even as newspaper reports. But the purpose of the method, as I see it, is not fiction so much as the dispensability of the form itself, as an extra-textual effort to connect with the reality between the covers — which ironically is no different from what’s available outside.
The novel has been described as “hideous” and “beautiful” by Jerry Pinto, and “miraculous” at its best, by Nilanjana Roy and a “ fascinating mess” by The Atlantic. The Irish Times trashed The MinistryThe New Yorker began with praises and then politely distanced itself from the enterprise. Most critics attempted a balancing act out of respect for Roy’s considerable writing talents and her past achievements.
It is a measure of the quality of criticism as an art in our days that we very often are writing about the personality of the novelist rather than the novel itself. We read her into her work. What is criticised is the media-myth, not the work as it is. That goes for the publishing world too. If anyone else had written The Ministry, it most likely would not have seen the light of day.
I do not think The Ministry is either hideous or beautiful. I do not believe for a moment that the book is a ‘miraculous’ work of art, an adjective closely associated with other worldly interventions, an act that defies logic. These adjectives do not confront the problematique that the book offers.
The real problem to my mind — and perhaps the crucial component of the reader’s challenge — is that despite a few adept stabs at satire, the treatment that Roy probably intended, one of awful, endless ironies, does not come across as a sharable trauma. Or drama. That is how the novel fails. But perhaps that is also its success. The complicating factor, as her quote above shows, is that she may not have intended the fictional aspects to get the better of her. She resists the material to be turned into what it’s not: a lie.
Characters like Anjum, who falls clearly beyond the binary gender options and, by extension, the formulaic existential choice paradigm of this or that, either or, are a third sufferance of reality that accommodates, despite the pain and humiliation it engenders, the complexities of the mob — which when it picks on an individual invariably turns him/her into an outsider; the possibility that the fringe offers a fashion forward, and in a hoped-for reversal, turns out to be the new Mother India. An organism of suspect sexuality and splendid squalour; a Bharat Mata of different order, and odour.
But Anjum comes across as too cute an object. A spectacle in ritualistic action, whose conflicts are expropriated by the writer in an effort to lend articulation to the character on her behalf by means of long descriptions. This could be put down to Roy’s ideological identification with Anjum.
The other heroine S. Tilottama or Tilo, a post-modernist witness to the closest that post-Independent India has come to a revolution — Kashmir — is cute, pretty and passive in her passion for a Kashmiri activist, Musa. She bears witness, unable to change history, much like the novel itself, which is why it is one for the record rather than the figment that the fiction predicates on.
Between these two women and three other main male characters the novel doesn’t develop so much as describe what it sees. And what it sees mostly is what the readers are used to seeing outside the book, too. Roy, a constant darling of the upper-class liberal India, and the clueless — when it comes to subcontinental literature— Anglo Saxons (the white Brahmins) who form the crux of the global literary establishment had extended patronage to Roy for close to 20 years. Her cause to a great extent is their cause. It is the cause of the ‘civilised’ values. It is with some grief that they have admitted Roy’s Great Indian Novel is far from the stuff of celebration they had long planned for.

I am an admirer of Roy. To me she is an extremely brave woman, and an inveterate interventionist in India’s unethical and often heartless history. Her compassion for the underprivileged — if I recall right, it was Alice Walker who said that the fierceness with which Roy loves humanity moves her heart — shapes and shades the narrative on almost every page.
And this is what makes me think, that one best approached this chaotic novel — whose reluctant threads Roy just about and with visible labour picks up in the end — may have been written with the objective of dismantling the narrative itself finally. Much like Jiddu Krishnamurti dispersing the Theosophy Movement, Roy has ironically perhaps deconstructed herself, and subsumed the writer in her to the activist in her, just to see what comes of it. In this respect The Ministry is an experimental novel. A self-conscious suicide attempt, an existential choice.
I believe it is intentional. In an interview, Roy recently said that if reality is taken away from fiction, fiction loses. I tend to agree. Especially because in a fragile country like India, it is a luxury to turn away from the real and take refuge in some exotic fictive world, though not quite in the sense Zoe Williams meant, which is one of complete abdication of the form.
And so, the challenge remains. Because fiction demands a narrative and characters who grow with the action, instead of staying on the pages as they are, having been transplanted from reality. Within the covers of a book, the form demands a fourth dimension. In Roy’s novel, to my mind, that fourth dimension is Roy’s own gradual unbelief in her projected personality as an activist, while living very much like a successful author. It is this conflict that the book at one basic level addresses and ends in the assertion that she is after all an activist.
In other words, Roy is experimenting rather fatally with the form of the novel at great risk to herself. Its success could be ambiguously interpreted as the vigour with which she is interrogating herself. And not much comes of it but a shell, a vacuous irony. The novel has turned the author empty, leaving behind the activist looking around in qualified surprise at what she has faithfully reproduced, but not created.
This is in keeping with the thoughts in the novel. Sentences, whole chapters, are exercises to show words mean exactly the opposite. On page 179, for instance, the sub-head says:
“In Kashmir when we wake up and say ‘Good Morning’, what we really mean is ‘Good Mourning.’”
The irony may be empty, but its antonymous emptiness itself is a shake-up inside out.
Here’s another sub-head: 
“Manohar Mattoo was a Kashmiri Pandit who stayed on in the Valley even after all the other Hindus had gone. He was…deeply hurt by the barbs from his Muslim friends who said that all Hindus in Kashmir were actually….agents of the Indian Occupation Forces. Manohar had participated in all anti-India protests.… One day an old school friend, Aziz Mohammad, an intelligence officer… said he had seen his (Mattoo’s) surveillance file. It suggested that he be put under watch because he displayed ‘anti-national tendencies.’
… “‘You have given me the Nobel Prize!’ he told his friend…. A year later he (Mattoo) was shot by an unknown gunman for being a kafir.”
“Q 1: Why was Mattoo shot?
1. Because he was a Hindu
2. Because he wanted Azadi
3. Because he won the Nobel Prize
4. None of the above
5. All of the above
“Q 2: Who could the unknown gunman have been?
1. An Islamist militant who thought all kafirs should be killed
2. An agent of the Occupation who wanted people to think that all Islamist militants thought that all kafirs should be killed
3. Neither of the above
4. Someone who wanted everyone to go crazy trying to figure it out.”
That Manohar Mattoo has been thrown in your face is based on Roy’s assumption that her readers know what she is talking about in what is now an archetypal situation. The archetypal situation pre-empts involvement of the reader with Manohar. That is intended perhaps.
The real function of the questions and answer format regarding Manohar’s murder is how the irony of a Pandit fighting for Kashmir’s militants in the end turns out to be emptied of all meaning, because one doesn’t know the truth. An exam modeled in this fashion ensures everybody fails. And India has been failing at this exam for long.
Very often this mode of Brechtian montage technique, which is interspersed throughout the book, gives the impression that involvement is not what the writer seeks from the reader; but action. And it comes at the risk of a novelist, exhausted with the material she is wielding, turns the entire project against her novelist persona, like a gun.
Pretty Tilo, who makes a very late and sparse entry in the book, is in love with a Kashmiri activist. She is subjected to torture. And then allowed to go because of intervention from her connection established early in the book rather tenuously. In the event, Tilo can only bid farewell to her lover Musa, but perhaps like the author — or someone like her — on whom Tilo seems to have been modeled, only stay silent. There is nothing anyone can do, because an action, intervention, is nullified by the reality’s multitudinous contradictions. A zero-sum game.
That sense of resignation — an attitude — is what is described at length in the novel, and in terms of ironies, which cumulatively end up as an objective of deconstructing both the novel, and the extra-textual, existential objective of the author who is no longer certain of the resolution of the subject within the covers and without. This is an author in search of an answer and a plot, let alone characters.
In short, the activist in the author, who, I imagine, must consider herself as a character in the larger drama, has become a witness, someone who records what she sees. And, as a result, the novel turns back on itself as a failed form.
That failure could be partly Roy’s own limitations; or it could be because she intended to take that risk at the cost of her demise as a fiction writer, a role that is of little use in a reality where the imagination is destined to fail, unless it is reinvented.

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