The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – a testament for our times

We live now, though we might say that we have always lived in a time of ruination
Brian Dillon, ‘Introduction – A Short History of Decay’

How does one even start to write about Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?

First, by taking in a deep breath to absorb all that was carefully and intricately, almost painfully laid before us. Roy, it appears, spent the last two decades well, as an observer and as a flaneur of not just the cityscapes but of the ‘news-scapes’. But, one cannot really blame her for this. In a post-truth world, Roy jots down in a feverish pace, our contemporary tale of loss, ruination and utter despair, leaving room for just that glimmer of hope – for what are all revolutionaries if not dreamers. And, this is exactly the reason why TMOUH will remain for decades to come a crucial testament, a witness to what we have witnessed in our newspapers, our television screens, and on the mobile phone screens in our palms in the last two decades. This is the text that will be held as an important evidentiary material by future generations when the truths of the world are shredded into pieces beyond comprehension. It is, therefore, essential to understand this text through the paradigm of decay and ruination brought upon ourselves by the nation-state, by ideals, by technology and by us.

What makes it impossible for a reader like me to disengage with the book is the fact that I too have been a witness to the events of the book. There is no main narrative here, it is as fractured as the nation-state currently is. However, one may argue that the narrative picks up from the 2002 riots in Gujarat, India’s first telegenic riots, where the violence and butchering was telecast to us live, bang in the middle of our living rooms. These riots, more than the Babri Masjid demolition, did something to us, the group that defines itself as millennials. The riots transformed us in ways that we are yet to understand. The riots transformed the politics of the country, perhaps for posterity. If the riots were a telegenic spectacle, TMOUH, is a metamorphosing of the spectacle into text. The whole of the novel is a spectacle that we have lived through in the last two decades or so, and continue to do so. Roy, in the rush to capture the spectacle of terror and fragmentation, writes all that she, and in turn we, have been witness to. This is the only weak point of the book.

Thus, 2002, the Iraq war, the students’ protests, Operation Green Hunt, MMS scandals, India Against Corruption, Una, Akhlaque – everything and anything that constitutes the spectacle is ‘embedded’ in this epic.

‘It is impossible to recapture the tremor of terror. Everything is insignificant – here at the pinnacle of history self-exposed by its violence, everything is eerily quiet like an abandoned November field’
Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Anorexic Ruins (1989)’

Jean Baudrillard expressed himself in these words when he visited the Berlin Wall shortly after its demolition in 1989. Roy expresses herself in these very words but stretching it to span almost 500 pages of attempting the impossibility of capturing the trauma and eeriness of a life post-violence. The only way that this violence and trauma can be captured is through the spectacle where even violence can only be presented as a representation. It now seems to me that Roy has also used self-depreciating humour with the launch of this book. The launch has been the most spectacular book launch in recent memory. Every publication, magazine, website and even social media feed was swamped with images or chitter-chatter of TMOUH. This, I think, is a secret joke that she has played on us, in her inimitable style to tell us, that we, the Black Mirror generation, are living right in the middle of the spectacle and creating spectacles out of our very immediate ecology. Love it or hate it, there has been no way out of the TMOUH spectacle that was built up over the last couple of months.

I stationed myself in Delhi in 2010, roughly the time when some of the central events of the book take place. Those were the days of the so-called ‘puppet prime minister’ followed shortly by that extremity of a telegenic event – the India Against Corruption which gripped Delhi and the rest of the country. Suddenly, there seemed to be motivation for the teeming youth of the country to do something for the great nation and everyone, from the elites to the masses to the middle classes to the students, were out on Delhi’s streets demanding accountability, sacrifice and servitude for Mother India. There is difficulty in maintaining what one may term as a Brechtian distance from the narratives of the book, when the reader herself or himself has been present as an active participant or even as a passive witness to the events here. More so, because the author herself removes any pretension of being just a chronicler of the times because she is herself present as Tilo in the book, as the whimsical witness and drifter.

The characters here are whimsical, but not frivolous. Once, we introspect on the book, we realise how necessary this whimsy is required to maintain any semblance of sanity in the post-truth, violent ecosystems that we are part of.

Yes, Roy treats Delhi as an ecosystem. She understands the post-human condition well. Delhi is not a fragmented piece of land or memory. TMOUH captures each nook and corner of the city, each and every character that makes up the ecology that is Delhi, that keeps the city breathing and alive. Thus, she spares no one in her observations, from the gated colonies, to the slums, to the old Delhi, to the Lutyens’ Delhi, to the spaces under flyovers, to the pavements and roads outside AIIMS and Safdarjung Hospital, to the roads in the evening and the roads at night time. She does not even spare the fauna of Delhi and over the pages, the reader will find references of all animals and birds that flock the cityscape. This is the grid. This is the network of the decaying and fragmented city, of the nation-state. The gridlocked infrastructure of the space where we must learn to navigate. She does the same with the characters, and there are many characters as there ought to be. This is not a text of or for the few, it’s a text for everyone. She is the peripatetic of urban decay and the pathos of human existence in the metropolis, observing even the most pitiable of them all. If you have stayed long enough in Delhi, participated enough in the protests and also, read the Times of India as I have, you would recognise who Azad Bhartiya is or who that crazed woman who thinks of herself as a queen, living in a ruined bungalow is. Or who that performer in Jantar Mantar is. Or who that artist whose show opened at the NGMA is. (Confession – I went to the opening of the show). It becomes impossible at this juncture to become that distantiated observer or reader here. You start wondering at one point, if you yourself were observed and you too are referenced, even obliquely, somewhere deep within the pages of this evidence.

There has been a lot of comparison with Rushdie’s ‘Midnight Children’ and TMOUH and this comparison continues even as I type this sentence. This is misplaced and a fallacious comparison. Rushdie was in essence talking about the birth of the nation through Saleem Sinai with liberal and one must say, fantastic doses of magic-realism. TMOUH barely has any such magic realism. The only thing unreal that one chances upon are the ravings of a demented mind at the throes of death, or hallucinations of a mind that has already been ravished by the gridlocked city. Roy is clearly chronicling the loss of the promise of the nation-state in TMOUH and she deftly queers that promise through Anjum.

For me, lurking in its pages are the tropes of Italian neo-realist cinema. Anjum, who holds the falling state together by seaming together the frayed ends, is a Hijra from the older part of the city. She finds her ‘home’ in an abandoned and ruined graveyard. Anjum is to TMOUH as Anna Magnani is to Mamma Roma, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1962 classic film, where Magnani is a streetwalker named ‘Mother Rome’, who lives on the periphery or the ‘toilets’ of the bustling metropolis Rome. Roy, is the neo-realist director who takes us inside and outside Delhi through Anjum’s explorations of the Duniya and Khwabgah and later, the Duniya and Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services. It is ultimately, the architectural collapse and decay, in the 1990s that laid to rest the modernist dreams of our previous generations.

Anjum, by her acts, her constant reference to the internal wars on her being, becomes the queered version of Mother India – the biggest and the boldest stride by Arundhati Roy yet. Discussing more about this move would unravel what the book and the narrative(s) is/are. The reader will get to discern more intricacies of the nation-state, the queer body and the metaphor of ruins as she progresses along the book.

By the time we reach 2016 in the narrative(s), we already know in our lived experiences who is a seditionist, an anti-national and a strident nationalist. Roy’s exposition of Kashmir becomes important for us as a testimony to that conflict or struggle (however one may view it). She does not take any stand on the issue, but as a witness details the trauma, the violence and the madness. In many ways, reading that part of the book, I could just visualise the comical and yet, deeply poignant, grave diggers song from Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider. Although there is a strong critique of the film by Kashmiris themselves, but the madness and the hopelessness that Roy brings us to our palms can only be imagined by the mainlander Indian like me, through the metaphor of that song.

‘…the ruin is a site not of melancholy or mourning but of radical potential – its fragmentary, unfinished nature is an invitation to fulfil the as yet unexplored temporality that it contains’
Brian Dillon, ‘Introduction – A Short History of Decay’

Arundhati Roy fulfils this invitation for us all with TMOUH. Like Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary ‘The Act of Killing’, Roy bears witness for us the madness and danger that we have descended into from the early 2000s. Unlike Oppenheimer or for that matter Amitav Ghosh, she does not regress into a historical period of a few decades or a few centuries. She writes the history of the contemporary and that is the strength and the weakness of the book. The last fifty odd pages seem rushed, as if to chronicle the contemporary she felt the need to be all inclusive and thus there are references to Radhika Vemula, to Telengana, to Operation Green Hunt and to Kalluri. Roy, could have done without that much of an inclusiveness, for these episodes deserve a text in themselves. But as the assault of the saffron parakeets continues, one may very well take this book and keep in on our shelves as a comprehensive archive to our own witnessing. This is not a book that may become ones favourite, but it is definitely one that deserves a deep read. This is a book whose value we shall remember as an archive more than for its prose or for its characters. For we are all present in it, some way or the other. Even as contentment is found in isolation on the graveyard, Roy ends the book with hope, leaving intact the radical possibility of the ruins.

Roy, as I realise should not be located as an auteur but as a chronicler of these broken times. TMOUH is a saga of our ruins. Read it as such.

 

NOTES

Brian Dillon, ‘Introduction – A Short History of Decay’, in Ruins: Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge and London, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2011

Baudrillard, Jean, ‘The Anorexic Ruins (1989)’, in Ruins: Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge and London, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2011

 

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