We are all the product of our stories. Arundhati Roy, in her latest novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, has shown once again how like a master painter, who can bring together the different colored strokes of paint and create a beautiful painting, she too has brought together diverse stories from many walks of life and created a world, so real and authentic that one could put the master’s painting next to it, and be lost in the beauty of both.
The novel begins and ends at a city graveyard in old Delhi. Through the story of Anjum, we are taken deep into the lives of the Hijra community and their struggles.
We understand the internal conflicts going on between the male and female tendencies within them and how they have this idea that “perhaps God wanted to create a creature incapable of happiness, so he created Hijras…he seemed to have succeeded”.
After all, men and women don’t get along that well on the outside, how can they on the inside?
The novel doesn’t move in a serial way, rather it hops gracefully from place to place and at times when you are about to get lost. Roy weaves you back and gives you a gentle nudge by making things clearer.
She takes us to Jantar Mantar where lots of groups are protesting for different causes - Bhopal gas tragedy victims, Delhi Kabaadi Wallas, Manipuri nationalists asking for revocation of AFSPA, Tibetan refugees calling for a free Tibet and most importantly the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) from Kashmir, demanding an answer to the whereabouts of their sons and loved ones.
These protesters (APDP) are carrying the pictures and placards, one of which reads “The story of Kashmir, dead = 68,000; Disappeared = 10,000; Is this Democracy or Demon Crazy?”
All these groups are here to tell their stories. But there is no one to listen.
Anjum and her friends are also here (for curiosity mostly) and they spot an abandoned baby girl on the pavement. Somebody had dropped her at this place, thinking that of all the people in the world, this group seeking justice for various causes would be her best bet.
Anjum attempts to lift the baby but gets into a big fight with another protesting man (for some other cause). He questions, “How can a Hijra take care of a baby?”. The police come and arrest the fighting parties and when the dust settles, the baby has disappeared.
Tilo, a character in the novel, is the protagonist and Roy has beautifully crafted her character, making her odd yet deeply enigmatic.
Nobody knows a lot about her, no identifiable beginning or roots which adds to her mystery. She has many admirers, specially Musa (a Kashmiri boy of the 1990s) who is her love.
After finishing his studies, Musa returns to the valley and gets into the local scene of the 1990s. Multiple dimensions of the Kashmir story have been captured with painstaking detail and numerous truths of human rights violations and atrocities the people of Kashmir have suffered has been told with a passion and love that few can match.
Even though being a Kashmiri myself, I learnt quite a few nuances of my own culture - which tells you how intimately Roy has researched her subject.
Tilo comes to visit Musa in Kashmir and gets a grassroots perspective of the Kashmir story. While she is on a house boat, it gets raided and the Special Forces take her to Shiraz Cinema - which has been converted to an interrogation center.
Here she is interrogated and her head is forcibly shaved off. She gets the flavor of what ordinary Kashmiris go through, day-in and day-out and wonders how do they manage it?
Luckily, she is able to send a note to a friend in the Intelligence Bureau who comes to her rescue.
The vivid description of Mazar-e- Shohada is heart-rending and the story of Miss Jebeen and her burial gives one a lot of angst. The brutal assassination of Jalib Qureshi (Jalil Andrabi) and his assassin who later on kills his own family and then commits suicide in a far-off country has been highlighted.
Here, Roy asks a bigger question. Will Kashmir one day make India self-destruct just like this killer did?
Even if we blind all Kashmiris with our pellet guns, we will still be able to see what we have done? Are we destroying Kashmir or in fact are we destroying ourselves?
This 444-page novel is a treat for anyone open to look at other people’s stories and understand the vulnerabilities of the human condition.
After all, we are all the product of our stories. On each page, one wonders at the gift which Roy has been blessed with in this art of storytelling through the word.
And she uses this gift wisely by paying a tribute as she puts it “to the unconsoled” from all walks of life, including the Kashmiri nation.