I See Kashmir from (Old) Delhi at Midnight: Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Dedicated to The Unconsoled, Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is one of the most anticipated novels of the year. The novel is many different things: a literary adventure through Shahjahanabad (now, Old Delhi) and its history, a critical commentary on all that has happened and is happening in India post-independence, a lament for lives lost and lives torn apart by war and conflict, and an experiment in story-telling. 

Set first in Delhi and later in Kashmir, the novel, though inhabited by almost fifty characters, has two main story-lines that converge at several points. Woven in a non-linear narrative, the stories are interspersed with poetry and with thick political commentary that is characteristic of Roy's non-fiction. 

I see Kashmir from (Old) Delhi at midnight

Agha Shahid Ali's "I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight" is perhaps one of the most iconic explorations of the incessant struggle that has been a part of the lives of people of Kashmir since Indian independence. Roy's novel, too, is such an exploration. Both literary works use the city of Delhi (New or Old) as a lens to critically view the state of things in Kashmir which, sadly, have only deteriorated further in the time-gap between the publication of these two works. 

The first part of Roy's novel is an adventure through the city of Shahjahanabad, the capital of the emperor Shah Jahan during his reign, known to us now as Old Delhi. The city, whose diverse and syncretic heritage cannot be unacknowledged, is brought to life by Roy's poetic descriptions. Describing Delhi's transformation into the "supercapital of the world's favourite new superpower [India]," Roy writes, 

Grey flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. . . Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival. . . [T]his was to be the dawn of her resurrection. . . It was the summer Grandma became a whore.

The novel not only traverses the physical space of the citythe mapped territorybut also features the "cadence and rhythm of the [Old Delhi] neighbourhood" exemplified by the hearing of a stream of Urdu invective "that was interrupted five times a day by the call to prayer from the Jama Masjid. . . ." The spaces of the Khwabgah (where "Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated") and Jannat Guest House (located in the graveyard and inhabited by people from all walks of life, connected beyond the identity-markers that divide them) stand in opposition to the Duniya, the world of many horrors. 

The second part of the novel plunges right in the middle of one of the greatest of these horrors, Kashmir, where "the dead will live forever; and the living are only dead people, pretending." The picture of Kashmir presented in The Ministry is nothing short of bleak, nothing short of reality. The irony, writes, Roy is that 

. . . if you put four Kashmiris in a room and ask them to specify what exactly they mean by Azadi, what exactly are its ideological and geographic contours, they would probably end up slitting each other's throats.

About protests, Roy writes that the thinking, at the level of government, is that 

. . . permitting the population to vent its feelings and shout its slogans from time to time would prevent that anger from accumulating and building into an unmanageable cliff of rage. 

How to tell a shattered story?

It is this "shattered story", a story of violence and terror, that Roy must tell through The MinistryAlmost anticipating the criticism regarding the way in which she chooses to tell these stories—the almost too thick political commentary suited more for non-fiction, the scattered narrative that made Jerry Pinto comment that the novel reads like a first draft and needed editorial intervention, the tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, take-it-with-a-kilo-of-salt mode of writing, and the use of multiple narrative devices and narrators as if unable to decide on one tone or texture as Somak Ghoshal remarksRoy writes that one can only tell them by "becoming everything." 

This manner of narration is also exemplified in the novel by S. Tilottama's (Tilo's) journal titled The Reader's Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children. Tilo finds herself travelling to Kashmir "obsessively, month after month, year after year, as though she was searching for something she had left behind." Soon she begins a process of seemingly random documentation:

She collected scraps of stories and inexplicable memorabilia that appeared to have no purpose. . . Over the years, her peculiar, ragged archive grew particularly dangerous. It was an archive of recoveries, not from a flood, but from another kind of disaster.

In this documentation, Tilo is no different from Dr Azad Bhartiya. When the police takes away his papers and copies of his News & Views, Dr Azad Bhartiya refuses to lose a moment and immediately sets to work, "starting the laborious process of documentation from scratch." 

Roy recognizes the importance of literature in critically engaging with the social, cultural, and political scenarios around oneself; she refuses to write "sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's lots to write about." Tilo says that this cannot be done in Kashmir as there is "too much blood for good literature." Through Tilo, Roy raises an important question, which may serve as a response to the aforementioned criticism,

What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature? 

An absent fine balance

The Ministry is, without a doubt, an important book, a sharp criticism of present-day Indian politics which has its roots firmly in the political and economic mistakes of the past. However, personally, I found the story and the characters compromised for its political agenda. I found myself drifting away while reading the novel; the plot could not hold my interest for too long and I never found myself significantly invested in the characters and their lives.

The novel does have its moments of poetic genius, with a sustained imagery of birds of different kinds (the naked hardback of the novel, interestingly, has an embossed picture of a vulture), such as in the opening lines,

When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out.

And in the lines,

It made one feel that Kashmir really belonged to those creatures. That none of us who were fighting over it. . . had the right to claim the truly heavenly beauty of that place for ourselves. 

But (and there is always a very strong 'but' with this novel) often the imagery seems forced and the political commentary overshadows everything else. A fine balance between the poetic and the political is, unfortunately, absent from the novel.

To conclude, I am tempted to reiterate an interesting fact about Rooh Afza that Roy introduces in the novel. Rooh Afza, a popular brand of sherbet in India, means the 'Elixir of the Soul' in Persian. It was founded by a hakim and was meant to be a tonic. The drink ruled the Indian market for forty years before independence but faced a serious setback after partition. However, it soon opened a branch in Pakistan and later, in Bangladesh. But, as Roy tells us, "the Elixir of the Soul that had survived wars and the bloody birth of three new countries, was, like most things in the world, trumped by Coca-Cola." The use of the verb "trumped" here is perhaps deliberate and indicative.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House India, 2017.

No comments

Powered by Blogger.