Arundhati Roy’s politics and her storytelling have always been intertwined. The Indian writer burst onto the literary scene in 1997 with her dazzling debut novel, The God of Small Things, a tale of a family’s secrets that also shone a passionate light on a society scarred by the British Empire and neo-colonialism, with its worst injustices saved for women, children, Dalits, and the poor. Roy won the Booker prize for The God of Small Things, but in the two decades since she hasn’t published any fiction. Instead, she’s worked extensively as an environmental, human rights and anti-globalisation activist, publishing journalism and non-fiction inspired by her work. In 2010, she was charged with sedition by India’s government for remarks about the conflict in Kashmir.[1]

It seemed that Roy was that rare thing – a writer who thought the issues she wrote about were more important than what she said about them, one who was willing to take a step back from her creativity to try to make the world a better place. Now, Roy has made her long-awaited return to fiction as the world seems more divided and dangerous than ever. Her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which was also promptly nominated for the Man Booker, presents a socio-political panorama that is both specifically rooted in India, and touches on wider contemporary fears – divisions between the rich and the poor, the growing force of authoritarianism, and discrimination against minority communities, especially Muslims and transgender people. But I found it less successful as a novel than The God of Small Things, raising the question: how should a novel’s political goals affect a verdict on it as a work of literature? And how can writers respond to the turbulent situation around the world?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness traces a number of characters whose lives are brought together by fate in Delhi. It begins with one of the lowliest – Anjum, a Muslim trans woman who, after a spell living in the Kwabgah, a traditional home for hijras (trans women), has now made a home in the city’s graveyard. After Anjum finds a baby abandoned at a political protest, the narrative switches to the conflict in Kashmir, and to Tilo, a middle-class woman who, after years of alienation from society, finds her fate caught up with Anjum and the baby.

The plot of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is hard to describe, because it is hard to pin down. Near the end of the book, Tilo asks: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything”.[2] Roy clearly sees the “shattered story” as the best form to reflect the fragmented nature of contemporary experience. She has little time for India’s supposed economic boom, describing it in the novel’s most polemical passage as “Grandma be[coming] a whore”[3] and pointing out that the benefits to the Indian upper-classes and foreign governments have come at the expense of ignoring and exploiting the disadvantaged. Roy’s India is a Tower of Babel, split by cacophonous divisions between different social, political and ethnic groups and even between humans and the natural world. The growth of the Internet, in a country where even the borderline homeless watch videos on their mobile phones, fractures communication even further – “That’s how it is these days, yaar,” one character puts it. “The world is only videos now”.[4]

Roy’s approach to contemporary India is to inhabit a bewildering kaleidoscope of perspectives. As in The God of Small Things, her story moves backwards and forwards in time. It often takes detours to fill in the lives of minor characters with no real impact on the plot, animals as well as humans, as if it can’t bear to leave anyone unrecognised. The novel incorporates letters, political pamphlets and government documents wholesale. It switches from third person to first for the viewpoint of one character – R.C, Tilo’s old college classmate, now a high-ranking member of the Indian security forces occupying Kashmir – as if to lend the novel’s most authoritarian character’s humanity by letting him tell his part of the story in his own words.

The lack of a single chronology or point of view works in the sense that reading the book sometimes leaves you with the same sense of bewildered, helpless anger as scrolling through Twitter after the President of the United States makes a policy announcement. But it comes at the price of a story you can pin down and hold onto. The God of Small Things was so compelling because it saw its political commentary through the prism of one family’s downfall, personalising and unifying its ideas. Roy is to be commended for embracing a more ambitious canvas in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but unfortunately, it has a less memorable effect.

Roy has a strong talent for rich, lyrical prose, and she uses it to vividly depict a series of horrors – the “saffron parakeets with steel talons and bloodied beaks”,[5] as she calls the Hindu nationalists carrying out anti-Muslim violence; life in Kashmir, where, after decades of war and brutal occupation, “Dying became just another way of living”;[6] and the ongoing grind of inhumane poverty. But, perversely, it’s hard to care about these issues, because the novel flicks through them so abruptly and because the characterisation is oddly slight. For instance, Tilo and her lover Musa, a Kashmiri independence fighter, supposedly share a passionate bond that draws them back together in the face of all dangers. But it is simply hard to grasp who these characters are and why they care about each other so much, or to become emotionally invested in their fate. The novel is also short on actual story – Roy spends a great deal of time on the “backwards plot”, filling in the details of major and minor characters’ pasts, but the “forwards plot” that happens when they meet each other is surprisingly slight. The ending is meant to represent a humanist vision of the marginalised finding healing by working together, but this comes at the expense of the characters’ experiencing any conflict with each other or the outside world.

It seems churlish to be faulting The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for its problems as a work of literature when it dramatises such important issues. I didn’t learn until reading this book, for example, that last summer, while I was obsessing over Brexit and Trump, the violence in Kashmir flared up again, with the army blinding civilians, including children, by shooting pellets in their faces.[7] But the novel isn’t a form that’s suited to direct political and social commentary. That isn’t to say that it’s not political. Since Marx developed the theory of base and superstructure,[8] with a society’s cultural heights dependent on the labour that created them, much literary criticism has focused on how novels are shaped by the ideology of the writer and the society around them.

If all literature is political, then it is all the more important that it represents all points of view and gives a voice to those who are usually silenced. But the best novels allow the reader to see the world through the characters’ eyes, and reflect that experience back on their own lives, without stating one overt political argument. This can have a surprisingly powerfully effect – when I read The God of Small Things, I both wept for the characters and genuinely had my perspective on the world changed, as I grappled with the harm of my own country’s legacy in the developing world in ways I’d never done before. There’s a difference between telling the stories of oppressed groups, and telling us what to think about them, and The Ministry of Utmost falls into the second category, frequently reading like as if it was written from a lecture podium.

This leaves us with an uncomfortable question: if a writer of Roy’s great talents can fail to smoothly marry the ideas she believes in and the story she wants to tell, who can? As we live through a time of dizzying political upheaval in Britain, the USA and around the world, it stands to reason that this will make its way into fiction. Writers are curious, empathetic, and usually politically liberal – they want to say something meaningful about the world in which they live. And these days, when so many of us feel like shouting at society to stop, to listen, to change, can we stop the shouting from bleeding into writing? Isn’t it selfish to demand that we be entertained by novels while the world outside the library is on fire?

If fiction is to contribute to our current political dialogue, then it must do something journalism and non-fiction can’t, making us empathise with others on a deeper and more imaginative level. But on the evidence of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it is very hard to step back and make a satisfying story out of the current, enraging climate. Roy has struggled in an honourable attempt to meet the challenge. The search for a literary form that can adequately convey the contradictions of the modern world continues.

 

[1] Gethin Chamberlain, “Arundhati Roy faces arrest over Kashmir remarks”, The Guardian, 26th October 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/26/arundhati-roy-kashmir-india

[2] Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017): 436

[3] Ibid. 96

[4] Ibid. 407

[5] Ibid. 62

[6] Ibid. 314

[7]Mirza Waheed, “India’s crackdown in Kashmir: is this the world’s first mass blinding?”, The Guardian, 8th November, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/08/india-crackdown-in-kashmir-is-this-worlds-first-mass-blinding

[8] Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Trans. M. L. Stone, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1903): 11