Arundhati Roy's latest novel gives voice to the most condemned groups in the world's so-called largest secular democracy.
From transgender people to tribals and from Dalits (a.k.a. untouchables) to religious minorities, they all make appearances in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. And especially Muslims, who are forced to live under constant threat in a country governed by the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).
Through many characters and with numerous stories that constantly intersect, Roy consistently writes through the lens of the poor, challenging the myth of a great country that is said to have benefited from neoliberalism.
All these narratives woven together in fiction unmask the real face of India where the dominant culture has frequently othered powerless sections of the society. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, referred to as Gujarat Ka Lalla in the book, this tendency has grown.
Modi's real-life complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat finds a mention in the novel, even as the major part of the story is dominated by the conflict in the northern Indian state of Kashmir, where Indian forces continue to suppress the Muslim population in its struggle for self-determination.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness also touches upon other tragedies in the distant past, such as the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984.
Anjum, the central character of the story, is both Muslim and a eunuch, and therefore remains vulnerable in a society where religious orthodoxy against LGBT people and non-Hindus prevails. She survives the Gujarat massacre and remains anxious about the future of her own community, especially the younger generation.
However, she gives hope for all condemned groups to live with self-respect and dignity through Jannat Guest House in Delhi. It becomes refuge to an orphaned child of a tribal woman, Maoist insurgents enduring state repression, and a Dalit man who lost his father at the hands of Hindu fanatics terrorizing people in the name of a cow-protection campaign.
Roy's imagination is at its best when she makes Anjum use the expression "Laal Salaam Vaalekum"—a combination of the Communist slogan of "Red Salute" and Muslim greetings as a last respect to the dead Maoist militant. It is a statement against the growing onslaught on left-wing activists and Muslims, who are often harassed as potential terrorists by state agencies in India.
In a nutshell, the novel makes one see an unseen India. This India remains obscured and hidden because of the hype created by its growing economy and powerful global capitalists' greed for investment in that part of the world.
Though some passages give an impression that the author is overly influenced by her nonfiction political writings, overall the story is very gripping and makes one angry and sad. Yet it ends with an optimism for a future that lies in the hands of the people who can unite and resist against power.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor and a founder of Radical Desi. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.
Arundhati Roy will speak at St. Andrew's–Wesley United Church in Vancouver on Monday (June 26) at an event organized by the Indian Summer Arts Society. Its annual Indian Summer Festival takes place this year in Vancouver from July 6 to 15.