In ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,’ Globalization is Built on Bodies

Nayomi Munaweera and Shanthi Sekaran discuss Arundhati Roy’s latest novel

“Double Take” is our literary criticism series wherein two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Shanthi Sekaran and Nayomi Munaweera, two authors with their own recently-released second novels, share their impressions of Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize longlisted The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

There are no accolades to be found on the back cover of Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness — only a quote from the book: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Whether Roy succeeds in this endeavor — whether it’s even possible to succeed in such an endeavor — is almost an unanswerable question. Better, perhaps, to focus on the everybody and everything that populate this shattered story: Hijras and Dalits, old diaries and a busy cemetery, a government assassin and an abandoned baby girl.

Twenty years have elapsed since the release of Roy’s Booker-winning first novel, The God of Small Things, and this week she made the Booker long list again. It’s with measured breath that one opens The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy takes us on a meandering and unpredictable journey, from the teeming boroughs of Delhi to blood-soaked Kashmir, from activist hotbeds to staid American suburbs. To read this book is to tear into the skin of modern-day India, a land of deeply embedded societal roles, to examine the daily tragedy of a land in conflict — its living bodies, its corporate mask and its ever-morphing identity.

Shanthi Sekaran: There were times in this book when I was like, what is Arundhati Roy smoking? And where can I get me some.

Nayomi Munaweera: Ha! Which parts? And do you think smoking whatever it was would make you a better writer?

SS: The zoo, for example. And various people’s private papers.

NM: Yes! I loved that bit.

SS: There are so many riffs in this book. You think, as a reader, you know where things are leading and then Roy switches tracks. You’re suddenly running alongside the story you thought you were in. She doesn’t create complete departures, but sometimes what you think is a quick tangent becomes an entire chapter. So many times, reading this book, I had to give up my illusion of control, and just go with what was happening. It really seems to just do what it wants to do.

NM: I agree. But I also feel like she was very much in control. It’s a book with a wide range. It sprawls, it takes up room but I think she was very aware of that.

So many times, reading this book, I had to give up my illusion of control, and just go with what was happening. It really seems to just do what it wants to do.

SS: I remember when she was speaking at City Arts & Lectures [in San Francisco, CA], she said, “I wanted to tell the story of the air and everything in it.” I take that as meaning that she wants to tell the story of India, in a geopolitical sense, as she’s spent so many years steeped in those matters. This is the India of social paradox and border battles and communal violence. This isn’t peacock ’n’ mangos India.

NM: It’s amazing we both got to see her speak a few weeks ago. People keep saying she hasn’t written a book in two decades but they forget that she has various nonfiction pieces. She’s been grappling with India the entire time. And it all shows in the book. I think her project has gotten much bigger in those two decades.

SS: India is no longer, in the world’s imagining, a quaint, unfathomable and exotic place. It’s now a player on the global scene, and I feel like readers and the Western public are finally ready to engage with the inherent intricacies.

NM: Did you read Michiko Kakutani’s review? Kakutani essentially thinks the book was too big. That it was a failure because it took on too much.

SS: I think you have to accept this book on its own terms. If you start applying narrative tradition and expectation, you sort of miss the point. Roy wanted to tell the story of everything. So by necessity, that story is going to feel fragmented. But that doesn’t diminish its value. It’s just attempting something that most novels don’t.

NM: Kakutani said, “Roy’s gift is not for the epic but for the personal as God of Small Things so profoundly demonstrated.” I had to disagree with that analysis. It’s always a bad idea to compare a writer’s books. The fact that she told a very personal tale successfully and beautifully in God doesn’t mean she can’t take on the multiplicity and complexity of India in a second book. So, as you said, you have to approach with no expectations.

India is no longer, in the world’s imagining, a quaint, unfathomable and exotic place.

SS: Yes, though some would argue that to tell the epic tale, or the political tale, you focus on the personal. That the personal becomes a reductive mirror for the political. But I’m guessing that’s not what she’s trying to do with this book. It’s not like she’s trying to reflect India in a personal story and failing. There are elements of that reflection in the book. But more than this, I get the sense that she is actually trying to tell the story of contemporary India itself — specifically contemporary Delhi and Kashmir. And how does one even do that? Do you think she succeeded?

NM: Personally I do think she succeeded. It’s an enormous story and task to take the tremendous multiplicity of South Asia. It’s even mentioned in the back cover copy, “it’s not the story of everybody, it’s the story of everything.” So she’s talking about the fate of people but also the fate of animals, the fate of the forests, the fate of the rivers. It’s an enormous undertaking and I think she did it brilliantly.

SS: I’d say she succeeded in telling a compelling, sometimes surprising, story of “everything” in India. But of course the attempt to do such a thing — to tell the story of everything — is doomed to fail. Especially when it involves the maddening paradoxes of India.

From the broader view, what I especially appreciate is that this book turned a leaf for me. It made me look at today’s India in a way I hadn’t yet considered. I was one of those “Oh look! They have malls now!” people. Roy flipped that for me, made me look at the underbellies of those malls, the reality that I, like so many Indians, would rather not see. Being in India involves a lot of “not-seeing.” But it seems Roy won’t stand for that.

NM: Yeah, I can see that. For me, too, I was aware of the anti-Muslim Hindu fundamentalism, as in Sri Lanka we have anti-Muslim Buddhist fundamentalism, but I wasn’t aware of the scope of it. Or the way caste has played into it. The way globalization is a continuation of colonialism. At the talk, Roy said a reader came up to her and mentioned she was studying post-colonial studies. Roy replied, “Is colonialism really ‘post?’” That stayed with me. The idea that the exploitative means of a previous age have only morphed with modernity.

In the book, this really became clear in that moment when history and fiction merge and she has Warren Anderson, the American CEO of Union Carbide, come to India after the Bhopal gas leak killed so many and continues to destroy lives. He looks at the cameras of the gathered press and says, “I just got here. Hi mom.” And that “Hi mom” is repeated over and over on the television as it becomes clear that the company isn’t going to redress their dire wrongs. It was a powerful moment in the book and clearly one that points to her own activism.

SS: I’ll never forget her comparison of capitalist, globalized India to a grandmother tarting herself up.

NM: Yes, Delhi or India herself as the grandmother who is being dressed up to seduce foreign multinationals. That was an amazing description. They try to hide all her ugliness in push-up bras and high heels.

Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheater where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries. But this was to be the dawn of her resurrection. Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty, smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore.

SS: That leads me to the question of the body. The body plays a huge role in this book.

NM: This is a book about all kinds of bodies. There are the bodies that don’t conform. One of the main characters is a Muslim Hijra — a transgender woman, recognized in India as a third gender — who is transforming from male to female. She goes from being Aftab to Anjum. There is also the body of the tiny black female baby whose coming is rejoiced at as if she were a goddess come in the final page of the book. She’s female, she’s black, both of which are often undesirable qualities in a traditional South Asian context. Yet Roy is positing these outsider bodies as the truly heroic: that which will rescue us from a frightening insistence on homogeneity. Anjum is celebrated for her ability to cross the bodily boundaries.

SS: Yes, Let’s talk about Anjum, whose narrative dominates the first half of the book. There are so many evocative connections between Anjum and India. The Hijra’s body, for example, is a body in conflict — at least in this book’s depiction. It presents a fragmented experience of gender.

NM: As a Hijra character says to a young, uninitiated Anjum, “Indo Pak is inside us.”

Arre yaar, think about it, what are the things you normal people get unhappy about? I don’t mean you, but grown-ups like you — what makes them unhappy? Price-rise, children’s school-admissions, husbands’ beatings, wives’ cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo Pak war — outside things that settle down eventually. But for us the price-rise and school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.

The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.

SS: Also, as a Hijra, Anjum is placed firmly on the outskirts of society. But paradoxically, the Hijra’s role is well understood and integrated into Delhi society. It’s not a wide-ranging role; there’s not much freedom or opportunity in it, but the Hijra’s role is included and understood, both accepted and reviled.

NM: Right. She becomes part of a very old community of Hijras in the city. As one of the older Hijras reminds them, they’ve been part of the city’s history for centuries. The Muslim rulers of Delhi entrusted their mothers and queens to the court eunuchs. So they came out of a very old tradition. But that’s a Muslim tradition so somewhat at odds, perhaps, with modern Hindu fundamental India.

SS: One of my favorite scenes is when these activist filmmakers visit Jantar Mantar (the protest and activism center of Delhi) and ask Anjum and her posse to say, in Urdu, “Another world is possible.” You can imagine one of those video montages of people of all castes and creeds repeating this one hopeful phrase, a plea for unity, a tidy you-tube viral thing. But what does Anjum do? She doesn’t repeat the phrase as instructed. Instead, she looks into the camera and says “We’ve come from there…from the other world”.

She won’t be convinced that she is part of the “Duniya,” part of the mainstream. She’s lived so much of her life understanding her separation from it that she seems altogether incapable of saying something which, to her, feels wholly irrelevant. She is her own form of resistance, resisting the filmmakers who themselves are making a video on power and resistance.

NM: Right. And I think Roy is saying that it is the misfits, the ones who don’t belong, who refuse easy categories, who reject nationalism, who are our best bet for a better world. Anjum refuses to be rescued. She finds sorority first in the Hijra house and then in the cemetery. But it’s always with others who are also fractured and outcaste.

SS: So, Anjum leaves her Hijra compound — she’s had enough of it — and sets up camp in a cemetery. She’s essentially homeless. But slowly, she takes in other wandering souls, and builds a shelter. And then the shelter grows more complex, more people join her. People with loved ones whose occupation or status exclude them from traditional funeral rites start to come to her. Her ramshackle lean-to becomes the Janaat Guest House and Funeral Services. As I read this, the American me is thinking: Does she have a permit?

Why do you think Roy chose a cemetery for Anjum’s home? What is it about a cemetery that speaks to Anjum’s experience, to the ideas of exclusion and inclusion, life and death, the body?

NM: It’s another in-between place. Where the dead and living coexist and circumvent the rules most people are governed by. For example, they make up their own rituals to honor Miss Jebeen the Second’s mother and Tilo’s mother as well as Saddam Hussein’s father. All three of those characters were not honored or recognized in the traditional ways. This band of misfits honors them in very specific ways.

It’s also, I think, a way to be in touch with history while India crashes into modernity. What do you think about the cemetery setting? And the fact that our other main character Tilo also ends up there?

SS: I agree about the cemetery being a liminal space, somewhat outside the confines of mainstream everyday activity, but still with its societal role. In this specific way, the cemetery’s role reflects the Hijra’s role. I think the cemetery also brings us back to the notion of the body. What is a cemetery, but a place to dispose of bodies? And death brings us into a final, ultimate reckoning with the body. When you die, there’s no getting around your body. There’s no surgery or makeup or spin class that can save you from your body. Anjum, of course, has been dealing with the demands of her body her entire adult life. But the cemetery as a resting place, as a solid, unmoving repository for the body — I think this says something about India itself.

What is a cemetery, but a place to dispose of bodies? And death brings us into a final, ultimate reckoning with the body. When you die, there’s no getting around your body.

NM: Well, early on Anjum does say that she’s waiting to die. So she goes to the cemetery. But then she creates a very vibrant, colorful, peopled existence there. I’m not sure it is unmoving. I saw it as a very dynamic place as these characters take up residence. Tilo starts a school in the cemetery. They bring in all those animals. Saddam Hussein gets married there. I think it’s set forth as an alternate vision of a community that could be. A place of refuge, as it were, to the larger India which is beset by caste, war, misogyny etc. Even the goat whose job it is to be sacrificed for Eid doesn’t get sacrificed for sixteen Eids in the cemetery!

SS: Yes, Anjum and her coterie of friends, misfits, animals: they bring life and dynamism to the place. Without them, though, the role of the cemetery is fixed, the rules of inclusion and exclusion are fixed. They bring life to death.

NM: Right. So it’s a place Tilo can come to when she and the baby, Miss Jebeen the Second are threatened. What did you think of Tilo and the Kasmir storyline? We leave Anjum and go on this huge ride to Kashmir. Did you find that jarring as some readers have expressed?

SS: We switch, about halfway through the book, to the viewpoint of Dasgupta, who introduces the reader to Tilo. We’ve left the misfits of Delhi society now, and come into contact with the upper echelons, the boarding school types. I didn’t find this switch jarring, most likely because I was drawn in by Dasgupta’s narrative voice, which was quick, clear, chatty. I did have to trust that we’d come back to Anjum. Roy hadn’t simply dropped this character. For a while, I didn’t love the fact that we were hearing about Tilo from Dasgupta’s far removed viewpoint. The second half of the book really came alive for me when I was hearing directly from Tilo. So we approach Tilo from a distance. She’s a mysterious female student, unreadable to her male classmates, an object of fascination precisely because of her inscrutability, and because she seems to have no use for any of them. There’s one line I’ll always remember about Tilo.

NM: Is it about being in a country of her own skin with no visas granted?

SS: Yes: She marries a man — a former classmate — whose mother is minor royalty. Tilo herself comes from a less certain pedigree, though it’s known that she’s part Dalit. Naga, her descended-from-royalty classmate, is ceaselessly devoted to her. As Roy explains it, “It had to do with the way she lived, in the country of her own skin. A country that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates.” I began to understand, from that line, why we were approaching Tilo from such a distance.

NM: Yes, I loved that too!

SS: It’s her distance, her inscrutability, that defines her as a character. If we’d dove right into her head, that mystery would be shattered.

NM: This reminded me of how she described Rahel in God of Small Things, as someone perfectly contained in her own body and her deep solitude. No desire to please or impress anyone. And also as a woman who is aging but doing nothing to fight it. Which, I might add, tends to describe Roy herself beautifully.

SS: I must admit I visualized Tilo as Roy. I wonder if the inscrutable character pops up more often in literature than we realize.

NM: It’s Tilo’s deep interiority that seems to make her unforgettable to all three of the men: Dasgupta, Naga and Musa. I think she’s interesting as a foil to the fact that people are being asked to be citizens of India in a particular way — nationalism being such a pervasive, pernicious force.

And then we have a character who is staunchly answerable only to herself. Analogous to Roy, who continues to live in India and claims the right to critique it no matter what.

SS: This gets back to the idea of post-colonialism not being post. There’s been so much emphasis on the “new India,” the world’s largest democracy, the hot new tech market, the Bollywood movies that deliver a luxurious, Westernized, sanitized vision of India — more tourism video than cinema. The “new India” seems to overlook vast regions of the “real India.”

The “new India” seems to overlook vast regions of the “real India.”

NM: For example, the war being fought between the government and indigenous people over the forests in the middle of the country.

SS: And this relates to the idea of colonialism because Indians and non-resident South Asians are being told, consciously and subconsciously, to look at THIS but not THAT, to talk about this but not that. We’re losing the freedom to see, in the name of progress and globalization. We’re facing a colonization of the mind.

NM: Right — whereas Roy is brave enough to look at and talk about everything. I think that’s a major point of this book. Globalization at what cost and to whom? Who is left behind, who is slaughtered in the rush to modernize?

SS: As an immigrant, or child of immigrants, it’s a scary thing, frankly, to point out the negative things about your country — or your parents’ country. India has existed on the margins of American consciousness for so long that I, for one, want to show everyone the glitzy, shiny, progressive stuff. It’s scary to point to the inequities, the violence, the injustice.

NM: Interesting! My first book was all about the Sri Lankan civil war so I was interested in pointing out all the atrocity. But living abroad in Nigeria and then in the U.S. I was granted the privilege of safety to talk about those things in a way I couldn’t if I lived in Sri Lanka and definitely if I was Tamil and living in Sri Lanka.

SS: I’ve been asking myself what saves the book from becoming preachy — especially the blood-soaked Kashmiri sections. Is it the format? Often we’re presented with this information through old journals. There’s one section of whimsical reading comprehension exercises compiled by Tilo, in the style of a children’s workbook, but detailing individual tales of religious violence. The material is horrifying, but the format is almost humorous.

NM: Yeah, it’s almost funny, but obviously not. An incredible feat to produce that particular heartbreaking, yet funny tone.

It’s interesting to me that Amrik Singh, the government agent-torturer in Kashmir, escapes to the U.S. with his family. But clearly they cannot escape the past since many years later he ends up killing himself and his family. The implication being that Kashmir destroyed everyone’s lives. Not just those of the civilians and the rebels but even the agents of the government.

I have to add that I think this book is incredibly brave. I can’t imagine being so openly critical of so many forces in the way that Roy is. I have to say I worry for her safety.

I was in India some years ago for the Jaipur festival and was with some Indian friends of friends. A woman asked me who my influences were. I mentioned Roy and she said very casually, “Oh, the hooker with the Booker.” She had no compunction saying that. She had never read Roy but didn’t think she needed to.

SS: That’s terrible.

NM: It’s deep misogyny. There’s also a claim that she shouldn’t be writing about Dalits, etc., because she isn’t one.

SS: Which points to the question of exploitation, writing from the outside about the Dalit experience. Can a novelist write about a marginalized group that one isn’t part of? It’s a valid question, and one I’ve dealt with in writing Lucky Boy (which tells the story of an undocumented woman). The question we have to ask ourselves is, what is Roy doing with the Dalit narrative? Does she exploit it? Does she use its superficial surface details or does she delve deeply into character? Does she illuminate the humanity of the Dalit experience?

NM: As a novelist I think it’s imperative that we write about whatever we want as long as we are able to approach our subjects with respect. Otherwise every writer is limited to memoir.

As a novelist I think it’s imperative that we write about whatever we want as long as we are able to approach our subjects with respect. Otherwise every writer is limited to memoir.

SS: We won’t give away the ending, of course, but how did you feel when you read the final line and closed the book? What were you left with?

NM: I cried. A lot. The whole book just washed over me. The intensity of what she had achieved. I listened to the book on audible first and I cried at the end. Then I read the book and at the end I cried again. The second time I think because I was just in awe of the whole project and at the fact that she ends on that particular beautiful and hopeful note. I tend to do this with the ones that hit me deep. What about you?

SS: My final reaction was a sort of pain in my gut. Between my gut and my throat. Like acid reflux. It’s the pain I get when I feel possibility, when I see the dark depths of a situation and the injection of hope. So much of the beauty and power of this book lies in recognizing what Roy achieved. It lies in the knowledge of India’s history, complexities, troubles and beauty. India is a force that stands behind this book. It streams through the book like light. Maybe that’s what happens when you tell the story of a country, when you take on that impossible task and succeed.

NM: Yes! Beautiful way to wrap up that particular reading experience. Not easy reading by any means but very deeply affecting. What more can you ask for from a book? I think it’s a book many of us will be affected by and return to for decades.

Thanks so much for chatting about the book with me.

SS: Thank you.

Shanthi Sekaran lives in Berkeley, California. Her latest novel, Lucky Boy, was named an Indie Next Great Read and an Amazon Editors’ Pick. The New York Times calls it “brilliantly agonizing” and the Chicago Tribune writes that “it engage(s) empathetically with thorny geopolitical issues that feel organic and fully inhabited by her finely rendered characters.” Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Canteen Magazine, Huffington Post and Best New American Voices. She’s a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and teaches writing at CCA and St. Mary’s College.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Northern California Book Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. The Huffington Post raved, “Munaweera’s prose is visceral and indelible, devastatingly beautiful-reminiscent of the glorious writings of Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Alice Walker, who also find ways to truth-tell through fiction. The New York Times Book review called the novel, “incandescent.” The book was the Target Book Club selection for January 2016. Nayomi’s second novel, What Lies Between Us was hailed as one of the most exciting literary releases of 2016 from venues ranging from Buzzfeed to Elle magazine. Her non-fiction and short fiction are also widely published.

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