Arundhati Roy Returns To Fiction In Fury

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” (Knopf) is a book that people have been waiting twenty years for. In the late nineteen-nineties, when Roy was in her thirties, she did some acting and screenwriting—she had married a filmmaker, Pradip Krishen—but mostly, she says, she made her living as an aerobics instructor. She had also been working on a novel for five years. In 1997, she published that book, “The God of Small Things.” Within months, it had sold four hundred thousand copies and won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to a non-expatriate Indian—an Indian who actually lived in India—or to an Indian woman. Roy became the most famous novelist on the subcontinent, and she probably still is, which is a considerable achievement, given that, after “The God of Small Things,” she became so enmeshed in the politics of her homeland that, for the next two decades, she didn’t produce any more fiction.

Now, finally, the second novel has come out, and it is clear that her politics have been part of its gestation. “The God of Small Things” was about one family, primarily in the nineteen-sixties, and though it included some terrible events, its sorrows were private, muffled, personal. By contrast, “The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness” is about India, the polity, during the past half century or so, and its griefs are national. This does not mean that Roy’s powers are stretched thin, or even that their character has changed. In the new book, as in the earlier one, what is so remarkable is her combinatory genius. Here is the opening of the novel:
At magic hour, when the sun is gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke. 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. The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase the production of milk, works—worked—like nerve gas on white-backed vultures. Each chemically relaxed milk-producing cow or buffalo that died became poisoned vulture bait. As cattle turned into better dairy machines, as the city ate more ice cream, butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy and chocolate-chip, as it drank more mango milkshake, vultures’ necks began to droop as though they were tired and simply couldn’t stay awake. Silver beards of saliva dripped from their beaks, and one by one they tumbled off their branches, dead.
This is l’heure bleue, beloved of poets, but now it is filled with bats and crows, like a haunted house. We get ice cream—butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy—but it is made out of poison. The birds have silver beards, like Santa Claus, but that’s because they’re drooling, in preparation for dying. And what kind of birds are they? Vultures, which live by eating the dead. This paragraph is a little discourse on industrial pollution, but it is also an act of irony, almost a comedy. At the same time, it is very sad. Once we’ve eaten our ice cream and died, there won’t even be anyone to clean up the spot where we fell. All the vultures will have died before us.

As the book begins, in what appears to be the nineteen-fifties, Jahanara Begum, a Delhi housewife who has waited for six years, through three daughters, to get a boy baby, goes into labor, and soon the midwife tells her that her wish has come true. She has a son. That night is the happiest of her life. In the morning, she unswaddles the baby and explores “his tiny body—eyes, nose, head, neck, armpits, fingers, toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed girl-part.” Her heart constricts. She shits down her leg. Her child is a hermaphrodite.

Jahanara thinks that maybe the girl-part will close up, disappear. But month after month, year after year, it remains stubbornly there, and as the boy, Aftab, grows he becomes unmistakably girly: “He could sing Chaiti and Thumri with the accomplishment and poise of a Lucknow courtesan.” His father discourages the singing. He stays up late telling the child stories of heroic deeds done by men, but, when Aftab hears how Genghis Khan fought a whole army single-handedly to retrieve his beautiful bride from the ruffians who have kidnapped her, all he wants is to be the bride. Sad, alone—he can’t go to school; the other children tease him—he stands on the balcony of his family’s house and watches the streets below, until one day he spies a fascinating creature, a tall, slim-hipped woman, wearing bright lipstick, gold sandals, and a shiny green shalwar kameez. “He rushed down the steep stairs into the street and followed her discreetly while she bought goats’ trotters, hairclips, guavas, and had the strap of her sandals fixed.”

That day, and for many days, he follows her home, to a house with a blue doorway. He finds out that her name is Bombay Silk, and that her house—called the House of Dreams—shelters seven others like her: Bulbul, Razia, Heera, Baby, Nimmo, Gudiya, and Mary. All of them were born male, more or less, and all of them want to be women, or feel that they already are. Some have had their genitals surgically altered; others not. They make their living mainly as prostitutes. Aftab thinks that he will die if he can’t be like them. Finally, by dint of running errands for them, he gains entry into their house. The following year, when he is fifteen, they let him move in. He becomes a full member of the community, and changes his name to Anjum. His father never again speaks to him—or to her, as we should say now. Her mother sends her a hot meal every day, and the two occasionally meet at the local shrine: Anjum, six feet tall, in a spangled scarf, and tiny Jahanara in a black burqa. “Sometimes they held hands surreptitiously.”

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