Anjum is a hijra (third gender, or transwoman) living in a Dehli graveyard and helping to raise a baby that was found abandoned on the footpath; one of her main co-parents is Tilo, an architect/illustrator-cum-Kashmiri-freedom-fighter (or, at least, supporter of the struggle) from Kerala: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness unravels these two women’s stories, as well as those of their friends and families, tracing sixty years of Indian and Kashmiri history and insisting on the primacy of love (parental, fraternal, romantic: lots of love here) through both war and peace.
It’s twenty years since The God of Small Things took (stole, insists many a begrudger, even now) the Booker Prize, and Roy’s spent the intervening years working as a political activist, journalist and non-fiction writer – as well as, of course, composing this long-awaited second novel, a book that, amongst other concerns, focusses upon the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and the Indo-Pakistan war in Kashmir. And man, how the reviewers have opened fire. From ‘Pff, Roy, stick to finger-painting slogans on banners!’ to ‘Only a moron would mess with chronology! Is she a moron?’ (okay, we’re paraphrasing, but not too wildly), the consensus is that to deal directly with the intricacies of conflict and complicity is a mug’s game (one ought to be more metaphorical; to explain what happened is simply too crass) and that anything but a straight A-Z narrative structure will explode the poor readers’ feeble circuitry. It’s hard not to read misogyny into this response (and, yeah, these reactions have also come from women; and, yeah, the point still holds): I mean, how very dare a woman tackle the vast scope of violence and social injustice that characterises recent Indian (and Kashmiri) history, and how very, very dare she do so in a way that challenges the reader to actually concentrate? The lack of a single narrative through-line and the related lack of an obvious time-line, as well as the lack of an Urdu and/or Hindustani glossary are all actual recorded complaints, and so I’ve got to wonder: if this had had, say, Rohinton Mistry’s name emblazoned on the cover rather than Arundhati Roy’s, would it have been categorised as ambitious rather than formless, challenging rather than confusing? And are we in the West seriously demanding the Queen’s English at all times? (Junot Diaz has tackled this at great length, so I’m going to suffice with a pff of my own.)
So: the book’s structure is complex. Characters and incidents are mentioned without elaboration, and each successive section (each POV switch) digs a little deeper at a different angle, so that yes, the reader moves incrementally from a position of slight bewilderment (‘Am I supposed to know who this person is?’) to one of greater and greater knowledge, as the layers (ideologies, political games, cover-ups, willful ignorance) are exposed and the characters and their actions revealed. The effect, rather than one of slackness or formlessness, is one of enveloping the reader into the conspiratorial, shadowy world of militants and intelligence agents: by the time you figure out who, say, Amrik Singh or Gulrez really is, you’ve simultaneously realised the limitations of the previous narrator’s perspective, or his/her duplicity in refusing to divulge the truth; you want to reread earlier sections to see how Roy pulled it off. This makes it a really engaging read, even despite how bloody and painful are the scenes they narrate – and man, are they bloody and painful. Roy’s work as a journalist and an activist have fed and shaped the book: she doesn’t shy away from the tortures and the rapes, the massacres and the riots that have characterised the lives of the citizens of Srinagar and New Delhi, and, despite suggestions elsewhere that she has thus ‘overexplained’, the effect rather is that of a refusal to politely look away from reality, to construct a more shapely version of the book’s events, less stained by the exhausting concatenation of real-life horror.
It’s not a perfect book. Anjum’s sections and those of Tilo and her various male friend/lovers feel too divergent: while they’re thematically congruent (looking at parents and kids, and issues around abandonment, identity and reinvention) and individually interesting (though I was more drawn to the Kashmiri elements), they’re a little jarring in conjunction with one another in a way that seemed less deliberate than other tonal clashes. The opening, in particular, had a folk-tale, Rushdie-like feel that seemed unwarranted: Anjum’s story is so strong that it needed little bolstering. But once past that initial origin-story hump, the book takes off: it’s long and it’s complicated, but it’ll reward you for your full attention.
Any Cop?: Way better than the naysayers are claiming. Not for the faint of heart/stomach, though.