Many who have already finished reading Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness might, in retrospective, flinch with disapproval or reflexively curl their eyebrow at the use of the word “fiction” for this novel. This very instinctive reciprocation points a finger to a whole set of less-explored arguments calling for further interrogation, surrounding the entrenched politics of the postcolonial novel from the global South where the nation-state becomes a protagonist and engenders a sharp collision between mainstream factual historiography and non-statist fictional historicality. This is a story that urges and initiates its readers into the practice of thinking, irrespective of its overwhelming thematic overbearing, the intricacies of unnumbered strategically accommodated sub-plots, meta-narratives and the author’s ingenuous fictionalized portrayal of reality (or should one say, realization of the potential of mobilizing literature’s indulgent boundaries of fictionality to portray reality?) notwithstanding its problematic ruptures. Two of the key features of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that seem to stand out for continued dialogues, happen to be the politics of implemented narrative strategies and the pervasive haunting of the ethics of postcolonial spectralities.
Roy’s strategic deployment of various narrative strategies to substantiate the multiple stories she attempts to disseminate, consciously or otherwise, plays out effectively in confronting the anomalous gaps plaguing the Indian nation-state. She achieves this through a direct confrontation with what Marxist theorist Aijaz Ahmad calls “ethnocentricity” and “cultural myopia” of the exclusionary Eurocentric literatures dominating humanities, in his critique of Frederic Jameson’s essay ‘Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital’. Roy’s narratorial transculturalism brings together miscellaneous narratives of suffering and injustice under the rubric of the very nation-state which often reiterates a grandiloquent narrative of peacefully coexistent cultural diversities under its guardianship in mass media. Roy creates a revealing collage of the decaying folds within the nation-state’s expansive cartography. Roy’s narrative experimentation with space as overlapping embodiments attributes immense potential to the co-existing geographical and cultural dimensions of spatial heterogeneities in India, together with their complex interweave of forceful segregations, colonial and neocolonial partitions and resistant reclamations of imposed borders. Cityscapes of Delhi and Kashmir come alive in her novel as collective embodiments of the different kinds of living conditions and instances of utilization of public and private spaces, often in stark contrast to each other, through her pictorial depiction. Like scars and blemishes which refuse to disappear under make-up, stories of survival and victimhood revolving around Gujarat riots, Babri Masjid massacre, Kashmir’s genocide, Una incident and Operation Green Hunt, to name a few, spill out over the facades of globalization, developmentalism and neoliberal modernity of the nation-state. At times, it seems as if too many issues are being put forth on the platter than the readers can ordinarily consume, forcing them to redirect their thoughts towards the many headlines in newspaper columns that are usually glanced at habitually, and forgotten over a cup of tea.
This shift of focus from cultural heterogeneity to qualitative and quantitative heterogeneity of violence inflicted on minority identities or marginalized communities is particularly crucial for any analyses of the democratizing discourses ruptured by the nation-state. According to Fredric Jameson, the so-called third world’s identity is manufactured by experiences of colonialism and imperialism, i.e., shaped by the first world; for this reason, the former’s literatures are all essentially national allegories. Ahmad’s opposition to this simplistic conclusion is generated by the simultaneous assumptions that accompany it, namely, the valorization of nationalism as the “necessary, exclusively desirable ideology” and the categorization of the nation-states affected by colonial or neocolonial onslaughts as merely templates or guinea pigs of history. It would be wrong to not call The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a national allegory, but objectionably simplistic to call it only so. Perhaps, as Ahmad might approve, it can be called a novel of desirous utopian sociality in lieu of a discourse which disapproves of both orthodox insular nationalism and the exclusionary culture of postcolonial neoliberalism in its underlying essence. Roy’s narratorial attempt can be called, in a sense, a significant turn towards the existent historical trends of social-realism in vernacular literatures through provincialization of generic forms of depiction, bringing the embodied and material experiences of the underprivileged into the foray of mainstream reception.
The novel, divided into twelve parts, forms a layered plot-structure where different voices and subjective perspectives alongside that of the author-narrator, interspersed with poetry and multiple linguistic interventions, take turns to contribute to the progression and denouement of the whole story. Like Argentine author Manuel Puig’s seminal novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) where the narrative voice is a combination of interpersonal dialogues and meta-fictional transcripts of surveillance reports and police interrogations aimed at producing a sense of authenticity and dramatic irony, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness combines the traditional descriptive voice of the author-narrator with the contradictory ideological voices of Biplab Dasgupta (Garson Hobart), a government official working in the Intelligence bureau; the propagandist pamphlet of Dr. Azad Bhartiya, a protestor on hunger-strike at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi; the psycho-social evaluation reports of Amrik Singh, a military officer in charge of counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir, and his wife Loveleen Kaur; hand-written self-reminder notes, scripted down stories and press clippings in journals and diary entries by S. Tilottama, an architect of whimsical nature and ambiguous identity who nurtures the abandoned baby of Revathy or Comrade Maase, a worker of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army in Bastar; a letter written by Revathy to S. Tilottama; the hallucinatory monologues and discontinuous utterances of Tilottama’s mother in her death-bed that had been written down in a notebook by her; witness testimonies from the legal cases of murdered or disappeared civilians in Kashmir that were collected and preserved by Musa, Tilo’s lover and a militant leader in Kashmir, and so on.
Like Eduardo Galeano who confronted the cultural amnesia of Latin-American postcolonial societies through short, written vignettes for the sustenance of collective memories in books like the Days and Nights of Love and War (1978), and Saadat Hasan Manto who penned Siyah Hashye (Black Borders, 1948), a collection of disjointed narratorial sketches on communal violence in the wake of India’s Partition in 1947, the conglomerate of discrete narrative modes and their contents in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness employed by Roy, especially the vignettes in Tilo’s journal, reflect alternative realities of the lived experiences of people with an uncompromising obligation to facticity that creates a poignant sense of despair and unease. The purpose of incorporating these unconventional generic modes of narration is probably to create a kaleidoscopic story-telling premise marked by unbiasedness and detachment, where, in the Bakhtinian sense of polyphony, a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” challenges the monologic authoritative objectiveness of unidimensional narratives. Thus, Roy attempts to recreate the indigenous story-telling traditions in an innovative sense to meet the demands of contemporary social realism.
In an ironical remodulation of poetic narrative style into prosaic narrative mode, albeit with inclusion of appropriate poetic fragments in significant intermissions, Roy instrumentalizes an imperative yet sufficiently impoverished political maneuver- the writing of subaltern history and socio-cultural realism from below- which she reflects through the medium of literature. In History at the Limit of World-History veteran subaltern theorist Ranajit Guha has criticized stereotypical South Asian historiography which is overpowered by a dominant preoccupation with linear, statist origination and movement of historicism. They ritualistically reinstate the centrality of the (glorified) nation-state in the formulation of history and subject-hood of a people, thereby replacing the essence of nationalism with the demand of a bloated, misconstrued and exhibitionist patriotism. Guha refers to Rabindranath Tagore’s essay ‘Historicality in Literature’ (Sahitye Aitihashikata) where Tagore insists on turning the gaze of historiography into the interior worlds of the common people and speculate how public historical events affect their private worlds and how they reciprocate to them, something Tagore himself acknowledges to have accomplished in his collection of short stories titled Galpaguchha. Moreover, instead of weighing down historicality into a facile invariant narrative, the narration of the everydayness of lived experiences creates a subversive space where the hidden privations and internalized violence are deconstructed through public manifestation.
Most of the characters around whom the main story with its several digressive tributaries are woven, are socially, politically, culturally as well as sexually marginalized individuals relegated at the periphery of a heteronormative class-conscious class biased social imaginary. Saddam Hussain, whose original name is Dayachand, is a young Dalit man born in a family of skinners. He goes around riding his pet pony, rescuing discarded pet creatures, doing odd jobs and plotting the revenge of the mob-lynching of his father who was falsely accused of stealing and killing cows. Anjum, born as Aftab with both male and female genitalia, identifies herself as a woman and takes pleasure in nurturing sentiments of motherhood. She lives in the haveli with a blue door called Khwabgah (House of Dreams) with fellow trans-women until she makes the city graveyard her home, raising walls around the graves of people she had known or heard stories of, making homes out of the dead. Anjum’s sense of history is shaped by her father Mulaqat Ali’s dignified imaginative reconstructions of a Mughal ancestry and his affinity towards Urdu rhetorical traditions on the one hand, and her mother Jahanara Begum’s search for historical validity and religious sanctioning at Hazrat Sarmad Shahid’s dargah on the other. Moreover, her sense of selfhood is further refurbished by Ustad Kulsoom Bi of the Delhi Gharana who oversaw the workings in Khwabgah and asserted historical and cultural substantiality for her trans-women disciples through her reinterpretations of alternative archives, like photographs and light-and-sound videos. Moreover, Anjum converts the graveyard into a hotel for the disadvantaged, called Jannat Guest House, a center for funeral services for the socially ostracized, and an animal shelter for wounded and aged creatures. In this way, statist attempts at spatial segregation and urban gentrification are repeatedly challenged by the characters like Anjum through resignification of public spaces.
According to postcolonial theorist Pheng Cheah in ‘Spectral Nationality: The Living on [sur-vie] of the Postcolonial Nation in Neocolonial Globalization’, the ideology of the nation-state presupposes a vitalist ontology that opposes life to death, spirit to matter/mechanism, and living concrete actuality to abstract ghostly form. Roy’s novel attempts to jeopardize this underlying ethics of vitalist ontology and reinscribe the spectral reality of the postcolonial nation-state where the modalities of “becoming” from “being” are manufactured through a cultivated process of erasure of those traditions, communities and social formations that are marked as disposable. The graveyard that Anjum lives in and transforms, like Khwabgah, becomes emblematic of a nonconformist spatiality, a dusri Duniya, where the societal rejects reclaim their systematically subjugated identities. In the process, the graveyard becomes an alternative space for dissent. The co-existence of biologically surviving individuals with practical immediacies and necessities of life, and the spirits of dead persons with a spectropoetic permanence of presence is sustained by memories, souvenirs and secularization of rituals. Space comes to be redefined and reassigned repeatedly as a dynamic incorporation that reflects radical possibilities of communitarian rehabilitation and recovery of repressed identities, alongside mirroring the traditional forms of oppression in its authoritative formulations.
Many critics have compared The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with Salman Rushdie’s use of magical realism in Midnight’s Children, but the comparison appears to be quite unfounded. Rushdie incorporated a contra-realistic thematic framework that sanctions the intervention of external supernatural elements for narrating the story of exploitation, deprivation or degradation and subsequent resuscitation of a nation, stretching from pre-colonial to the postcolonial period in its history. The protagonists of his novel are endowed with miraculous magical powers. In a sense, Roy’s protagonists are also specially enabled individuals, not in terms of certain inexplicable, supernatural qualities, but in terms of their capacities to reinstate their socially or biologically subjugated identities and carve out an exemplary space for their atypical modes of living within the status quo itself. Thus, contrary to Rushdie, Roy redirects the readers’ sensitivity towards miscellaneous realities of survival and dissentient modes of living of these oppressed identities that have and are continually undergoing myriad kinds of obliterations, but which simultaneously continue to resist obliteration and haunt modern social life. Thereby, they reveal a spectral permanency in their persistence to exist and make visible their invisibilised and forgotten histories. This spectral permanency is characterized by a continuous susceptibility to, in the words of Cheah, “a certain kind of death that can no longer be thought within a vitalist ontology that asserts the unequivocal delimitation of death by life and the victory of the latter over the former”. And yet, this very embodied subjectivity of marginalized voices, by virtue of its transgressive potential, enables resistance.
This spectral quality of their being is not paranormal in a literal or ontological sense, but palpably realistic in a metaphorical sense of historical subjectivity. As Pheng Cheah correctly points out, the corrective ideology of a postcolonial nation-state does not, or rather, should not revolve around attempts to sublate or remove the “other” (in this context the Dalits, Muslims, transgendered individuals, and likewise) but resides in accommodating the “other” that dislocates the official rhetoric of postcolonial nationalism even as it mirrors the constitutive self-identity of its people. Roy’s novel, in a prophetic manner, turns attention to this very self-identity of people characterized by their heterogeneity of cultures, and the spectral permanency they have assumed through their continuous resistance to hegemonies of caste, class and patriarchy, while at the same time reflecting on their potential of curving out radical spaces for harmonious co-existence. Admittedly, The God of Small Things remains the more loved novel of the two in terms of its creative investments, its inimitable poetic language and the power of narration. But, if someone has to choose one of the two to grace that bedside table from where it can prick and prod our conscience, or cultivate remembrance of our personal and collective histories, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness remains the obvious chosen one; for forgetting might be a vicious political tool, but it isn’t necessarily an invincible one, not at least to another political tool of a kind called remembering which is radically emancipatory.