Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A critique of neo-liberal state

Contemporary India, the movers and shakers as well as people who are damned, demonised and despised in it come alive in this remarkable work of fiction marked by sharp portrayals

Photo courtesy: Penguin Random House India
Photo courtesy: Penguin Random House India
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Rajinder Singh Cheema

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is good and genuine fiction. The novel weaves intricately and magically through plots, sub-plots, varied characters, discourses of diverse regions and layers of society and miraculously makes sense of the confusion, nay, chaos.

It searches for an idea called India in diverse places. It is not a final statement at all. You only get questions to find your own answers. It is disrespect to a work of such dimensions to look for a central theme or to pinpoint the principal character.

When a deeply shocked Jahanara Begum faces the devastating truth that her fourth child was a Hijra, a wave of devastating reactions overtakes her, eventually taking her to Hazrat Sarmad with her son Aftab now termed a Hijra to be renamed Anjum, for solace in the state of bottomless sorrow. If we must have a patron saint – it is Sarmad. Decades later Anjum takes newly weds Zainab and Saddam to Sarmad’s Dargah. In Arundhati’s words: “Anjum said a prayer and asked him to bless the young couple. And Sarmad - Hazrat of utmost happiness, Saint of the Unconsoled and Solace of the Indeterminate, Blasphemer among Believers and Believers amongst Blasphemers – did”.

It is the story of silences, undercurrents and irreconcilable contradictions. The search for principal characters makes the reader travel in circles and he lands at the point from where he started. Aftab becomes Anjum – the Hijra to essentially act as an anchor person and the point of ultimate return.

Headquarter of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an abode in the graveyard, where everybody and everything returns, in a script which is in perpetual and frantic motion. In her identification with the most unfortunate ones, the ex-communicated, the deserted and the disowned of the earth, Arundhati Roy lands in Khwabgah – the home of Hijras. She dares to fathom their bleak sorrow and feel their state of irredeemable hopelessness. When one of the rioters advances to kill Anjum, in the post Godhra mayhem in Gujarat, the attacking marauder is dissuaded by his companions, nahi yaar mat maaro, hijron ka maarna apshagun hota hai.

The play and the IB officer

David Quartermaine, a candid homo-sexual, appears in the national capital from nowhere to direct a play titled Norman. He collects for the author four of the novel’s main characters. One of the main casts of the play, Biplab Dasgupta, who passes through the novel carrying the tag of his role in the play as Garson Hobart, is a well-bred Delhiite studying history at the post-graduate level. He would rise to be a senior official in the IB, who gets to serve in Kabul as well as in Srinagar and ends up as an alcoholic who cannot be trusted with a responsible job.

Nagraj Hariharan, another post graduate in history, cast as Norman in the play, comes from a similar stock. We would know him as Naga through the story. Musa @ Musa Yesvi @ Commander Gulrez, another star in the play, is from Kashmir.

All the three male characters of the play are in their own manner irresistibly drawn to a woman introduced as S. Tilotima (Tilo). All these four characters of the play, in the role assigned to them in the novel, will converge in Kashmir. Together they shall provide insight into the disturbing reality of the region. While Musa is a quiet or rock solid relatively polite face of the Kashmiri rebellion, Naga is a bold reporter on human rights violations in the valley widely regarded as independent and sympathetic by the dissenters and the crusaders notwithstanding a secret settlement with the powers that be. Biplab as an insider of Kashmir returns to tie the ends and put the pieces together. Tilo, represents the Pan-India dimensions of the resistance, the illegitimate child of a Christian Syrian from Kerala identifying dangerously with the uprising in Kashmir, apparently because of her bond with Musa.

It is a story which cannot be summarised. There is a direct reference to Macando and magical realism breathes through the pages frequently. But then there is so much reality which is gruesomely real, sans any magic.

Sharp caricatures

Sharp caricaturing and deeply disturbing dark humour are likely to be remembered by the discerning reader. The thumbnail caricatures of the High and Mighty reveal consummate skill and creativity. This is how we are introduced to Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “The Poet-Prime Minister made a lisping speech, eloquent, except for long, exasperating pauses when he lost the thread of his argument, which was quite often. He was an old man, but had a young man’s way of tossing his head when he spoke, like the Bombay film stars of the 1960s.”

Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation from the Red Fort is recapitulated: “Anjum watched the Trapped Rabbit – who barely had a chest at all – standing in his bulletproof enclosure with the Red Fort looming behind him, reeling off dense statistics about imports and exports to a restive crowd that had no idea what he was talking about. He spoke like a marionette. Only his lower jaw moved. Nothing else did. His bushy white eyebrows looked as though they were attached to his spectacles and not his face. His expression never changed. At the end of his speech he raised his hand in a limp salute and signed off with a high, reedy Jai Hind. (Victory to India!).”

Great Anna Hazare, who shook the throne of Delhi for a while, makes a graphic appearance: “In his interviews he smiled his gummy Farex-baby smile and described the joys of his simple, celibate life in his room that was attached to the village temple, and explained how the Gandhian practice of rati sadhana – semen retention – had helped him to keep up his strength during his fast. To demonstrate this, on the third day of his fast, he got off his bed, jogged around the stage in his white kurta and dhoti and flexed his flappy biceps. People laughed and cried and brought their children to him to be blessed.”

Arvind Kejriwal – the voice of the people occupies his own space through subtle broad-strokes: “Mr Aggarwal, a slim, middle-aged man with a clipped moustache, wearing a safari shirt, terry cotton trousers and a printed Gandhi cap that said I am against Corruption are You)?had the curt, authoritative air of a bureaucrat, which was indeed what he had been until recently.

…….

In a few months, he would jettison his mascot and go on to become a mainstream politician – a veritable treasure house of many of the qualities he had once denounced – and a formidable opponent of Gujarat ka Lalla”.

…..

Mr Aggarwal’s singular advantage as an emerging politican was his un-singular looks. He looked like many people. Everything about him, the way he dressed, the way he spoke, the way he thought, was neat and tidy, clipped and groomed. He had a high voice and an understated, matter-of-fact manner, except when he stood before a microphone.

……

“He, a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind.

Of course, the instant Prime Minister is present in a towering manner. His larger than life portrait is sketched while he is still the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat, a loyal member of the Organization (as were the Home Minister and the Prime Minister), was, at the time, up for re-election. He appeared on TV in a saffron kurta with a slash of vermilion on his forehead, and with cold, dead eyes ordered that the burnt bodies of the Hindu pilgrims be brought to Ahmedabad, the capital of the state, where they were to be put on display for the general public to pay their respect.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a damning critique of the neo-liberal state ruled by multinational corporations and glorified by high dams, highways and the most modern technology. It is a testament of stark truth and nothing but the truth. No reputations are indemnified and no crowns are safe.

It is not a book of hope as it tends to project in the end, but it certainly is the book of courage and defiance. A book we badly need in these times of lurking fears around us.

Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy; 464 pages; Rs 599; Publisher: Penguin

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