By Adora Svitak
Who gets the luxury of telling mundane stories? This was a question I asked myself after finishing Arundhati Roy’s sweeping novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book that takes readers on a journey from the graveyard in Old Delhi where hijra (transgender) Anjum lives in an improvised home to the bloodied walls of interrogation rooms in conflict-ridden Kashmir, from a dying woman’s bedside in Kerala and back to Delhi again. Like Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, Ministry does not shy away from sociopolitical issues. If anything, it attacks them head-on. Roy’s twenty-year stint in polemical non-fiction comes through in the political ambitions of the novel’s text; as my friend Rishabh commented on Twitter, “The boat was rowed farther in politics in this one when compared to Small Things.” Fitting metaphor, considering that a boat provides a location of bittersweet interactions, joy and tragedy, in this novel too (one of the characters, the Keralan architect Tilo, meets the man she loves in a houseboat in Srinagar, but that same houseboat becomes a place of violent arrest and confrontation with Indian forces in Kashmir).
That instance is one of many recollections of violence in the novel. Anjum sees gruesome acts of violence committed on men and women (the men “folded,” the women “unfolded” before being “torn from limb to limb,” Roy writes, lending a characteristic lyricism even to the most macabre of circumstances) during 2002 communal violence in Gujarat. Tilo sees her lover’s friend beaten to death. The second unwanted child discovered and adopted in the book is named after the child of Tilo’s lover, prematurely dead after being shot by Indian security forces. That second child is the offspring of a Maoist fighter who was gang-raped, described in a letter toward the end of the book. The violence serves as a pointed critique of the Indian state. But it means that there is hardly a character in the book allowed to be innocent. It is the omnipresence of violence that made me remark to a friend, “I can rattle off these characters’ sufferings, but can’t imagine what it’d be like to sit next to them and watch TV.” The political ambitions of a book coming at the cost of deeper characterization is hardly new. Characters in dystopian works of fiction like George Orwell’s 1984 are frequently forgettable. But Roy’s writing in The God of Small Things was riveting because of her characters, not in spite of them, and it’s difficult not to compare Ministry unfavorably in this regard.
In her paper “Exciting Tales of Exotic Dark India: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger,” University of Lisbon scholar Ana Cristina Mendes critiques the rise of “the idea of an ostensible Dark India,” one that “has been acquiring of late a significant exotic cachet in the cultural industries” and manufactures a new “object of exoticist discourses.” Evaluated through this lens, Ministry appears to be a continuation of this tradition, presenting an India in which very little is going right and a great deal is going wrong. In a time of ascendant Hindu nationalism, the book’s message is certainly important. But it is a message that Roy has delivered before in her non-fiction works and highly visible political advocacy. The decision to write a work of fiction should always be animated by a strong desire—less to prove a point, and more to tell a human story. Even in its slight mundanities.
This is a luxury we extend with regularity to American writers. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings covers the intertwined lives of men and women who meet at an arts camp as teenagers and then grow up. Autumn by Ali Smith covers the friendship between two neighbors (a songwriter and the child of a single parent). Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is literally about twenty-five years of the life of a Maine schoolteacher. I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s books, but I also get the sense that they, too, follow white people for decades as they marry and break up and get cancer and debate about inheritances. These books are bestsellers, and they are not exactly the stuff of Dark America. Where are the Man Booker shortlist books from the subcontinent in which most of the characters die from natural causes? This is not to say that stories highlighting corruption and structural inequality and loss do not make great literature, or should not be published and celebrated. It’s merely to say that there is a value to more mundane stories, too, but somehow the Western literary world fails to extend the luxury of telling them to people who come from the wrong side of the tracks—locally or globally.
Increasingly, creators are taking the reins into their own hands to produce new kinds of narratives, however. Saudi Arabia is a place often figured as exotic, and understandably discussed through the lens of human rights abuses; it might not seem like the default location for a film about a young girl who wants to buy a bike. But a female director set her film Wadjda, a refreshing and sweet movie, in Saudi Arabia. The societal context of treatment of women is not glossed over in the film, but the narrative belongs to Wadjda, not to a message. At the end of the film, you are rooting for Wadjda because you love her character, not because you’re thinking about what her character represents. In Ministry of Utmost Happiness, on the other hand, caring about characters’ lives and outcomes takes on an almost dutiful valence. There is clear right and wrong. This clarity is a death knell for characterization, however. Where most writers might provide dimensionality with specific details to make characters real—little mundanities, if you will—Roy loads on more traumas.
Every person is more than the sum total of things that have been done to them. Ultimately, there is a deep political power in obstinately telling the supposedly mundane stories of people who are rarely recognized by history—and not just in the moment their temple meets the barrel of a gun.