Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cemetary of Outcasts

“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” by Arundhati Roy, 2017

There must be a trend in Indian fiction to have ironic titles that do not reflect the real nature of India.  Roy’s first work of fiction in many years, it interweaves the story of various ‘losers’ whose lives are damaged by the conservative Hindu nativism paid for by the “millionaire God men" that now control the political scene in India.  This is political fiction, where individuals, love, children, babies and family stories are inextricably tied to social reality, not escapes from it. 

A Tourist Destination!
The book opens with the story of a boy Aftab who wanted to be a girl and became an unhappy ‘hijra’ named Anjum after a somewhat botched sex-change operation.  She joins a collective of hijras in Delhi, who help each other in the very conservative atmosphere of Indian sexuality.  At first you think that Roy is going to tell a story about the most trendy present liberal topic, transsexuals.  But then the focus widens.  The famous pogrom in Gurjurat after 9/11 affects Anjum, and reference is made to the chief minister of Gujurat, who was directing the pogrom. That would be Narenda Modi, but in this story, unnamed.  Modi is now the Hindu supremist and neo-liberal Prime Minster of India and a welcome guest to the U.S.

Anjum ends up leaving a home of hijras and going to live in a graveyard in Delhi.  From sleeping on a rug there she builds huts around graves of those she knows, and starts to run a mortuary with help from other surplus people.  Ultimately many outcasts come to live in the graveyard, which is certainly a metaphor for something.

Kashmir - India's Palestine
The occupation of Kashmir by the Indian Army forms the political heart of the story.  The occupation has been going on since Partition in 1947. As Roy puts it:            
            “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing happens there’s lots to write about.  That can’t be done in Kashmir.  It’s not sophisticated.” 

Notice the slam against post-modernist fiction - excessively detailed stories about nothing.

The activities of Islamic terrorist groups allows the Indian Army to apply its own form of state terrorism to the population of Kashmir, mostly Muslims.  It is to be an occupation that never ends, as the Indian Army supplies some terrorist groups with ammunition to keep the pot boiling.  Unsurprisingly many police in India are brutal thugs – a characteristic of police all over the world and not a secret at this point.

A quartet of characters revolve around the situation in Kashmir, who all first met in school.  One is now a reporter who is also a collaborator, Naga.  One part of the quartet, 'Garson Hobart', is a lovelorn secret police officer and gets to narrate for a time. One is a Kashmiri Muslim nationalist leader, Musa.  One is a woman who loves him and begins to understand the situation in Kashmir, Tilo.    Their blood-thirsty enemy is a secret police commander in Kashmir, Amrik Singh.  Ultimately Kashmir needs self-determination, but that word never reaches these pages, although its meaning does.

Both Anjum and Tilo are searching for babies, as they are unable to have them normally.  Roy seems to think the babies are the optimistic future.  I'm not so sure.  Nothing guarantees a baby growing up to be anything but a copy of what already exists.

In the process, Roy describes many corrupt, absurd or sad facts of Indian life.  An ‘artist’ walks around with shit attached to his clothes as an artistic statement.  Heartless young and rich Indians find caste status a key in their treatment of the world.  A security guard not allowed to wear sunglasses, whose eyes are burned by watching over a stainless steel statute that catches the blazing sun.  A former leftist journalist who condemns aspects of Indian rule in Kashmir while secretly working for the military and police.  A profusion of fake products in the whole economy, including even the animals in the Delhi zoo.  Clothes taken off dead bodies and re-sold.  'Anti-corruption' campaigns ultimately run by the corrupters.  The idiotic Indian media - not much different than our own.  And on and on.

As to the writing, Roy makes up some great words like ‘smallwigs.’  She comments how stories of misery never go anywhere in the "international supermarkets of grief.”  'Telling your story' is ultimately not enough...  She writes almost surreal sections that are sometimes funny, acid or beautiful.  This is Roy describing the ‘modernization’ of India: 

“Skyscrapers and steel factories sprang up where forests used to be, rivers were bottled and sold in supermarkets, fish were tinned, mountains mined and turned into shining missiles.  Massive dams lit up the cities like Christmas trees.  Everyone was happy.”

Then several times Roy transcribes long sections of dictated notes full of random thoughts by various characters that do not cohere.  I frankly skipped them.  The book has no plot really.  It focuses on the characters interweaving around their fate of being outsiders and the parallel cruel occupation of Kashmir.  This occupation is  another unknown story.  Bringing it's reality to readers attention is the most progressive part of this book.

Other books on India reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left. "Annihilation of Caste," “The Last Man in the Tower,” "The God Market,” “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” "The Story of My Assassins" and various earlier books by Roy – “Walking with the Comrades,” “Notes on Democracy,” and "Capitalism - A Ghost Story." 

Red Frog
August 8, 2017 

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