The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (2017) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a story of Kashmir. It is a story of the downtrodden peoples of India, of the second-class quasi-citizens, of those at the edges of society who actually make up the large part of India’s population. It is a story of those left behind, those ignored, those who protest the status quo, the communists, the Marxists, the Maoists, who cry for justice for all.
It is a story of fiction that starts off in the poorest neighborhoods of Delhi where a young girl is born in a boy’s body. She has both parts and must decide which to keep. She names herself Anjum and moves into a community of fellow travelers, making a living in this community.
There is the starving professional, professorial protester, Dr. Azad Bharatiya. There is a man who named himself Saddam Hussein. There are four university friends who go their separate ways, crossing paths again and again throughout the dingy, evil history of India’s occupation of Kashmir. S. Tilottama is a reclusive young architect who doesn’t work as an architect. Garson Hobart (Biplab Dasgupta) works in the Indian secret service, helping her out from time to time as well as being her landlord in latter years. Musa Yeswi drifts into the Kashmir conflict on the side of the militants, rising through the ranks—but only after his wife and daughter are killed by casual, careless Indian troops firing indiscriminately into a crowd out of fear at an exploding drinks container. His daughter is Miss Jebeen the first. And, finally, there is the rudderless and therefore successful “journalist” Nagaraj Hariharan, to whom Tilo is married for years, though her affair with Musa continues throughout. It’s complicated.
Garson tells the story retrospectively, having moved back into the apartment that he’d rented to Tilo after she’d left for Anjum’s compound built on a graveyard, where she finally finds peace and happiness in a community that includes her “daughter” Miss Jebeen the second. Garson goes through all of Tilo’s notes about Musa’s activities but, instead of using it against them all in his capacity of high-level Indian secret-service operative, he becomes convinced of Kashmir’s side of the argument—that India should remove itself and leave them people free.
The story is told out of order (as was The God of Small Things) and most of the people lead very unorthodox lives. Roy is highly critical of the direction of Indian society, highly critical of the rules-that-be, of the duplicitous middle class. The path that India has take is similar to that taken by the US: the historical and cultural racism of the caste system has the same disastrous effect as the endemic racism in America.
“Then came Partition. God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.”
“What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.”
“numbers of the Bird Hospital, Phoolan Devi, the surrendered dacoit”
“her from Iraq where he seemed to have decided to live.”
“Around her the city sprawled for miles. Thousand-year-old sorceress, dozing, but not asleep, even at this hour. Gray flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe, looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheater where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries. But this was to be the dawn of her resurrection. Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore.”
“The passengers looked out of their car windows and saw only the new apartment they planned to buy, the Jacuzzi they had just installed and the ink that was still wet on the sweetheart deal they had just closed. They were calm from their meditation classes and glowing from yoga practice.”
“The summer of the city’s resurrection had also been the summer of scams—coal scams, iron-ore scams, housing scams, insurance scams, stamp-paper scams, phone-license scams, land scams, dam scams, irrigation scams, arms and ammunition scams, petrol-pump scams, polio-vaccine scams, electricity-bill scams, school-book scams, God Men scams, drought-relief scams, car-number-plate scams, voter-list scams, identity-card scams—in which politicians, businessmen, businessmen-politicians and politician-businessmen had made off with unimaginable quantities of public money.”
“Gulabiya would lose his job in the morning. Thousands like him would line up hoping to replace him. (One might even be the street poet himself.) But for now, Gulabiya slept soundly and dreamed deep. In his dream he had enough money to feed himself and send a little home to his family in his village. In his dream his village still existed. It wasn’t at the bottom of a dam reservoir. Fish didn’t swim through his windows. Crocodiles didn’t knife through the high branches of the Silk Cotton trees. Tourists didn’t go boating over his fields, leaving rainbow clouds of diesel in the sky.”
“Ironically both of them were on the pavement that night to escape their past and all that had circumscribed their lives so far. And yet, in order to arm themselves for battle, they retreated right back into what they sought to escape, into what they were used to, into what they really were.”
“I don’t want dollars. Capitalism is like poisoned honey. People swarm to it like bees. I don’t go to it.”
“maader chod behen chod maa ki choot behen ka lauda. (Urdu for “Motherfucker sisterfucker your mother’s cunt your sister’s cock.”)”
“I feel a rush of anger at those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country. Frankly, they can only do it because they are allowed to. And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy. I would not be crass enough to say this too often in public, but the truth is that it gives me great pride to be a servant of the Government of India.”
“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist—continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.”
“It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores—as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers—life went on as before.”
“The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked—like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage.”
“(Irresponsible, virulently anti-India dailies that exaggerated body counts and got their facts wrong had their uses too—they undermined the local media in general and made it easier for us to tar them all with the same brush. To tell you the truth, we even funded some of them.)”
“She remembered reading somewhere that even after people died, their hair and nails kept growing. Like starlight, traveling through the universe long after the stars themselves had died. Like cities. Fizzy, effervescent, simulating the illusion of life while the planet they had plundered died around them.”
“She remembered reading somewhere that even after people died, their hair and nails kept growing. Like starlight, traveling through the universe long after the stars themselves had died. Like cities. Fizzy, effervescent, simulating the illusion of life while the planet they had plundered died around them. She thought of the city at night, of cities at night. Discarded constellations of old stars, fallen from the sky, rearranged on Earth in patterns and pathways and towers. Invaded by weevils that have learned to walk upright.”
“In the matter of the Martyrs’ Graveyard, however, the question of whether the first grave contained a bag or a body turned out to be of no real consequence. The substantive truth was that a relatively new graveyard was filling up, with real bodies, at an alarming pace.”
“As wars go, this was only a small one. Nobody paid much attention. So it went on and on. So it folded and unfolded over decades, gathering people into its unhinged embrace. Its cruelties became as natural as the changing seasons, each came with its own unique range of scent and blossom, its own cycle of loss and renewal, disruption and normalcy, uprisings and elections.”
“It was late afternoon when the bus emerged from the long tunnel that bored through the mountains, the only link between India and Kashmir. Autumn in the Valley was the season of immodest abundance. The sun slanted down on the lavender haze of zaffran crocuses in bloom. Orchards were heavy with fruit, the Chinar trees were on fire.”
“I was washing at night in the courtyard, Harsh stars shone in the sky. Starlight, like salt on an ax-head— The rain-butt was brim-full and frozen. “What’s a rain-butt? Don’t know…must check.” The gates are locked, And the earth in all conscience is bleak. There’s scarcely anything more basic and pure Than truth’s clean canvas. A star melts, like salt, in the barrel And the freezing water is blacker, Death cleaner, misfortune saltier, And the earth more truthful, more awful. “Another Kashmiri poet.” “Russian Kashmiri,” Tilo said. “He died in a prison camp, during Stalin’s Gulag. His ode to Stalin wasn’t considered sincere enough.” She regretted reading the poem.”
““You know what the hardest thing for us is? The hardest thing to fight? Pity. It’s so easy for us to pity ourselves…such terrible things have happened to our people…in every single household something terrible has happened…but self-pity is so…so debilitating. So humiliating. More than Azadi, now it’s a fight for dignity. And the only way we can hold on to our dignity is to fight back. Even if we lose. Even if we die. But for that we as a people—as an ordinary people—have to become a fighting force…an army. To do that we have to simplify ourselves, standardize ourselves, reduce ourselves…everyone has to think the same way, want the same thing…we have to do away with our complexities, our differences, our absurdities, our nuances…we have to make ourselves as single-minded…as monolithic…as stupid…as the army we face. But they’re professionals, and we are just people. This is the worst part of the Occupation…what it makes us do to ourselves. This reduction, this standardization, this stupidification…”
“The same depthless, blank, black eyes that had pretended to laugh about pretending to forget his pistol in Musa’s home now stared at Tilo in the moonlit bog. That gaze called forth something in her blood—a mute rage, a stubborn, suicidal impulse. A stupid resolve that she would say nothing, no matter what.”
“When the women found out that Tilo was there for what was called MTP—Medical Termination of Pregnancy—they could not hide their hostility and disgust. The doctors too were disapproving. She listened to their lectures impassively. When she made it clear that she would not change her mind, they said they could not give her general anesthetic unless there was somebody with her to sign the consent form, preferably the father of the child. She told them to do it without anesthetic. She passed out with the pain and woke in the general ward. Someone else was with her in the bed. A child, with a kidney disorder, screaming in pain. There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor, most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one—the war of the rich against the poor.”
“The steel bubble floated on, past shanty towns and industrial swamps where the air was a pale mauve haze, past railway tracks packed thick with trash and lined with slums. Finally they arrived at their destination. The Edge. Where the countryside was trying, quickly, clumsily and tragically, to turn itself into the city.”
“We circled around the subject of Kashmir, but only in abstract ways. “You may be right after all,” I said to him in the kitchen. “You may be right, but you’ll never win.” “I think the opposite,” he smiled, stirring the pot from which a wonderful aroma of rogan josh arose. “We may turn out to be wrong, but we have already won.””
““One day Kashmir will make India self-destruct in the same way. You may have blinded all of us, every one of us, with your pellet guns by then. But you will still have eyes to see what you have done to us. You’re not destroying us. You are constructing us. It’s yourselves that you are destroying. Khuda Hafiz, Garson bhai.””
“He would leave for Kashmir the next morning, to return to a new phase in an old war from which, this time, he would not return. He would die the way he wanted to, with his Asal boot on. He would be buried the way he wanted to be—a faceless man in a nameless grave. The younger men who would take his place would be harder, narrower and less forgiving. They would be more likely to win any war they fought, because they belonged to a generation that had known nothing but war.”