Arundhati Roy has published only one previous novel, but that one, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize. That was 20 years ago. Early success did not, however, block Roy into neurotic silence: instead, it offered her a platform for verbally intemperate political activism. She is an impassioned campaigner against globalisation, industrialisation and all forms of the arch-enemy capitalism, and a critic of US foreign policy, Israel and the government of Sri Lanka. Her Booker prize money was donated to the campaign against the Narmada Dam project. To Indian critics who condemn her hyperbole as ‘hysterical’ she retorted: ‘I am hysterical, I’m screaming from the bloody roof tops.’
There is of course no reason why even a ‘hysterical’ political activist should not transmute into a fine novelist. The danger, however, is that the ‘small things’ will suffer from King Charles’s Head syndrome. ‘Will it be possible ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a newborn gecko in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered in your ear — without thinking of the World Trade Centre and Afghanistan?’, as Roy asked in the Guardian. That is appallingly sentimental outrage.
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which has whimsical hyperbole in its very title, is flawed by similar self-indulgences. The Big Cause in this novel is the conflict in Kashmir, where shock and horror are the natural (though not the only) responses to the catalogue of historical atrocities. How is a novelist to embody this in fiction? Ominously, Roy rejects the straight-forward fictional ploys of narrative: ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.’
This is a pretentious impossibility. Empathy, sadly, has its limitations. As George Eliot wrote, the ‘element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of its frequency’ cannot be felt in its entirety by mankind; indeed, doing so, ‘like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat’, would be intolerable to our human ‘frames’. ‘As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.’ Eliot’s balanced formulation encloses a tough, infinitely sad paradox, where Roy sees only the ‘stupidity’ of others. ‘There is so much data’, says Tilottama, the heroine of this novel, ‘but no one really wants to know anything, don’t you think.’
The novel is excellent in parts, and is at various times gripping, shocking and moving. But Roy’s hubristic imperative towards encompassing ‘everything’ is self-defeating, and undermines these narrative qualities with digressions that damage tension; rants that destroy nuance; satire that lazily coarsens; and overindulged metaphors that strain the literary fabric.
The opening third of the book shows Roy’s strengths. It begins with the story of Anjum, a hermaphrodite born into a Muslim family and brought up as a boy. S/he finds that ‘it was not Aftab’s girl parts that was just an appendage’, and joins the city’s Hijra commune. Roy’s instinctive sympathy with the marginalised is strong in her depiction of the community of transvestites and elective eunuchs, whose lives are threatened by prejudice and protected by superstition; and her overblown metaphors find a place as an expression of Anjum’s camp flamboyance: ‘Saddam had a quick smile and eyelashes that looked as though they had worked out in a gym.’ Very Armistead Maupin.
Other metaphors, however, simply take over, willy nilly. The first mention of a newborn baby, abandoned on the edge of the old observatory in Delhi, is instantly diverted into a overlong description of the ‘sprawling’ city as a ‘1,000≠≠-year-old sorceress’ who becomes the whore of capitalism. ‘Her new master wanted to hide her knobby varicose veins under imported fish-net stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed, high-heeled shoes…’ And then we are off, into several otiose pages of billboards and dams and forcible evictions and all the other evils of capitalism…The poor baby is abandoned once again.
The next section of the novel introduces three men and a girl who have known each other since student days. All three men, in their different ways, were in love with the heroine, the dark-skinned maverick, Tilottama. There was Musa, the ‘quiet, conservatively dressed’ but attractively self-possessed student of architecture; Naga, the mercurial show-off, whose chameleon boisterousness could become ‘a little hollow and tiresome’; and Biplab, the less adventurous middle-class boy. The lives of all three are given potentially convincing and absorbing trajectories: Musa becoming a terrorist, Naga a fiery left-wing journalist who is corrupted by the establishment, and Biplab a ‘servant of the Government’, whose conformist talk of ‘unfortunate but tolerable inequalities’ is belied by his heavy drinking, signalling that he finds something intolerable.
Immersion in their individual lives, however, is continually disrupted. The story flits back and forth in time, so that we come at the same incident — the rescue of Tilo from the evil torturer Amrik Singh — three times over, without startling new insights. The narrative arcs are crowded out and the characters flattened and sidelined by digressions, until they seem themselves digressive. They are disrupted by police files and letters and hospital notes and case studies: the letters in particular are usually too long and often unconvincing. Musa’s letter to his dead daughter will surely divide critics. It is Dickensian in its highly melodramatic flourishes and its angry, weepy sentimentality.
Sometimes, in art, less is more.