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Friday, July 21, 2017

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)


A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)

The first time I travelled to India, I came via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was in 1970. Arundhati Roy was then 9 years old, living in the Kerala of her The God of Small Things (TGoST). My wife and I holidayed in Kerala in 2012, and part of the motivation was to see the literary landscape depicted in TGoST. I had contacted Noam Chomsky and Anthony Arnove (the latter listed in the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS of TMoUH as ‘comrade, agent, publisher, rock’ while the former is not … in my book about Noam Chomsky I included a photograph of Noam and Arundhati together) but neither of them obliged in giving me Arundhati’s private contact details, citing the promise they had made to Arundhati never to divulge them. I suppose if they had done so I would have asked Arundhati if we could meet her if she happened to be in Kerala at the time. I also tried to contact her mother at the famous school she runs in Kottayam but to no avail either. In the event our driver just took us to the ‘house’ in Kottayam where the Roys used to live along a river bank and where much of the action of TGoST took place. It was kind of disappointing as the area had been developed as a sort of up-market residential area. We also saw the Baker’s House in Kumarakom which featured as the haunted house in TGoST. By now it was converted into a Taj Hotel – I told the hotel manager that a plaque of literary interest might attract more tourists. He said that Arundhati Roy did not merit such honours as she advocated ‘extremist’ views.

Anyway, having come to India the first time via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1970, arriving in Amritsar, I was thoroughly immersed in what in broad terms can be called Islamic culture. Being 21 years old and having been brought up in West-Germany and having been educated to university level (Munich University, studying psychology) I had relatively little knowledge about the history of the Indian subcontinent, merely following the overland hippy-trail all the way to Australia.

When my German travel companion and I came to the Golden Temple and were accommodated there as honorary guests, we immediately adopted Sikh culture, at least as far as getting a bracelet, kara (which still adorns my wrist some 47 years later), and sporting shorts and a dagger (and of course very long hair and a beard). Personally I was even more fascinated by the many chillum-smoking sadhus who loitered along the highways and byways. After a few weeks at the Golden Temple we decided to hitchhike to Srinagar. Given our Sikh-garb it was a piece of cake getting lifts with the long procession of gaudy trucks that weaved up the Kashmir valley. I was given the honorary title of ‘commander’ by the Sikh drivers, sleeping under their trucks at night. In Srinagar we of course rented a HB (as noted in TMoUH and where tragic events happen subsequently) and paddled around in a small shikara exploring Dal Lake. In those days Srinagar and surroundings seemed to be a peaceful and very pleasant place. Having obtained a generous amount of Kashmiri opium we did not exactly have sharp political eyes – we were radical anarchist student activists in Munich in 1969 – and as such we were not aware of any frictions between the Kashmiri Moslems and Sikh Punjabis (not to mention the Hindu sadhus), nor were we actually aware that Kashmir was a divided region, torn apart between India and Pakistan. The local youth that hung around our HB were mainly interested in our music tapes that played the Rolling Stones and of course Leonard Cohen – and as Musa in TMoUH says:

              “Even he doesn’t know that he’s really a Kashmiri. Or that his real name is Las Kone …”

In those days the ‘trav’ling lady’ was more likely a hippy lady but certainly of the mould of Tilo (aka Arundhati?) and the occasional fellow hippy visitors to our HB would include some outrageous Norwegian femme fatale that even then outraged the local customs. While all and sundry were used to scantily clothed (if at all) sadhus only us HB dwellers were used to such foreign female sadhus.

In TMoUH Tilo (aka Arundhati?) on quite a few occasions gives voice to such crass gender bias which goes against her grain even in her admiration of moderate Islam:

              “Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed.” (p.387)

Not that women are treated any better in Hindu/Sikh/Western or what have you culture. One of the main points of TMoUH is of course that access to the Ministry of Utmost Happiness is only granted to the hijra of this world, and possibly to people like Tilo.

On my second visit to India in 1974 (before the Emergency), in the company of a wild New Zealand femme fatale who would not bow to any religious of secular customs, Kashmir was not included in the otherwise extensive travels (coming from Myanmar, Kolkata, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa (again), Kerala … on to Sri Lanka). Goa was then still a haven for ‘trav’ling ladies’ and me having acquired a sitar in Kolkata and having learned to play it a bit from Mr. Khan in Kathmandu, there was no end to more of Leonard Cohen and of course Ravi Shankar (the latter who cultivated a reverse Indian guru meets Western ladies of wealth and taste …). There was a certain male Hindu menace that not only googled the ‘trav’ling ladies’ but felt free to grope and assault. Luckily my female companion in the mould of Tilo was adept in muscular self-defence and swatted them like flies. Of course we know that the rise of right-wing (neo-fascist) Hindu nationalism, so eloquently and passionately decried in TMoUH (is Modi nick-named Gujarat ka Lalla to forestall libel?) has given rise to previously unheard of levels of sexual violence against women (no woman adept at self-defence can defend against gang rape, and anyway why should a woman have to practice self-defence against men).

Back to Kashmir, surely the centrepiece of TMoUH. Tilo’s (aka Arundhati!) unflinching support for azadi is accentuated by her non-English language feature, namely Urdu. Hardly any review I have read mentions this but I as a linguist take note, and as one of the misguided protagonists (The Landlord) in TMoUH states somewhat sarcastically:

Because nothing warms the subcontinental Muslim’s heart more than a few well-chosen lines of Urdu verse (p.158).

Reading up on the history of Urdu, one is somewhat surprised that Arundhati Roy is an adept as an offspring of a Kerala Syrian-Christian family. However when considering her long life in Delhi, especially in Old Delhi, one can understand her choice of language. Not that I fully understand the ins and outs of language choices in India (or in Kashmir for that matter) but on quizzing some Indian and Pakistani colleagues at my work, one comes to the conclusion that modern Urdu is inextricably linked to Muslim culture although liberal Indians of all denominations (atheists included) appreciate Urdu as a Hindustani mutually intelligible variant of Hindi, especially as a linguistic vehicle of fine poetry.

I suppose only readers who can read and understand Urdu and Hindi in Roman alphabet transliteration – it is not clear what system the author uses – can also figure out what is what. For example the first such instance comes about when Anjum (who only speaks Urdu) says “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” one could safely assume that is an Urdu word. When subjected to Google Translate it yields HUG (as in ‘to hug, hugged’) which doesn’t seem to make much sense in the sentence quoted. While Arundhati does provide English translations for most of her Urdu and Hindi texts, there are quite a few – as above – where the uninitiated is at a loss, i.e. no translation is provided. I suppose as well that such language questions are a can of worms, what with an Indian author writing about India in English, an India (and Kashmir) where ordinary folks (as the main protagonists) speak no or only little English. Comrade Revathy’s (CPI (Maoist)) long letter in halting English may or may not be a genuine article in this regard. The grim content of the letter played out in Southern India mirrors that of Kashmir. When we were in Kerala in 2012 the Revolutionary Marxist Party leader T. P. Chandrasekharan was murdered and the local newspapers reported the story as internecine fighting, blaming the local CPM faction. The English language daily the Decan Chronicle (8 May 2012) reported that a suspect was ‘nabbed in a secret operation’ and that ‘the interrogation is on in a secret place’. Sounds very much like the secret interrogations in the Shiraz in TMoUH. A political commentator cum academic historian in a previous edition of the Decan Chronicle had put down the whole saga to primitive Dravidians who were prone to believe Marxist and Muslim (sic) propaganda, resulting in the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’. I wrote a letter to the editor which to my surprise was published in large print, pointing out that a complicit corporate media is to blame instead and that ordinary Keralites know as much as anybody that the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’ is a common tactic used by the elites to scare the populace into accepting extreme measures of arrest and detention (and murder by the secret state police).

That the educated elites in India (see Kerala above), Pakistan and Kashmir read all this stuff in English as a matter of course is of course a mixed blessing but of course (excuse the endless pun) we (who read English only, and maybe German and French) are ever so grateful to a myriad of Indian authors whose English prose surpasses that of the English English writers. Arundhati Roy certainly is in a league of her own in this respect (but what if she were to write in Urdu?). The main point, however, seems to be that Roy’s choice of Urdu as local language flavour is destined to be an eye-opener for all of her Indian readers, inasmuch as her book is really compulsory reading for all Indians. Readers like me will miss many of the allusions, Urdu or otherwise. Readers like me will however receive an English education as to what the political, social and individual issues are. Of course it is grim reading. Roy subverts Stalin’s saying that one death is a tragedy but a thousand are a statistic. By describing the tragic deaths of individuals like children that get mowed down by indiscriminate machinegun fire, the reader has to contemplate the many more deaths, twenty at a time. For anyone who has never ever been even close to such massacres, the scenarios are beyond comprehension. Those in the midst of it all, be it in Kashmir, Syria, Yemen or whatever place you care to name, the reality of such incomprehensible suffering on an almost daily basis must amount to barbarity on a scale not seen before on this earth. How a literary voice like that of Arundhati Roy gets inside the heads of both victim and perpetrator is also short of miraculous. Sure there are other harrowing accounts of the brutality of warfare, be it All Quiet on the Western Front or the seminal The Wretched of the Earth, but written by male protagonists who experienced many of the atrocities themselves. As such there can be only few women authors who lay bare both the facts and emotions, none more cutting to the bone than Arundhati Roy. As I write this review, Guardian news from Kashmir is that seven Hindu pilgrims got shot during an ambush, inserting Modi’s tweet that ‘India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate’. Maybe it is not too surprising that so-called liberal news media as the Guardian see the need to side with Modi. Has the Guardian forgotten that much of the Northern Ireland bloody conflict resulted from the Ulster Regiment provocations, marching through Catholic neighbourhoods under heavy military protection? A reported 115,000 Hindu pilgrims marched through Moslem Kashmir neighbourhoods last year, all under heavy military protection. Obviously violent death cannot be condoned in any circumstances but those who provoke sectarian conflict for political gain must be answerable for the gravest of human rights violations. The Modis of this world are of course beyond the law that may yet silence the likes of Roy (that she fled to London to complete her book is testament to that). The Landlord in TMoUH  is given a voice that seems to be intended to showcase how certain Indian liberal reactionaries think about Kashmir:

… I have never understood how that storm of dull, misguided vanity – the absurd notion that Kashmir should have ‘freedom’ – swept him up as it did a whole generation of Kashmiri men (p.160). 

Of course the Landlord in the end realizes his incorrect thinking when deprived of the ‘infrastructure of impunity’ (p.434) – unlike the one enjoyed by Modi. It is of course interesting to note in our era of political revenge politics that occasionally the high and mighty get caught up in the net and end up in jail – rightly or wrongly (the latter include Brazil’s former popular president da Silva and the Taiwanese Chen Shui-bian, what with the former lot including South-Korea’s impeached Park Geun Hye, and who knows if Tony Blair will for ever escape a court hearing and if Trump escapes impeachment). In TMoUH the other semi-reactionary character, Naga, the TV journalist semi-celebrity who is handled by the Landlord’s Indian Secret Service outfit gets married to Tilo after Musa is killed. One does wonder about this a lot. Would a real Tilo (aka Arundhati?) contemplate such a marriage? Arundhati’s own marriage adventure, as much as it is revealed in her various biographies, begs the question. One’s obsession to equate Tilo (from Kerala) and Arundhati also stems from the mother’s story, the Syrian-Christian who has a school – biographical coincidences? One hopes so, as Tilo’s mother dies a sad death while Arundhati’s mother is alive and kicking as far as I know. In any case if I were Arundhati’s mother I would be a bit worried. Of course there was a lot of speculation as to who is who in real life compared to the characters in TGoST, what with mother and various uncles protesting that it wasn’t them. It is common literary speculation that many a great novel has autobiographical traits – and why not? One’s real life experiences provide many facts that are stranger than fiction, and weave stories from them is an art form that Arundhati Roy surely masters like no one else.

As such it also perhaps no surprise that a lot of the story in TMoUH plays out in Delhi, Roy’s long-term place of residence. Her intimate knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of this vast metropolis shines like nothing else in TMoUH. Not being much acquainted with Old or New Delhi other than on my first visit to India when my new travel companion, a guy from Switzerland and I applied for an Australian resident visa at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi – of course as hippies were domiciled in Old Delhi. It was quite a lengthy process that required us to be there for a couple weeks. In those days the Australians welcomed any white-skinned Europeans, hence with my personal lack – as a German passport holder – of any qualifications other than an unfinished psychology degree but with a good head of very long hair, all I needed to do was to fill out lots of forms, get passport photos with hair out of the way and get a medical clearance by going to a flash hospital for rich expatriates and even richer Indians. Being short on money we walked for miles and only used rickshaws in emergencies. One day we ended up in a dusty park (minus the graves as in TMoUH) where squatters welcomed us like newfound brothers. We also hung around the Red Fort – minus the light shows mentioned in TMoUH – ‘shooting the breeze’ (which seems to be a favourite idiom in TMoUH). Not that we ever came across any Hijra there or anywhere in India (I did come across some in Sri Lanka though). That the Red Fort should be a special attraction for the band of Hijra in TMoUH is of course further testimony to the fact that Old Delhi and the Red Fort still are part of the essential Urdu-Moslem fabric of India (the ‘Urdu’ language itself is said to be named after the Urdu Bazaar that existed there), what with Roy also acknowledging her supporters in Shahjahanabad (the ancient capital of the Moghul Empire and what later became Delhi). The Hijras’ excursions into New Delhi, with its monstrous highways and byways, shopping malls and high-rise residences growing like tropical mushrooms by night, are both hilarious and somewhat tragic, giving voice to Roy’s anti-capitalist (anti-corporate) stance that has seen her operate as a major activist in the many environmental battles that rage across India. Delhi, now one of the most polluted super cities of the world, is destined to be submerged in the sludge of ever faster development. Roy’s dire warnings in TMoUH are falling on deaf ears. Kashmir due to its lack of rapid industrial development may well come out best in the end, if only by default. Indeed when in TMoUH  in the last (short) chapter, Tilo shows off ‘her prowess in Urdu’ to her Kashmiri tragic hero Musa , there is also Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, announcing that ‘things would turn out alright in the end’. This by the way is not an allusion to Bertrand Russell’s dystopian famous lines on how the world, trilobites and all, will return to peace when man makes himself extinct but rather a celebration of the human species ‘because Miss Jabeen, Miss Udaya Jabeen, was come’ (note the clever braking of a rule of English grammar).

The last chapter also contains that statement stretching across the page – noted by almost every review I have come across – namely ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By becoming everything.’ I suppose reviewers prefer such mystical statements to the grim political narratives spanning most other pages. Actually I think this line is very much in keeping with ancient Zen practice: didn’t the Zen painter of bamboo say that in order to paint the perfect bamboo he (or possibly she) had to become a bamboo? Or is it the Kafkaesque ‘metamorphosis’ that necessitates one to become a beetle in order to understand what it is like to be a beetle? Or what does Arundhati really mean when in the first chapter Anjum ‘lived in the graveyard like a tree’? Yes, surely we have to agree with Arundhati that we have ‘to become everything’ in order to make this world a better place.

In the first place, reading her book TMoUH will make you a better person.