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book review

Arundhati Roy.Mayank Austen Soofi

Twenty years since her Booker Prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has published her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At first glance, the five-word title seems like a plain yet conspicuous variation of its predecessor. "God," government; "Small," "Utmost"; what's tactile, what can be felt but not touched. Perhaps I'm imposing significance that isn't there. I can't help it. One of the effects of reading Roy is heightened, nagging awareness; deciphering becomes an outcome of simply paying attention. Like staring at two Arundhati Roy book jackets, designed 20 years apart, and imagining the pink flowers on one cover soothsaying the dried-up dead ones on the other. What is it about those big floating lily pads on God's design that correspond to Ministry's timeworn gravestone? What is it about lily pads that suddenly feel like gravestones?

This is Roy's gift. She plays to how ordinary it is for us to deny our imagination and how it pertains to self-worth, purely because we haven't considered an alternative point of view. In one scene, a character in Ministry asks, "What did she think of herself? Not much, or quite a lot, depending on how you looked at it." In another scene, a ceiling fan is described as having human qualities: "coy" and "moody." Much later in the novel, the sentence, "Sometimes a single person's clarity can unnerve a muddled crowd," intimates, again, the book's enduring preference for revelation. To read Roy is to build a sense of wonder, incrementally. To ask questions not of what we we're seeing of late, but what we've been staring at the whole time.

But in order to read Roy's fiction, it's vital to have at least some sense of her non-fiction; in other words, the past two decades of Roy's work. In a 2001 essay titled The Ladies Have Feelings, So … Shall We Leave It to the Experts? Roy writes, "My thesis – my humble theory, as we say in India – is that I've been saddled with this double-barreled appellation." The hyphenated this encumbering Roy, which she likens to a sofa bed, is the "awful professional label": writer-activist. While (thankfully) no one has created a suitable portmanteau, the clunky pairing does, as Roy notes, suggest a lack of "subtlety, ambiguity, complexity" often associated to a writer's voice or acclaim. According to Roy, the perceived overtness associated with activism's urgent response to, for instance, a country's political climate, even if writers and activists rally and prioritize – Now is the time, more than ever, they'll say – the title "writer-activist" is still construed as artless. A levy. Even crass. "I have a point of view … I use everything in my power to flagrantly solicit support for that position," Roy adds, acknowledging the tenor of her essays. "For a writer of the twenty-first century, that's considered a pretty uncool, unsophisticated thing to do."

That particular essay was written five years following the huge success of Roy's debut when she was well into, in some communities, a violently opposed and, later, near-prosecuted shift from celebrated novelist to prolific critic of globalization, neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy, and campaigning against India's nuclear program, dam construction and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Her collections include The End of Imagination, The Cost of Living and Walking with the Comrades, which chronicled Roy's invitation to march in the mountains with Maoist insurgents in central India. What Roy realizes in her essays is indelicacy's powerful eloquence: She takes sides and aligns herself with movements, refusing discursive speech and reminding me of a line from Hilton Als's The Women, which goes, "My mother disliked the American penchant for euphemism; she was resolute in making the world confront its definition of her."

Unfolding for the most part in two rambling and interconnected sections, though The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does resemble a collection of short stories – bound and layered like a messy mille feuille – the novel's main characters are Anjum, a trans woman (hijra), whose brutal life in Delhi experiences little to no joy, and S. Tilottama, known to us as Tilo, an architect and gifted artist, whose tryptic of love affairs with three men – Musa, Naga and Garson Hobart – is, too, like the novel's overall framework, intertwined. Love in Ministry is harrowing, fragile and complicated and swears by sacrifice, but also – and Roy makes sure of this – love is unanticipated.

It's conceivable, too, that Tilo is a vague self-portrait of Roy. "I would love to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's lots to write about," she jots down in her notebook. "What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?" she wonders, which is what many admirers and critics of Roy's fiction have also asked of the author's work.

Although Roy has never believed in advocating for the "voiceless," (the very term is, she argues, self-congratulatory conjecture) Ministry is an example of Roy's commitment to those who feel the riot inside of them. Who refuse to be "written out," who understand that the tiniest breach in history, like "a chuckle," of all things "could become a foothold in the sheer wall of the future."

While it might be useful to describe Roy's break from fiction as a hiatus, since reading Ministry, I perceive her time spent away as time spent inside, appraising India's tragic lead-up up to Narendra Modi's taking of power. I'd estimate Roy was experiencing the fictional worlds of Ministry alongside her very real encounters because the novel possesses a distinctly note-assembled quality in which big-picture manoeuvres (political milestones, mostly, or history as both parable and prophecy) jangle noisily and sometimes ineffectively over Roy's central preoccupation: the minutiae of what's proximate. She zooms in as though her Word doc is set to 200 per cent.

Allegorical details (such as a seizure-prone, severely sick beagle who enjoys biryani, halwa, mangoes in the summer) or funnier ones, such as a woman living in a graveyard, enjoying the rare luxury of zero power cuts because she is stealing electricity from the mortuary, feel true to life insomuch as they read like the spark of good ideas, so vivid and saved for later, yet not entirely fleshed out. Descriptions such as "eyelashes that looked as though they had worked out in a gym" conjure slowly and become distracting.

Because Roy writes with a pledge to remembering, she gets sidetracked by her memories. They ensnare her. She insists on telling the story, the many stories, though grasps how impossible it can feel to find the right words. Her love of language is deeply connected to how unsuitable language is. "Was it possible," the narrator asks, "to live outside of language?"

Near the novel's start, Anjum adopts an abandoned baby girl, Zainab. Once she is old enough to understand bedtime stories, Anjum begins telling them. "They were Anjum's somewhat maladroit attempt to make up for lost time, to transfuse herself into Zainab's memory and consciousness, to reveal herself without artifice, so that they could belong to each other completely." The bedtime stories function as a bridge. As a way of passing down what it means to be alert, to observe and take to heart what is small because usually that's exactly what the world ignores: the marginalized, those off to the side, disaffected, poor and forgotten and easily erased. While extreme detail in prose is often misunderstood as whimsy, or can seem tedious, Roy's use of it is more than just democratic or plentiful, it's a matter of bridging distance.

Durga Chew-Bose is the author of the essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood, which was published in April.