“…she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”
I was late to The God of Small Things (Amazon | Indiebound) reading party but I distinctly remember reading it at the time that I did — more than a decade later. It was December 2011 and I finally picked up a copy I’ve had for several years. It was also a little over a month after a 4-year relationship ended, so I did the next best thing I can do for a healing heart: read.
I woke up that Christmas morning with one intention: to finish GoST. I’ve been immersed in Arundhati Roy’s world for a few days and that morning, sprawled out on the living room couch, I felt illuminated. A good book warrants a good cry. My face was drenched with tears as I finished the last page — everything that happened in the book finally made sense.
Roy’s newest literary fiction masterpiece The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Amazon | Indiebound) is written with the same effect, at least for me. It isn’t until the very last page that I finally understood the lot of it — a sweeping tale of personal and political liberation, a 400-plus tome about hijras and the Kashmiri conflict.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is essentially two different stories which converge into one. The two main characters — Anjum and Tilo — are brought together by many similiarities, women living in the outskirts of India’s society, upended by many political upheavals, a recurring theme in the book. But first, two main things before I go into more detail: Hijra, and Kashmir.
Also called “the third gender,” hijra is the term used to describe the transgender community as well as intersex people and cross-dressers in India. In ancient, sacred texts, they are believed to be bearers of luck and fertility. But while they are revered in Indian society as spiritual figures, they still suffer from discrimination and harassment.
Kashmir (or Jammu & Kashmir, also J&K) is the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. I first learned about Kashmir in my anthropology class in college, a region bordering India, Pakistan and China struggling for its independence. As seen in the photo above, the region is administered and disputed by three nations. As with any nation vying for self-determination and local autonomy, the Kashmir conflict has claimed thousands of lives with human rights abuses from Indian forces.
The book starts with Anjum living in a desolate graveyard and goes back to her childhood. Roy presents the conundrum of being a hijra as soon as Aftab was born through the character’s mother: Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby?
Jahanara Begum was.
Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash.
Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken.
Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created a while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs.
Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child.
Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things — carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments — had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him — Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.
Jahanara Begum kept this a secret, even from her husband. Aftab grew up innocently enough, until that undeniable day of natural reckoning. From this came a departure of all sorts — Aftab slowly growing in to himself, as the days, months and years progressed to his initiation at the Kwabgah, a community of hijras in Delhi. He became Anjum, and for a long time, she was the most popular and sought after hijra in the country.
At a point in Anjum’s life, she became a mother. This set off a series of events that led her to the other main character of the book, S. Tilottama. Known simply as Tilo, the conflict in Kashmir unfolded right before my eyes through her. Although never the activist nor the soldier nor the militant freedom-fighter, Tilo was a canvas that brought to light the multifarious weight of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom. There were corrupt politicians, well-meaning journalists, nefarious soldiers, torturers, activists, militant Kashmiris ready to defend and fight for their land and Tilo. Never in it, but always in the thick of it.
If one has to choose, then give me a Hindu fundamentalist any day over a Muslim one. It’s true we did – we do – some terrible things in Kashmir, but…I mean what the Pakistan Army did in East Pakistan — now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut. When the Indian Army liberated Bangladesh, the good old Kashmirs called it — still call it — the “Fall of Dhaka.” They aren’t very good at other people’s pain. But then, who is? The Baloch, who are being buggered by Pakistan, don’t care about Kashmiris. The Bangladeshis whom we liberated are hunting down Hindus. The good old communists call Stalin’s Gulag a “necessary part of revolution.” The Americans are currently lecturing the Vietnamese about human rights. What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt. And then there’s that other business that’s become pretty big these days. People — communities, castes, races and even countries — carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market.
Halfway through the book, I lost interest. I was reading about this man’s obsession over Tilo, willing to have his love requited to no avail. I didn’t care much for her, but I cared a lot about Anjum and she was on my mind as I read page after page.
The truth is what got me from beginning to end was Anjum’s story. My annoyance with Tilo and her seemingly inane role in the book was growing, but I was always anchored by the promise of the hijra I’ve come to love.
Until I get to the end of course, which is where everything changes. This is perhaps what I love and don’t love about Roy and her work — the ability to see the bigger picture far clearer after the last page, but only after wading through bits of information that don’t really make sense until the end.
Still, that fact is minor in comparison to some of the things I loved about the book. It was only after a few days that I realized how mothering in the book was another central theme. Each character carried the heavier weight of being a mother, albeit in varying ways. From Jahanara Begum with Aftab to Anjum with Zainab, Tilo’s fraught relationship with her mother, to her mothering of the mysterious baby she named Miss Jebeen the Second, and the identity of the baby’s missing mother — Roy made these connections apparent. With a little humor of course.
It was there, right next to the Mothers of the Disappeared, that our quiet baby appeared. It took the Mothers a while to notice her, because she was the color of night. A sharply outlined absence in the shadows under the street light. More than twenty years of living with crackdowns, cordon-and-search operations and the midnight knock (Operation Tiger, Operation Serpent Destruction, Operation Catch and Kill) had taught the Mothers to read the darkness. But when it came to babies, the only ones they were used to looked like almond blossoms with apple cheeks. The Mothers of the Disappeared did not know what to do with a baby that had Appeared.
An ambitious novel, this truly is. And worth every second. I’ll have to go back and reorient myself with some of the details that only came to life in the end, to make even more sense of everything in Tilo’s story — not to be missed.
But back to Anjum, because in my head, I’m picturing the Jannat Guest House in the middle of a graveyard, surrounded by homeless people but beaming from within, emanating light from the magnificence of Tilo and Anjum. They are no small things, but gods of their own lives.
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Cover art for this post is by Veronique Piaser-Moyen.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.