Men with Saffron Smiles

Eleanor Birne

  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
    Hamish Hamilton, 445 pp, £18.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 30397 9

I was working as a part-time bookseller in the university holidays when the Flamingo sales rep stopped by with a proof of Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things. I wasn’t senior enough to buy books for the shop – that responsibility fell to the managers – but I picked up the pink and black paperback he had left on the counter and opened it. You weren’t supposed to read on the job and you weren’t supposed to sit down. I did both, right on the front till, until someone in charge ordered me to go and unpack some boxes. I took the proof up to the staff room and put it in my bag before getting busy with the Stanley knife. After work, I read some more. When term started up again, I packed the proof along with my coffee cups and told my tutor I wanted to write my final-year thesis on it. As I was working on it, the novel came out. Then it won the Booker Prize. I watched it get bigger and bigger and then explode – in the end it sold eight million copies. In some ways, The God of Small Things gave me the idea I might like to be a publisher. It felt, madly, as if I’d spotted it, that I – personally – had seen something in that proof copy. Never mind the fact that the publisher had gone to the bother of making all those proofs in the first place, or that the sales rep had gone to the trouble of delivering it: I’d learn about publicity and sales later. I got a job with a publisher at the end of my degree and worked in publishing for nearly twenty years, sometimes very happily. I blame The God of Small Things.

The story – as the blurb put it – was about what happens to a family who ‘tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’. There is blind Mammachi, who runs the family pickles and preserves business; her Rhodes Scholar son, Chacko, and lonely daughter, Ammu; then there are Ammu’s two-egg twins, Estha and Rahel; and there is Sophie Mol, Chacko’s daughter, over from London on a visit. It’s a story about forbidden love – of several kinds – and the caste system: Ammu has an affair with an Untouchable, Velutha, a carpenter and a communist, the family’s odd job man. Things don’t end well. But it was the way those endings were described – at the beginning of the novel, before all the causes are untangled – that was so arresting:

Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died. Thirty-one.

Not old.

Not young.

But a viable die-able age.

And on the next page:

Sophie Mol was almost nine. She had a special child-sized coffin.


Brass handle shined.

At the time, there seemed (to me) to be nothing either cute or overwrought about these lilting, rhyming incantations. They were lullabies for dead children, things whispered in your ear. Here was an Indian writer speaking directly to you, wherever you were, about familiar and familial things you already understood, while along the way you found – almost without noticing – that you now also understood a good deal about class, caste, the colonial legacy, religious and racial discrimination, and the politics of local policing in Kerala. After Midnight’s Children had screamed out its ambition to explain the birth of modern India to a global audience, with its magical hero arriving on the scene at the moment of independence, Roy’s novel quietly persuaded you (almost) that you might have been one of those people too.

Twenty years have passed since the publication of The God of Small Things. In that time, Roy has been writing political and environmentalist works of non-fiction. She has campaigned against the Narmada dam project in Gujarat – she donated her Booker Prize winnings to the group opposing it – and was issued with a contempt notice in 2002 and sentenced to one day’s symbolic imprisonment. She has spent time with Maoist guerrillas in the forests of central India and was charged with sedition for a speech at a convention on Kashmir in 2010. Not everyone appreciates her outspokenness – she’s been called a rampant self-publicist, among other things – but her politics and her activism are all unapologetically on show in the pages of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Like The God of Small Things, the novel is concerned with family, class and caste, but it’s also preoccupied with the war in Kashmir, the rise of Hindu nationalism (‘saffron men with saffron smiles’), the impact of India’s rapid industrialisation on its population and what it means to live as a hijra – transgender – in an increasingly hostile environment. The language, for the most part, is plainer and less adventurous than in the earlier novel, but the structure isn’t. As it leaps from place to place and timeframes shift and collide, you have to pay attention – or you’re lost.

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