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.

Satin-lined.

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.

The novel opens with Anjum, who now lives in Delhi in a tin shack she has built in a Muslim graveyard behind a government hospital. ‘She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut).’ When the midwife places the baby in her mother’s arms she tells her: ‘It’s a boy.’ Her parents’ first three children were girls; they’d been waiting for a son for six years. They call him Aftab. ‘The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm’ his mother unswaddles little Aftab. ‘She explored his tiny body – eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes – with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.’ She secretly has his ‘girl part’ seen to and does her best to raise him as a boy. When she can’t delay his circumcision any longer, she finally confesses to her husband. They take him to Dr Ghulam Nabi, a ‘sexologist’, who diagnoses Aftab as a hermaphrodite. Gradually, he starts to discover for himself who he wants to be:

One spring morning Aftab saw a tall, slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick, gold high heels and a shiny, green satin salwar kameez buying bangles from Mir the bangle-seller … Aftab had never seen anybody like the tall woman with lipstick. He rushed down the steep stairs into the street and followed her discreetly while she bought goat trotters, hair clips, guavas and had the strap of her sandals fixed.

He wanted to be her.

The woman is not in a burqa, not covered. She could ‘dress as she was dressed and walk the way she did only because she wasn’t a woman’. Aftab starts to hang around the house where the woman lives with others like her. The house is called the Khwabgah – the House of Dreams. Eventually, after proving his worth running errands for the household, Aftab is allowed inside: ‘He entered that ordinary, broken-down home as though he were walking through the gates of paradise.’ At the age of 15, he moves in and becomes Anjum, living ‘in the Khwabgah with her patched-together body and her partially realised dreams’. ‘Partially realised’ is the point: there is freedom among the hijras but they are both celebrated as part of the colour of Old Delhi and despised for their deviancy. Anjum becomes famous locally, appearing in newspapers and magazines, but she also has to face the fact that, as another resident puts it, only ‘normal people’ have worries that can be solved:

Price-rise, children’s school-admissions, husbands’ beatings, wives’ cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war – outside things that settle down eventually. But for us the price-rise and school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down.

Hijras like Anjum are part of the historical fabric of Old Delhi – an eighty-year-old hijra called Mona Ahmed still, in 2017, lives in the Muslim graveyard by the government hospital – but for Roy they are also a useful symbol, of national identities at war with one another. Except that, whatever the other hijras say, the wars outside don’t show any sign of settling down either.

Anjum’s retreat to the graveyard – after leaving the Khwabgah, having packed up all her possessions, ‘her satin ghararas and sequined saris, her jhumkas, anklets and glass bangles’, and put on a men’s Pathan suit – is precipitated by her experience in Ahmedabad, where she had happened to go on a trip. In 2002, a fire on a train in Gujarat killed sixty people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, and in the retaliatory violence that followed several hundred Muslims were killed and homes and shops and mosques were looted and destroyed. The then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, now India’s prime minister, was variously accused of having turned a blind eye to the pogrom and of enabling it: several inquiries have found it worth noting that some rioters used cadastral and voter lists, which only the government should have possessed, to target Muslims and Muslim properties. Naturally, in Roy’s novel, Anjum – fact and symbol as she is – has to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After finally being found in a refugee camp and brought back to Delhi, she refuses to tell her friends what happened. But after making her new home in the graveyard – taking her cue, perhaps, from a chant some of the rioters used: ‘Mussalman ka ek hi sthan! Qabristan ya Pakistan!’ (‘Only one place for the Mussalman! The graveyard or Pakistan!’) – she can’t stop going over it in her mind. As others were raped and killed, and as bodies were burned, she was spared by the ‘saffron men’: they found her, saw her, a hijra – and didn’t dare touch her. That would be bad luck.

Roy doesn’t mention the dates or use real names. Modi features – but only as ‘Gujarat ka Lalla’, Gujarat’s Beloved. If that seems a challenge to non-Indian readers struggling to get their bearings, it isn’t, I think, meant to be. Some of the history is described as simply and directly as could possibly be:

The planes that flew into the tall buildings in America came as a boon to many in India too. The Poet-Prime Minister of the country and several of his senior ministers were members of an old organisation that believed India was essentially a Hindu nation and that, just as Pakistan had declared itself an Islamic Republic, India should declare itself a Hindu one. Some of its supporters and ideologues openly admired Hitler and compared the Muslims of India to the Jews of Germany. Now, suddenly, as hostility towards Muslims grew, it began to seem to the Organisation that the whole world was on its side. The Poet-Prime Minister made a lisping speech, eloquent, except for long, exasperating pauses when he lost the thread of his argument, which was quite often. He was an old man, but had a young man’s way of tossing his head when he spoke, just like the Bombay film stars of the 1960s.

The ‘Poet-Prime Minister’ is Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prime minister between 1998 and 2004, and the ‘Organisation’ is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist missionary movement founded in 1925 that still sustains Modi’s BJP. ‘The planes that flew into the tall buildings in America’: everything here reads like a fable, and could be one, if every sentence didn’t also accord with historical fact. The simple fable – no names, no dates, no complicating details, no troubling polysyllables – is a gentle way to tell a difficult story, even if it risks sounding like a tall tale. But it all happened.

*

Things are always less clear-cut on the ground. Here is Anjum’s first night in the graveyard:

Not surprisingly, she didn’t sleep. Not that anyone in the graveyard troubled her – no djinns arrived to make her acquaintance, no ghosts threatened a haunting. The smack addicts at the northern end of the graveyard – shadows just a deeper shade of night – huddled on knolls of hospital waste in a sea of old bandages and used syringes, didn’t seem to notice her at all. On the southern side, clots of homeless people sat around fires cooking their meagre, smoky meals. Stray dogs, in better health than the humans, sat at a polite distance, waiting politely for scraps.

When you’re handed a transsexual hermit living in a graveyard next to a hospital rubbish dump, it feels as if – never mind that, to Mona Ahmed, all this actually happened – you’re being expected to believe in magic. Roy knows what you’re expecting and dispels it: ‘no djinns’, ‘no ghosts’. But the smack addicts take their place, with their ‘deeper shade of night’, in their real-world haunts just where the spirits would be. It’s worth noting here – there are a great number of instances of this – how characteristics flow from one thing to another. There is blood in syringes, and – just to the south – there are ‘clots’ of the homeless. Properties that ought to belong to one person or group infect another, but benignly, in slight shifts of language. Dogs behave like humans and everyone sits still. There is nothing showy about these tricks, but they make the ordinary look supernatural.

Over time, Anjum extends her tin shack, building rooms around the graves of her relatives, from her great-grandparents down. She starts to take in ‘guests’ – fellow waifs and strays. One permanent guest is a young former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussain after the real Saddam Hussein, whose execution he watched online (he was affected by Saddam’s bravery at the point of death, though Anjum disabuses him about his heroism more generally). He gets a job as a security guard at the National Gallery of Modern Art, where one of India’s foremost contemporary artists has a show on:

The exhibits, everyday artefacts made of stainless steel – steel cisterns, steel motorcycles, steel weighing scales with steel fruit on one side and steel weights on the other, steel cupboards full of steel clothes, a steel dining table with steel plates and steel food, a steel taxi with steel luggage on its luggage rack – extraordinary for their verisimilitude, were beautifully lit and displayed in the many rooms of the gallery, each room guarded by two Safe n’ Sound guards. Even the cheapest exhibit, Saddam said, was the price of a two-bedroom LIG (Lower Income Group) flat.

He is supposed to be guarding a stainless-steel banyan tree exhibited outside. ‘It had stainless-steel buckets, stainless-steel tiffin carriers and stainless-steel pots and pans hanging from its branches … It was like being asked to keep an eye on the sun.’ Another name withheld: the contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta, who was struggling to break through until he hit on the idea of making artworks out of tiffin boxes and metal plates and who hasn’t looked back since (one of his sculptures sold at Christie’s for more than a million dollars in 2008), had a show in Delhi in 2014, the centrepiece of which was a giant metal banyan tree. It’s another historical event, but Roy chooses her viewpoint with care: the lowly security guard’s employer refuses to let him wear sunglasses and he singes his eyes looking at the thing. This isn’t magical realism but hyperrealism: the blazing new artwork for the super-rich will make the lowly security guard semi-blind.

India is exposed as a country of haves and have-nots, over and over again. Not far from the graveyard is a glittering public toilet, which no one living on the streets can afford to pay to use. Its main revenue comes from an advertising hoarding on its exterior wall:

The billboard had its own personal guard. Gulabiya Vechania lived under a small blue plastic sheet right next to the billboard. This accommodation was a step up from where he’d begun. When he first arrived in the city a year ago, out of abject terror as well as necessity, Gulabiya had lived in a tree. Now he had a job, and some semblance of shelter. The name of the security agency he worked for was embroidered on the epaulettes of his stained blue shirt: TSGS Security.

In a flash-forward moment we learn that Gulabiya is going to lose his job when someone defaces the poster of the silver Honda on the hoarding: ‘thousands like him would line up hoping to replace him.’

But for now, Gulabiya slept soundly and dreamed deep. In his dream he had enough money to feed himself and send a little home to his family in the village. In his dream his village still existed. It wasn’t at the bottom of a dam reservoir. Fish didn’t swim through his windows. Crocodiles didn’t knife through the high branches of the silk cotton trees. Tourists didn’t go boating over his fields, leaving rainbow clouds of diesel in the sky. In his dream his brother Luariya wasn’t a tour guide at the dam site whose job was to showcase the miracles the dam had wrought. His mother didn’t work as a sweeper in a dam engineer’s house that was built on the land that she had once owned. She didn’t have to steal mangoes from her own trees. She didn’t live in a resettlement colony in a tin hut with tin walls and a tin roof that was so hot you could fry onions on it. In Gulabiya’s dream his river was still flowing, still alive. Naked children still sat on rocks, playing the flute, diving into the water to swim among the buffaloes when the sun grew too hot. There were leopard and sambar and sloth bear in the sal forest that clothed the hills above the village, where during festivals his people would gather with their drums to drink and dance for days.

This digression takes a bit-part character, tells his life story, jumps forward in time to describe his fate, and along the way describes the devastation of rural communities through World Bank-funded development. Roy can’t not dial up the rhetoric – those lyrical lists – when the subject matter counts for her, but she has an extra licence here: it’s a list of all the magical things that aren’t, that can’t be, that have been wiped out.

This is often Roy’s method, and it can be disorienting. One individual’s crisis is connected to a national catastrophe, then we’re thrown back down to the level of the individual again – the little guy on the street. Many of them, including Gulabiya, never appear again – but then each individual is connected to others. The other man working the toilet – Janak Lal Sharma, the ‘in-charge’, who collects the money, and gets a paragraph of the novel to himself – doesn’t lose his job: thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit he supplements his salary by taking money from people who want to charge their phones and laptops using the toilet’s power socket; he is eventually able to afford a down payment on a flat. At an increasingly febrile moment, with Gujarat ka Lalla beginning his metaphorical march to power, and protesters defending all kinds of causes flooding into the city, TV crews and jeans-wearing activists and regular street eccentrics and entertainers all jostle for space, running into one another in a series of mad encounters: there is a contingent of Manipuri Nationalists demonstrating against the Indian army, a group of protesters demanding justice for those maimed by the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, Tibetan refugees calling for a free Tibet, shaven-headed men insisting that Hindi be declared the only national language, and a delegation from the Association of Mothers of the Disappeared, each holding a picture of ‘their missing son, brother or husband’, lost in the war in Kashmir. A man who has stuck limes all over his bare torso with superglue for no discernible reason shares a corner with Dr Azad Bhartiya, now homeless and on hunger strike, whose life story we learn through the long document of complaint he has set out on the pavement, held in place with stones. Meanwhile, a baby has been found in the street – why not, in a city full of foundlings? – and a gaggle of people descend, desperate to take charge of it.

*

But this is only part of a novel: a city, an atmosphere, a series of connected stories. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has another novel inside it, of an entirely different kind, dependent on an entirely different narrative method. A third of the way through the rug is suddenly pulled from under our feet and we are whisked up from the city streets to a dusty apartment on a rooftop, occupied by a man referred to only as The Landlord, who suddenly takes over the narration, dropping names we haven’t heard and clearly regretting a past we don’t know. As he remembers, he starts drinking, and his memories stop making sense.

If the protests and the street life were hard to keep track of, this story – or set of stories – is something else: chronology is shattered and information only gradually revealed, so that we slowly piece together a history of four old acquaintances, who all, as we eventually gather, have been caught up in different ways in the Kashmir conflict. One, Musa, has become a freedom fighter; his friend Naga is a prominent journalist with shifting political allegiances; the third, known as Garson Hobart (aka Biplap Dasgupta, aka The Landlord), is an agent for Indian intelligence. And they all have been obsessed with Tilo, once an architecture student, who wears no make-up and gives very little away; for The Landlord, ‘I wish I knew what it was about her that disarmed me so completely … I see her as I see a limb of mine – a hand, or a foot.’ The stories that unfold in this middle section – undisclosable in a review, since they depend on secrets – involve funerals, interrogations, revenge killings; but also a wedding, moments on a balcony, an interlude on a houseboat in Srinagar. And much of it revolves around the mysteriously compelling figure of Tilo, who is as central in her way to the novel as the hijra Anjum.

The challenge of reconstructing this fractured narrative from its conflicting perspectives is complicated by the way some of the information is disclosed: through files found in apartments, notes of testimonies, photographs, psychiatric reports, diary entries. But there’s a reason for all the difficulty: these people have difficult, tangled and traumatised pasts, and where elsewhere it’s obvious enough what causes Roy’s novel is taking up – it’s clear what damage the saffron men with saffron smiles are doing – here, with the war in Kashmir, every cause is compromised. It’s a world of ‘black marketeers, bigots, thugs and confidence-tricksters’, where freedom fighters ‘grafted the language of God and Freedom, Allah and Azadi, on to their murders and new scams’. Kashmir is known as jannat – paradise – but as Roy has pointed out in interviews, it’s a paradise that has become a graveyard. Back in Delhi, Anjum’s home for runaways and foundlings gets a name, the Jannat Guest House, and all are welcomed in. This graveyard has become a rare paradise.