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Book review: ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ is a melancholic wail out of a war-torn land

How does a lament sound? Like a distorted sonorous wave? Hitting the crest with a shrill cry and falling to quietude with mangled whimpers?

Or like a prolonged stream of soiled garble, comprehensible only to its beholder?

I don’t know on which note of the spectrum this book might fit in, but I do know that this book is a lament – lament on the daily struggles for (dignified) survival borne by the scarred populace of war-torn Kashmir[1], which unfortunately I can’t talk of in past tense, and the marginalized of the society (taking the transgender as the pivotal link). The book, from where I see, is about two characters – A transgender, Anjum[2] and a riot victim, Tilottama. Anjum, born Aftab in Old Delhi but discarded by her family for socially- unacceptable biological makeup, is adopted by a whore-house.

She lives a good part of her life here before shifting her residence to a graveyard, courtesy a grave altercation related to adoption and rearing of a girl child. Tilottama, on the other hand, begins as a firebrand member of the youth brigade in a posh South Delhi locality but eventually drifts, amid three of her friends and her own dichotomies, to Kashmir and the city’s deep, unknown, frequently fatal, alleys. How life, with her own surprises and shocks, brings the two together rounds up the story.

This book, only second from Roy’s stable in the last twenty years, retains the metaphorical music that she used to fair rapture in her first book. The descriptions, spring to live with her subtle touch, and she, almost, looks to have done that effortlessly. “But regardless of what admonition and punishment awaited him, Aftab would return to his post stubbornly, day after day.

It was the only place in his world where he felt the air made way for him. When he arrived, it seemed to shift, to slide over, like a school friend making room for him on a classroom bench.” Roy’s characteristic insight into her world’s props and their subtle breaths is amply visible.

She weaves intricate patterns, just like the stunning Kashmiri carpets she refers to couple of times, around her characters and one gets to see a motley crew doing their part well. The three friends, all of them men, who walk in and out of Tilo’s life, represent the various facets of the societal fabric Roy wishes to highlight – Biplab is a senior officer in Intelligence Bureau[3], Naga is a incendiary journalist and Musa, an activist or terrorist (depending on the way you would like to see). “S he sensed that in some strange tangential way, he needed her shade as much as she needed his.

And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.” But she gets carried away. She touches upon issues of untouchability and gender divide, fanaticism and terrorism, but they emerge only as matter-of-factly.

There are long stretches of pages which are dedicated to the haunting memories of Tilottama, which, at first grab our heart and hold them in their throes, but soon, they become a necessary vent which loses both on emotional as well as novelty quotient. Anjum, in particular, is crafted with a lot of fragility and I would have loved to read a little more about her but, Roy had another strong motive to accommodate. Those who are familiar with her political stances, which she has diligently championed across the various articles, non-fiction works and speeches she has put forward, would detect that a lot in this book comes shrouded in her disdain towards the state machinery and its administrators.

Place as she might her contempt amid very many chapters, it comes straight out, and with a vengeance. The military establishments, too, come under attack and she holds very few guns back in lambasting their integrity. While she visibly tones down in the second half through the long monologues emanating from Biplab’s hours of prophecy, she doesn’t quite miss the diatribe train to dispatch her venom.

Perhaps, that’s why, even for someone fairly apolitical, the work won’t pass by without glaring its political face at close proximity.

Those viewing the work from a political prism will mostly react in an emphatic manner – whether in support or opposition will depend on their political inclinations. But those looking from an emotional prism will also not be disappointed – she amalgamates the calm and turbulence of her world with experienced rendition.

“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. In battle , Musa told Tilo, enemies can’t break your spirit, only friends can.”

The book teeters over its bumpy rides with seething heart and clamped teeth, and comes to a standstill in the culminating chapters where a certain ray of hope and perpetuity leaps into the air.

The quietness of the shikara stands in stark contrast to the rippling graveyard that is celebrating a wedding, and one doesn’t still know where the lament erupted from and where it died down.

Or if it is still wailing.

— Text by Seemita Das
Stay updated on the go with Times of India News[4] App.

Click here[5] to download it for your device.


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