Posts Tagged ‘Review’

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

June 3, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

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Not Your Father’s Kabir

April 28, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

The poet Kabir died in 1518, so it is jarring to open a translation of his writings and read the following line: “O pundit, your hairsplitting’s/so much bullshit.” It is even stranger to look up and realize that the poem bears an epigraph (“It take a man that have the blues so to sing the blues”) from the American musician Lead Belly, who was not even born until 1888. A quick scan through the volume reveals more epigraphs (Pound, Coleridge), a dedication (one poem is for Geoff Dyer) and vocabulary that Kabir himself could not have come up with: “Smelling of aftershave/and deodorants/the body’s a dried up well…” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir is not, it is safe to say, your father’s Kabir. (more…)

Leela’s Book: A Review

April 22, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.  However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.  Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes.  Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind.  The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn.  She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear.  Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom.  These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book(more…)

Please Read Responsibly

March 1, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts – to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background – some of Arundhati Roy’s essays, for example, or Joan Didion’s – that journalism which gives us both narrative and analysis, the question and some semblance of an answer. (more…)

M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images

August 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it.

Tinderbox

Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks: (more…)