“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”. So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The book is a literary master-piece full of evocative language and images that serve to communicate a teeming over-crowded world full of dislocated but unique individuals.
The heroine (or hero) of the novel is Anjum, perhaps one of the most unusual characters in modern fiction. Anjum is a woman in a man’s body who knows her destiny and vocation in life from an early age. Roy’s description of Anjum’s inner anguish offers amazing insights into the spiritual life of a “hijra” or transgender person and his/her sense of community in modern Delhi. Anjum comes from the Muslim community.
After Anjum has both, reveled in and suffered from, her life as a transgender escort, she moves out of her community and settles into an abandoned corner of a grave-yard. Here she slowly begins a new life as the Manager of a guest-house. We continue to meet a host of interesting and unusual characters on the edge of a rapidly developing modern city. Through these lives we experience the devastating consequences of this economic progress on the lives of the poor under-class of Delhi.
The novel’s other main character is Tilo, a brilliant female architect, who cannot find her place in the world either. Through Tilo, we discover another range of amazing characters who offer rich insights into the dynamics of modern Indian life but especially into the growth of both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism. The Christian minority is also viewed through the kaleidoscopic gaze of a child abandoned by her Christian mother because she carries the dark skin of her low-caste father. Her own loves remain crippled by this loss.
In an extraordinary feat of literary skill, Roy describes an Indian sub-society where gentle tenderness and cruel violence exist side by side. We never know what is coming next. Economic and political upheaval provide the impetus to community upheaval and disintegration. A sense of complete dislocation from the past and its traditions, characterizes the spiritual confusion of all the main characters. The moral compass guiding each person is revolving so quickly that it cannot be used to make concrete decisions. It is as if the world is changing so fast, that the inhabitants are slowly metamorphosing into a community of the living dead. The novel offers no hope of a better world.