Review of Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Agnibha Maity and Rusha Biswas

Tales of Graveyards: Understanding Kashmir, Liminality, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

‘She lived in the graveyard like a tree’ – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins with the suggestion of a paradox, of death and life simultaneously. Graveyard pervades the discourse and literature related to Kashmir which is, of course, a ‘territory of desire’ to the mainstream nationalist media. Arundhati Roy, as a political philosopher and as a committed writer, digs the graves deeper in her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This essay places emphasis on the ‘liminal’ experience of the characters living in the graveyard house named ‘Jannat,’ and how this polyphonic fiction could disarrange the mythic illustration surrounding the valley, with special references to contemporary Kashmiri novels.

Roy, in her second novel, by engaging with the silenced, the eluded, and the forming, mediates the aesthetic and the reality. In ‘The Graveyard Talks Back: Fiction in the Time of Fake News’, Roy suggests that her novel, ‘can be read as a conversation between two graveyards’ – one is the graveyard where Anjum, the transgender protagonist, builds a guest house, and the other ‘is the ethereally beautiful valley of Kashmir, which is now, after thirty years of war, covered with graveyards.’ The interminable conflicts arising from the pervading socio-political structure of Kashmir have transposed its status from ‘Paradise on earth,’ an appellation reputedly introduced by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, to ‘paradise on a river of hell’ as expressed by Agha Shahid Ali. Idyllic Jhelum replete with houseboats is an image from a bygone period, an invocation of melancholic nostalgia; it is now metamorphosed into the harbinger of death and chaos, Ali envisions. Setting aside the literary aspects, the valley – irrespective of the binaries of state and militants – witnessed death of seventy thousand civilians from the midnight when the nation made a tryst with destiny. Therefore, graveyard pervading the collective Kashmiri psyche is not an uncommon theme – Munnu, the adolescent protagonist of Malik Sajad’s novel, wakes up every day under the blanket imagining ‘it must be dark in the grave’ as the image of disfigured Mustafa keeps haunting him. The increasing number of deaths has forced to convert a substantial portion of Eidgah (in Srinagar) into a graveyard named ‘Freedom Graveyard,’ and the inscriptions on the tombstone reveal a tragic and brutal reality, ‘Most of the dead were in their twenties,’ as Siddhartha Gigoo woefully writes in his novel The Garden of Solitude. Keeping a Kashmiri Pandit’s family at the centre, the narrative of the novel unfolds in a reminiscing manner. The rhythm emanating from the tales of quiet pleasant episodes of childhood becomes dissonant with the intervening events of armed insurgency and political turmoil. Their neighbours, the Ganis, have been in graveyard business for many generations. Abdul Gani nurtured a beautiful garden in the middle of the graveyard with earnest effort and patience and for him ‘the graveyard was his life.’ His youngest son, Mukhtiar, a juvenile, vowed to avenge the death of his 18-year-old elder brother, dies in a crossfire. The youngest freedom fighter of the locality now lies six feet deep in his ancestral graveyard. Over the span of a few catastrophic weeks, the fate of the Gani family met with an irreversible finality – it was a destiny shared by a large community residing in the valley. The overbearing presence of death strikes again as the author chooses to conclude his narrative with the very word: ‘graveyard.’ Whereas, in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in a geographically distant location, Old Delhi, Anjum renames the makeshift house in the graveyard as Jannat (paradise, in Urdu), – where she welcomes migrant outcasts and strays – and her attempt to fabricate her clots of homelessness also becomes an endeavour to alter the symbolism of death associated with the graveyard. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness locates itself in an intermezzo, an intermediary, liminal space – in-between dream and reality, fiction and non-fiction, life and death, Pakistan and India, He and She – and welcomes the reader to the ‘mehfil’, ‘Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing.’ Second part of this essay is reserved for understanding what this liminality and ‘in-betweenness’ imply, to further experience the hyphenated critique of dominant hegemony the graveyard offers.

Roy, abandoning the linear portrayal, defies the law of the centre and grants the reader an access to the unmapped, unchartered areas of liminal experience. According to Turner, who coined the term ‘liminal personae,’ liminal characters are those who are often nameless, stateless, and whose identity can be dismissed by the state at any given time; they are ‘betwixt and between the positions arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.’ For instance, the unnamed narrator in Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator, earns money from the Indian armed force by collecting ID cards and weapons from the corpses in an open graveyard which once used to be a playground. Uneasiness chills his spine every time he finds a new body in the valley, lest it turns out to be one of his disappeared playmates. This graveyard of his cherished childhood memories is now burdened with unclaimed, unidentified bodies, stripped of minimum burial rites. Yet, their bare lives can pose a challenge to the biopolitics of the sovereign as they could easily pollute or threaten the structure. Roy’s liminal characters, devoid of fixed identity, revolve around the valley of Kashmir, marked with ‘city graveyards, village graveyards, mass graves, unmarked graves’ – a geographically in-between territory – where screams from neighbouring interrogation centre echo ‘like the drumbeat of steady rain on a tin roof’ and Anjum’s ancestral Kabristan in Old Delhi. Graveyard house provides shelters to the dissenters, from fugitive Sadam Hussian to Anjum who despite being a transwoman adopts an abandoned girl child, Zainab. The story travels faster; focuses on Musa, a Kashmiri, whose wife, and daughter were killed by the Indian army, and shifts reader’s attention to martyr’s graveyard, where in the epitaph of her young four-year-old daughter, he insists on writing, ‘Tell me a story, there wasn’t a witch, and she didn’t live in the jungle’ Graveyard, according to Islamic faith, is also a transitional passage, a state before the final resurrection by Allah; it is a holy place for the militants in Kashmir: for them, to borrow Agha Sahid Ali’s words, ‘In this mosaic-world of silent/ graveyards the difference lies between/ death and dying.’ In the novel, death also unifies the experiences of the social pariahs; a soldier belonging to the ‘untouchable community,’ despite being celebrated as war-hero, could not be buried alongside the upper caste villagers’ – his place after death is in the graveyard next to the ‘village dump.’

The graveyard house is a unique proposition by Roy: it offers readers to reimagine the space and plays with the potency of the same. They place the abject entities and identities right in the middle, and therefore constituting a heterotopia: a Foucauldian space for the ‘Others;’ a ghetto without hegemonies. ‘The one clear criterion was that Jannat Funeral Services would only bury those whom the graveyards and imams of the Duniya had rejected.’ Hence, Anwar bhai, a brothel owner, can bring the mutilated body of Rubina – who worked in the brothel – to cover her body in shroud and finish the funeral with dignity. Interesting fact is that, even the police – a machinery of state – brought bodies to them for burial services: it becomes an act of preventing the social ‘haemorrhage’; a ‘respite’. Roy, juxtaposing art with politics, in a polemical manner, reminds the reader that the fable of national unification will only triumph if the subjectivity of a Muslim, an orphan, or a queer are being equally heard. She refuses to provide any ‘harmonically hermetic’ solution to the problems of the land but attempts to disturb the rhetoric, and symbolic order of the kind of jingoist narratives and propaganda that permeates the mass media and ends up celebrating the lush and fecund ‘middle,’ the liminal.

In the final few pages, we read how Roy’s ‘patchwork of narratives’ – as described by the Guardian – ends ‘binding together the worlds that have been ripped apart.’ On the final night Tilo, daughter of a Syria Christan woman and a man belonging to the Dalit community, spent with lover Musa, a Muslim by birth, they fell into each other’s arms, wrapping themselves with the wonder of their first meeting; the fable of infinite injustice thus dissolves with the footnote of hope, comradery, solidarity, and extensively, love. Roy’s psychological landscape is therefore inclusive: open to all kinds of defiance, even to those who are categorically nonhuman entities: a dung beetle or a kitten’s bare fangs add to the symbolic halt in heaven falling apart. Roy thus merges life with nonlife, being with non-being to paint a poetry of resistance.

 In 2008, when forest department initiated a plantation project in some deserted graveyards in Kashmir, the residents of Chattabal belt of Srinagar, transformed the graveyard on the riverbank of Jhelum, into gardens and there were no need of gravestones as the bodies got entangled underneath the soil of paradise – the land they placed above all, metaphorically, with the roots of the trees, united in death and the causes; perhaps, this is what Tilottoma intended to convey to the reader through the poem in her notebook: ‘How/ to/ tell/ a/ shattered/ story?/ By/ slowly/ becoming/ everybody./ No./ By/ slowly/ becoming/ everything.’

Agnibha Maity is a PhD candidate and UGC Senior Research Fellow at the Department of English, University of North Bengal. His research interests are in archival studies, subaltern studies, and Indian literature.

Rusha Biswas is a PhD student and UGC Junior Research Fellow at the Department of
English, University of North Bengal. She completed her master’s degree in 2019 from the
University of Calcutta. She is interested in Kashmiri literature, psychoanalysis, and
postcolonial studies.

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