I’ve read a lot of books for this blog that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. So when I find one that really speaks to me, it’s an especially pleasant surprise. My selection for India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy, is just such a book. It has so many layers and covers such a vast array of people and their stories, that I can’t possibly do it justice in this short post. Here, however, is a brief description.
A baby is born to a family in New Delhi, and the parents are overjoyed that, after having had three girls, this new baby is finally a boy. Or so they think. They discover later that their baby actually has both male and female organs – a hermaphrodite. They name him Aftab and raise him as a boy, but he begins to identify as a girl. When he is fifteen years old, he changes his name to Anjum and moves into a house of hijras, people who have adopted “a gender role that is neither traditionally male nor traditionally female.” From this point on, the author uses feminine pronouns when writing about Anjum. The house she moves into is called Khwabgah – House of Dreams – and Anjum lives there happily for many years. She finds an abandoned three-year-old girl on the street and takes her in, giving her the name Zainab.
At the age of forty-six, Anjum, who is no longer happy at Khwabgah, moves out, leaving Zainab behind with the other hijras who dote on her. Having nowhere to go, Anjum moves to a cemetery. After a while, she begins to build a home on top of the graves, and other odds and ends of people begin to join her there – a blind imam, an untouchable determined to avenge his father’s death, other hijras. She names the house built on the graves of the dead the Jannat Guest House.
One day, Anjum and her entourage travel to a part of New Delhi called Jantar Mantar. It’s an observatory, but in the book, it also seems to act as a type of public square, where all sorts of people come to promote their causes. In the midst of all the activity, it is discovered that someone has abandoned a baby girl. Anjum tries to take the baby with her, but a man prevents her and a fight ensues. Anjum and the man are both arrested, and the baby disappears.
At this point, the story moves away from Anjum and focuses on the lives of four people, now close to middle-aged, who had known each other many years before in a college drama class. Musa, a Kashmiri separatist, Naga, a journalist, and Biplab, a member of India’s foreign service, had all been captivated by S. Tilottama, an architect. Their paths had not crossed very often in the years since college, but now their lives suddenly become intertwined. The catalyst for these reconnections is the insurgency in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that began in the late 1980s. The setting of the book moves from New Delhi to Kashmir, where the brutality of the Indian government against the Kashmiri people and the discrimination against the people of this majority Muslim state by the majority Hindu government are on full display.
Eventually, the story comes full circle, and a link is established between Anjum and her entourage and S. Tilottama and her admirers. By this time, there has been so much information imparted about living outside of gender expectations, religious bigotry, the horrors of the caste system, the plight of women and girls, and the corruption of government that the reader despairs of the book ending happily.
That’s exactly what it does, though, which brought a huge sigh of relief from me.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness contains scenes of utter despair, and moments of the purest joy. The author is a master of her craft, and this book is a stunning patchwork of gripping stories and fascinating characters.
A whole lot of meat dishes are eaten by the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, even though one of the characters, Zainab, is a collector of animals in need of rescue. “None of her tenderness towards living creatures, however, got in the way of her voracious meat eating.” So most of the dishes mentioned in the book were not vegan or veganizable. One passage talks about a beloved dog named Biroo who has moved into the graveyard with Anjum and her friends, though – “a beagle who had either escaped from or outlived his purpose in a pharmaceuticals testing lab.” He receives shelter and loving care at the Jannat Guest House, where “[h]e drank everything Anjum drank, ate everything that she ate…” One of those things that Biroo and Anjum both eat is biryani, a heavily seasoned rice dish. On the International Vegetarian Union website, I found a recipe for Vegetable Biryani, which turned out really well. Not sure I would feed anything that spicy to a dog, though…
I had no trouble finding potential programs to support in India – GlobalGiving’s website listed a whopping 743 projects. Trying to narrow down the field to choose just one was difficult. My first thought was to look for a project serving LGBTQIA people in India, in honor of Anjum, but none of the projects listed fit that description, and I wasn’t able to find one with an accessible fundraising platform on any other website. Next, I looked for a project supporting people in Kashmir, but again I came up empty. I finally decided to donate to a program providing food, funds, and support to people affected by the COVID-19 virus. According to the project description: “India’s national lockdown, restricting transit and shuttering most businesses, has had a devastating impact on low-wage earners, roadside vendors, and struggling farmers, as jobs are eliminated, road traffic disappears, and market demand evaporates. This project will fund providing emergency food and supplies to 1200 people in Tamil Nadu who are at risk of starvation and cash grants to 100 farmers and individual enterprises for loan or rent payments.” More information about this program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/tamil-nadu-coronavirus-relief/.
NEXT STOP: INDONESIA
(Originally published on June 14, 2020.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.