Summer Reading: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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For some summer reading while on holiday, I grabbed The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Glad I did.

I’d heard of her but had not read The God of Small Things, her multi-million selling Booker Prize winning first novel. Nor, until I did a bit of googling after finishing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, did I know that this is only her second novel some 20 years after first bursting onto the literary scene in 1997.

I think this was an advantage. I came to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with no preconceptions, negative or positive.

Quite effortlessly, it swept me into its world, (over)populated by a bewildering cast of characters, the most significant being Anjum, a Hijra (who can be eunuchs, intersex or transgender) and her tumultuous life in Old Delhi; and four College friends whose lives intersect over generations: Ms Tilottama and three men who loved her – Musa the Kashmiri separatist, Naga the celebrity journalist and Biplap Dasgupta, a senior employee of the Indian Intelligence Bureau.

How to describe it?  (some vague spoilers ahead, nothing major).

It’s an education that immerses an ignorant Westerner like me in the smells, colours, food, violence, injustice, rancid politics and religious pluralist mayhem of the new India.

It’s a political expose, venomous in its contempt for the fascism of Hindu nationalism, the pervasive casual brutalities of the caste system, and – most of all – for India’s genocidal policies in Kashmir.

(For a Christian perspective on these themes read Vinoth Ramachandra here. Indeed, every single point that Ramachandra makes in his post is told through story and character in Roy’s book).

It’s a feminist cri de Coeur – several times the refrain is repeated, ‘the women are not allowed’. Patriarchy, misogyny and violence against women bubbles below the surface, erupting from time to time in merciless brutality. The lead women characters (Tilo and Anjum) are fiercely independent and unafraid to be themselves whatever the cost in a culture that marginalises and disempowers women.

It’s an anti-capitalist manifesto – searing in its ironic descriptions of the hypocrisies and empty promises of capitalist ‘progress’ and its brutal impact on the poor and powerless.

It’s a type of upside-down-liberation theology where the oppressed, the hated, the despised, the mocked and the poor are the ones in whom hope and humanity are found. The rich, the powerful, the aristocracy and the military are dehumanising forces of darkness.

It’s a utopian vision (and as such has been criticised for being naïve and simplistic) of how the ministry of utmost happiness emerges, against all odds and in the most unlikely place you could imagine; a place where somehow, India’s irreconcilable hatreds are overcome amongst the fetid poverty of a graveyard in Delhi.

It’s a love story: of Tilomatta and the men who loved her, and particularly of her and Musa’s great love that somehow transcends their lives.

It’s a work of literature, while flawed, that is bursting with brilliant images and memorable people.

While it’s packed full of unimaginable tragedy, ultimately however, it is a comedy – it breathes hope for a better day. The sheer humanity of Roy’s cast of characters shines through the chaotic, meandering storyline. I’m glad to have spent time in their company. When I put the book down, I was heavy-hearted to leave them behind.

And, since this is a theology blog here are some theological musings – thought experiments rather than worked out conclusions.

First, I was left with a deep sense of sin, Fall, death, injustice, violence, corruption, greed, and embedded structural evil that marks the human condition. India, with all her extravagant polarities, makes plain what we, in our more ‘civilised’ Western cultures, try to mask or tell ourselves that we can fix – that our world is broken, we are broken, our cultures are twisted by sin and injustice at deep levels.

Second, Roy’s fiction – and her life – revolves around a passionate desire for justice. Sure you can disagree with her politics, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a tale that longs for a better India, a better world, and closes with an almost messianic hope.

A longing for justice to be done is, I believe, a human instinct, because it flows from God himself. The gospel of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate Son, is a story of God putting sin and injustice on notice – one day our deep-seated longing for justice will be fulfilled. But this future hope, should call us to a passion for justice in the here and now. I knew nothing about Roy before reading this book – I know a bit now, and am challenged by her passion to act for the powerless and oppressed.

Third, I resonated with Roy’s hopefulness. Yes, India (and the world) is complex, fragmented and unjust. But there is hope. The book is deeply human, not a bitter nihilistic rant. Anjum’s story is one of overcoming horror to build, by accident, an alternative community where all are welcome (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness). If in the book, a source of hope is in the force of Anjum’s personality itself, Christians can have a deeper hope that rests on the loving character of God and his actions in the world through his Son and the gift of the Spirit as a guarantee of a new creation to come.

Fourth, the calling of the church is to be a ‘ministry of utmost happiness’. Now, if you read the book, this parallel is very unlikely I know – these are musings remember! In the book the ministry of utmost happiness is, we are told, the place where ‘for the first time in her life, Tilo felt that her body had enough room to accommodate all her organs.’ Later, she finds that

the burden of perpetual apprehension that she had carried around for years … had lightened somewhat … because the battered angels in the graveyard that kept watch over their battered charges held open doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack) so that the souls of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party. It made life less determinate and death less conclusive. Somehow, everything became a little easier to bear.

For ‘Saddam Hussein’ (a Dalit who had converted to Islam after the brutal murder of his father by a Hindu mob for supposed cow killing) the ministry is a place where he leaves behind his vow for revenge and finds happiness. For an abandoned baby, it is a place of sanctuary, where adults form a determined protective core to ensure that she will grow up surrounded by her dead mother’s love and courage and free from her father’s world of misogyny and brutality.

There are echoes here of the church as a radical community of grace that transcends gender, ethnicity, caste, and socio-economic status (Galatians 3:28). A kingdom community following Jesus’ example that welcomes the ‘untouchables’, the lost, the marginalised and the broken-hearted. A place where the kingdom of God overlaps the world. A place of healing and restoration.

Fifth, the book is a reminder of human frailty and weakness. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, washed up on its front door. Pretension is useless. Utter poverty strips back any veneer of self-sufficiency and pride.

Thinking about parallels to the church, it seems to me that here in the West there are at least two major obstacles to spiritual authenticity.

One is middle-class obsession with politeness, manners, respectability and good citizenship. Yet what is the church if not a collection of sinners in need of forgiveness and new life? What is worship if not a deep sense of our own failure and need of God’s grace?

Another is middle-class self-sufficiency. Where our lives are pretty well ordered, reasonably successful and secure. Where our needs are mostly met and we have (the illusion) that we are in control of our own lives. God is largely superfluous – an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters.

Yet the gospel shatters such superficial pretensions. Christian hope does not depend on us – we are utterly unable to save ourselves. It depends completely on the saving work of Christ. Access into that hope is by confession and repentance. It is by dying to ourselves that we have life and hope. That’s a humbling place to begin, but begin there it must.

It is no accident that the global church is growing exponentially in places like India, South America, Africa and China and not in the ‘rich’ and ‘self-sufficient’ West. Self-sufficiency, wealth, pride, and security don’t ‘do’ humility, confession and repentance too easily.

Sixth, Roy’s book asks one of the most fundamental questions facing humanity – how are we going to deal with our deep differences? It is going to be the route of Kashmir, of Rwanda, of the Balkans, of IS in Syria and Iraq etc etc etc – of brutality and counter-brutality in an ever-increasing cycle of violence, hatred and tears?

Or is there another way?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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