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A grotesque tale of the isolated and disregarded



A Grotesque tale of the isolated and disregarded

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is utopian and crammed with intense antagonism. It exposes the difficult times we live in and manages to shake us out of our comfort zone

By Binoo K John

These are dystopic times. If it’s not noir, it’s not a novel. Everywhere there are graveyards and people are dying or on the verge of death. This year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes went to Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s The Square which Time magazine describes as “a sly sardonic picture about a dashing museum curator whose dysfunctional institution is a microcosm of the larger world… What does it take to jog the upper classes out of their comfortable insularity?”

In fact, the job of a novelist is the same as that of a filmmaker and the sooner he/she can rattle various classes and castes out of the insularity, the better. But pulling people out of their comfort zone is a tough creative act. Far away from the film festival circuit,  another novel based in the South Kerala coast written by the up and coming Anees Salim and published this month by Penguin-Hamish Hamilton— the same  publishers of Arundhati Roy (Is June the dystopia month  to outgun the cruelty of April?)—also envelopes us in a dark sad world in which  one of the main character is dying, dying, almost dead, wakes up from the dead, goes for a walk on the beach and finally dies again with a flourish which  has  a finality to it.

Anees Salim also loves the graveyard like Arundhati Roy. His graveyard appears unsurprisingly after the casual flip of the first page of the deceptively titled The Small Town Sea. To quote: “The graveyard Vappa was taken to was an unruly garden, carpeted with a thick layer of dead leaves. I had been there before… the undergrowth was like Pygmies jungles, studded with thorns as if they were guarding the dead from the living.” The graveyard appears again a bit later as if to confirm the finality of various deaths.

June being the month of dystopia, the master of them all, Arundhati Roy arrives with her own graveyard, (cruel joke to take us to a graveyard after we waited 20 years to read this and with the gleefully ironic words “Utmost happiness” in the title) which is also like the Swedish film—a microcosm of a larger world.

Arundhati Roy participates in a rally supporting Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016. Photo: Anil Shakya

Arundhati Roy participates in a rally supporting Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016. Photo: Anil Shakya


Roy’s graveyard has no match in recent memory. Mainly because this Nizamuddin (where this writer goes to buy beef more as a sign of rebellion than craving!) graveyard is also a place to live, not just to die. Right there on page one, the graveyard comes alive. “She lived in a graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.”  Some writers like Salim look at the undergrowth and others like Roy look at the high branches. Some graveyards are for the dead. Others for the living.

Roy’s novel betrays the burden of expectation, the burden of portraying an India that some of us like the author believe is getting ruptured  by hate lines, the burden of drawing out a metaphor for this regressing country, the burden of standing up to all that, the burden of having changed journalism into a sword that she twisted into the rib cage of various governments, the burden of standing alone, a waif of a girl against everything, with only the power of her intellect, the unflinching daring and  total mastery of the language to sustain her.

In terms of polemic and sarcasm and the big sword that she pierces into the heart of the ruling establishment, nothing has been written in India to match this

Utmost Happiness at various stages, burdened by unrelenting polemic, almost sinks (which would have left us with Utmost Sadness) with the weight of drawing out this India, but the power of Roy’s intellect, her felicity with language, the ease of her sarcasm and bitter ironies all hold up the novel and sets it up for another shot at the Booker.

A Grotesque tale of the isolated and disregardedFrom page one it jogs us out of our comfort zone, takes us from the graveyard of Nizamuddin to the graveyards of Gujarat, of Kashmir as if the darkness of a hijra’s world with which the book starts wasn’t enough. At the release of the Italian edition of the book in Rome which this writer attended, Roy said that boundaries run through all the characters in her book. The Hijra Anjum of course crosses the boundaries of gender, her friend Saddam Hussain the boundaries of religion, a Hindu having taken on the Muslim identity, Kashmir of course not knowing where its boundaries lie and so on. (“In Kashmir when we wake up and say ‘Good morning’ what we actually mean is ‘good mourning’”) The novel thus exists in the cusp of being and nothingness. Through it all Roy trolls the undergrowth so to say, scooping up the dregs of society trying to give them a name and a meaning.

Roy’s focus no doubt are the forgotten underdogs of society whom the emerging India has pushed to the margins and is making an effort to forget them as well. “Their stories are being erased. Even in Bollywood their stories are no longer told,” Roy says.

Brimming with anger, Roy’s novel is completely scatological as well, liberally using the words forbidden by the moral classes that dominate today’s discourse, as if to dare them. Even the bright yellow Amaltas flower that blooms in Delhi says “fuck you” to the sky over and over again. 

In many sections, the novel reads like an extension of her powerful polemical essays which for the last two decades send shivers down the spine of the political class who like draughtsmen were drawing out the details of the police-CBI-military raj to replace the license-permit raj which we all despised and threw away. “The violence of exclusion and the violence of inclusion is part of the Indian project,” she says.

The novel is a parade of the unwanted and the forgotten. Roy builds up for us an India we have almost forgotten in our rush to catch up with the GDP numbers and the Repo rate. We have used whiteners over the scripts of the unwashed, Roy seems to say and offers us this novel spilling with vitriol and sadness. (Why else would the copy I got be wrapped with two jackets, as if to contain all the acid within?)

Brimming with anger, Roy’s novel is completely scatological as well, liberally using the words forbidden by the moral classes that dominate today’s discourse, as if to dare them. Even the bright yellow Amaltas flower that blooms in Delhi says “fuck you” to the sky over and over again.  In case the western reader fails to understand all the Delhi gaalis that liberally italicise the text, the author gives the translation as well, which considerably helps those like this author who use these words on the streets and the parlours of Delhi without really understanding their underlying mysteries.

In 2011, Hazare went on an indefinite fast to push for the passing of the Lokpal bill. Photo: Anil Shakya

In 2011, Hazare went on an indefinite fast to push for the passing of the Lokpal bill. Photo: Anil Shakya


In terms of polemic and sarcasm and the big sword that she pierces into the heart of the ruling establishment, nothing has been written in India to match this. Jantar Mantar, Nizamuddin and Old Delhi are her favourite hunting grounds. Roy goes to Jantar Mantar to completely demolish Anna Hazare and Kejriwal (Aggarwal in the novel) for what the author terms a pretend war against corruption. “Like a good prospector the old man had tapped into a rich seam, a reservoir against public anger and much to his own surprise had become a cult figure overnight.” To Anna she credits part of the middle class sense of entitlement and anger against the underclass which sustains many governments in India today. “Doodh maangogey to kheer dengey! Kashmir maangogey to chiir dengey!”

A Booker winner is entitled to take this majestic leap of faith to create a modern-day classic. Too many complications and complexities, the product of such ambition, destroy the flow of the book. Much of the stuff could have been done away with but which editor can suggest this to Roy without being put down?

Roy sees Delhi as very few have, and big novels are set in big cities. She sees the city as an evolving story. As a modern Indian novel in English, (most Indian novels are set in various comfort zones so as not to disturb its target audience) for its scale, its understanding of the larger hidden Indian story, its complete empathy with the underclasses, its utter scorn for the pot bellied ruling classes and their devious take-over schemes, the book is a classic. With this and some earlier novels, we can hope that the Indian English novel is finally liberated from, the concerns of the ruthlessly greedy middle class.

Few novels I have read or read about, have so totally identified with the deprived and the sad. Was she telling the unseen or telling the stories we refuse to see? Either way, Roy has given us a masterpiece to talk about for many years. If not anything, we all need to feel angry for a lot of things.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Book reviews

Fawaz Jaleel’s Nobody Likes An Outsider wins India Prime Authors Award



Fawaz Jaleel

Indian thriller author, Fawaz Jaleel’s Indian political thriller, Nobody Likes An Outsider hit the market in March 2021. The book has been receiving rave reviews from both readers and critics since its release. Now, the book has got another achievement in the form of Foxclues India Prime Authors award.

Set in Begusarai, Nobody Likes An Outsider traces the death of a young Indian politician and his personal assistant. A young CBI team led by Yohan Tytler is called to investigate the murder. The book travels between 1970’s to 2020 across significant events that took place in the modern history of India and Bihar. The climax reveals a very sensitive yet lesser spoken about aspect in Indian politics and demographics.

This is Fawaz Jaleel’s debut novel. However, he has written three short stories in the past – From The Land Of Palaces, The Legend of Birbal’s Bull, and Alternate Identities. These stories were published in anthology books by Write India publishers and Juggernaut. 

Foxclues received more than 3000 nominations for the award out of which Nobody Likes An Outsider made the cut. The book has also been optioned by a Mumbai based production house to be converted to a series.  Presented by delhi-based publishing house, Kalamos, Nobody Likes An Outsider continues to attract a good readership. 

Born in Vilakkudy Kerala, Fawaz Jaleel did his schooling in the island nation of Bahrain before moving to Chennai for his post graduation. He completed his graduation in Journalism from Madras Christian College and post graduation in Development studies from Azim Premji University. 

The sequel of Nobody Likes An Outsider is set to be released in 2022. Currently, Fawaz is working on another political thriller series based on geopolitical events with a focus on Indian politics. He also has a comedy-thriller about India’s housing market set to be released in the coming year.

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Book reviews

Lessons from My Grandfather



Lessons from My Grandfather

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text](An extract from The Gift of Anger by Arun Gandhi, internationally renowned activist, speaker and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi)

By Arun Gandhi

We were going to visit Grandfather. To me, he was not the great Mahatma Gandhi whom the world revered but just “Bapuji,” the kindly grandfather my parents talked about often. Coming to visit him in India from our home in South Africa required a long journey. We had just endured a sixteen-hour trip on a crowded train from Mumbai, packed into a third-class compartment that reeked of cigarettes and sweat and the smoke from the steam engine. We were all tired as the train chugged into the Wardha station and it felt good to escape the coal dust and step onto the platform and gulp fresh air.

It was barely nine in the morning, but the early sun was blazing hot.  The station was just a platform with a single room for the stationmaster, but my dad found a porter in a long red shirt and loincloth to help us with our bags and lead us to where the horse buggies (called tongas in India) were waiting. Dad lifted Ela, my six-year-old sister, onto the buggy and asked me to get in next to her. He and Mom would walk behind.

“ I’ll walk too,” I said.

“It’s a long distance—probably eight miles,” Dad pointed out.

“That is not a problem for me,” I insisted. I was twelve years old and wanted to appear tough.

It didn’t take long to regret my decision.  The sun kept getting hotter, and the road was paved for only about a mile from the station. Before long I was tired and sweat soaked and covered with dust and grime, but I knew that I couldn’t climb into the buggy now. At home the rule was that if you said something, you had to back it up with action. It didn’t matter if my ego was stronger than my legs—I had to keep going.

Finally we approached Bapuji’s ashram, called Sevagram. After all our travels, we had reached a remote spot, in the poorest of the poor heartland of India. I had heard so much about the beauty and love Grandfather brought to the world that I might have expected blossoming flowers and fl owing waterfalls. Instead the place appeared fl at, dry, dusty, and unremarkable, with some mud huts around an open common space. Had I come so far for this barren, unimpressive spot? I thought there might be at least a welcome party to greet us, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to our arrival. “Where is everybody?” I asked my mom.

We went to a simple hut where I took a bath and scrubbed my face. I had met Bapuji once before, when I was fi ve years old, but I didn’t remember the visit, and I was slightly nervous now for our second meeting. My parents had told us to be on good behaviour when greeting Grandfather because he was an important man.

My parents and Ela stayed just a few days at the ashram before heading off to visit my mother’s large family in other parts of India. But I was to live and travel with Bapuji for the next two years, as I grew from a naïve child of twelve to a wiser young man of fourteen. In that time, I learned from him lessons that forever changed the direction of my life.

Bapuji often had a spinning wheel at his side, and I like to think of his life as a golden thread of stories and lessons that continue to weave in and out through the generations, making a stronger fabric for all our lives. Many people now know my grandfather only from the movies, or they remember that he started the nonviolence movements that eventually came to the United States and helped bring about civil rights. But I knew speaking reverentially about him, and I imagined that somewhere on the grounds of the ashram was the mansion where Bapuji lived, surrounded by a swarm of attendants.

Instead, I was shocked when we walked to another simple hut and stepped across a mud-floor veranda into a room no more than ten by fourteen feet. There was Bapuji, squatting in a corner of the floor on a thin cotton mattress.

Later I would learn that visiting heads of state squatted on mats next to him to talk and consult with the great Gandhi. But now Bapuji gave us his beautiful, toothless smile and beckoned us forward. Following our parents’ lead, my sister and I went to bow at his feet in traditional Indian obeisance. He would have none of that, quickly pulling us to him to give us affectionate hugs. He kissed us on both cheeks, and Ela squealed with surprise and delight.

“How was your journey?” Bapuji asked.

I was so overawed that I stuttered, “Bapuji, I walked all the way from the station.”

He laughed and I saw a twinkle in his eye. “Is that so? I am so proud of you,” he said, and planted more kisses on my cheeks.

I could immediately feel his unconditional love, and that to me was all the blessing I needed. But there were many more blessings to come.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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Book reviews

Can love resurrect the dead?



Can love resurrect the dead?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]It isn’t often that you see a little girl, all by herself, crouched on a bench in a remote corner of a park.

I looked around. The park was moderately occupied for a Saturday evening—kids screaming with joy on colourful swings; oldies holding their walking sticks and padding slowly on the zigzag tracks; young couples hiding behind bushes, landing watchful kisses on each other—and yet, no one seemed to notice this girl.

She would be no more than twelve, or thirteen perhaps. She had her legs drawn up to her chest and her head rested on her knees. Her long hair shrouded her face almost in entirety.

As I approached her, I realized she was crying. A knot tightened in my chest. I took a seat next to her. Her curved back moved up and down as she sobbed. Her right hand flew to her nose, wiping it, and at that moment, her face tilted a little to my side. She grew conscious of my presence and shifted her head to the other side, ceasing her sobs for the time being.

From the little that I saw of her face, she came across as a pretty child, hailing from an affluent family. Her dark blue jeans, with the Zara tag sticking out, bright pink T-shirt and a pair of brand new magenta Crocs confirmed my assessment.

Carefully, she turned her head and still finding me there, jerked it back to the other side. I smiled. ‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘You can cry.’ She remained quiet. ‘Crying is good,’ I said, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of her face. ‘It helps dissolve some of the pain.’ She said nothing but shook her head vigorously, her long and soft hair swaying all over.

I figured she was crying because her father probably refused to give her a toy or something. I knew these rich kids; they could never be happy. We had plenty of spoilt kids like her in this neighbourhood of south Delhi, who wanted nothing less than heaven on Earth.

In the western part of the sky, the sun shone brightly. It would take more than an hour for dusk to arrive. Although her sobs had ceased, the kid’s posture remained unchanged: legs up to her chest, arms wrapped around her knees and face turned to the other side. ‘Are you okay now?’

She lifted her head, ran a clumsy hand across it and for the first time, turned to me, nodding just a little. She looked like one of those cute kids from the advertisements on TV. She had a perfectly round face, big eyes and exceptionally flawless skin. Her eyes were soggy and the skin below it wrinkled. She curled her lips and another bout of tears emerged.

‘Why are you so sad? What happened? Tell me, I’ll help you.’ She shook her head again. ‘You can’t help me. No one can.’

‘Try me,’ I said.

She gave a loud sniff and wiped her eyes. Now my heart went out to her. It is heartbreaking to watch kids cry. ‘Okay, let me guess,’ I said, moving closer to her. ‘Your father didn’t get you a . . .  a . . .  Barbie doll?’She frowned, wrinkling her nose and narrowing her eyes to slits. ‘I’m not a kid! I don’t cry for such foolish reasons!’I frowned. ‘Not a kid? How old are you?’ ‘Thirteen. ’‘So well, you are a kid.’

She shrugged and looked ahead. I smiled and shook my head. Perhaps, calling a kid a kid is not a cool thing. But at least this conversation managed to disrupt her sobs.

‘Oh, by the way, I didn’t even ask your name.’

She looked at me, her head tilting just a bit as though in pride. ‘Akshara Malhotra.’

‘And my name is Harvinder,’ I said. ‘But you can call me Harry.’

‘Why should I call you Harry if your name is Harvinder?’ I sputtered a quick laugh. ‘Because that’s my nickname. I like it. Don’t you have nickname?’ ‘No.’

‘Actually, you don’t need one. You have a pretty name.’ Her face glistened, a flush rising up her cheeks. ‘My mother gave it to me.’ And the flush disappeared as quickly as it came. Tears welled up in her eyes again. My heart thudded in my chest as the sudden realization hit me. She nodded, slowly choking on her sobs. ‘She… she died.’

(Excerpted with permission from The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Vikrant Khanna, published by Penguin and priced at Rs 139)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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