I’m taking unusually long time with Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The novel has failed to enchant me. I feel it’s written with certain political motives. Or else, the author has not been able to transmute her political leanings into art. I may be wrong because I have just finished over a hundred pages only and there are nearly three times that many pages to be read.
There is in the novel a lot of what the Romantic Wordsworth described as “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions.” But the poet had also demanded “recollection in tranquillity.” T S Eliot later described literary writing as an escape from emotions. The artist is a catalyst who transmutes the feelings and emotions into an aesthetic combination. Art transcends the artist, in other words. The artist’s personal biases should not taint the art.
Ms Roy failed in that part, it looks like. Let’s take a passage from the novel for an example:
… the news from Gujarat was horrible. A railway coach had been set on fire by what the newspapers first called ‘miscreants’. Sixty Hindu pilgrims were burned alive. They were on their way home from a trip to Ayodhya where they had carried ceremonial bricks to lay in the foundations of a grand Hindu temple they wanted to construct at the site where an old mosque once stood. The mosque, the Babri Masjid, had been brought down ten years earlier by a screaming mob. A senior cabinet minister (who was in the Opposition then, and had watched as the screaming mob tore down the mosque) said the burning of the train definitely looked like the work of Pakistani terrorists. The police arrested hundreds of Muslims – all auxiliary Pakistanis from their point of view – from the area around the railway station under the new terrorism law and threw them into prison. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, a loyal member of the Organization (as were the Home Minister and the Prime Minister), was, at the time, up for re-election. He appeared on TV in a saffron kurta with a slash of vermillion on his forehead, and with cold, dead eyes ordered that the burnt bodies of the Hindu pilgrims be brought to Ahmedabad, the capital of the state, where they were to be put on display for the general public to pay their respects. A weaselly ‘unofficial spokesperson’ announced unofficially that every action would be met with an equal and opposite reaction. He didn’t acknowledge Newton of course, because, in the prevailing climate, the officially sanctioned position was that ancient Hindus had invented all science.
What Ms Roy has written in the paragraph, as in many other similar paragraphs in the novel, is all true. But it’s supposed to be a novel and not a journalistic account of what transpired. Passages such as the above one tickle our emotions at a raw level and not at an aesthetic level. The transmutation has not taken place. Hence the author ends us as a propagandist rather than an artist.
As I’ve already said, I may be wrong to judge her at this juncture when I have read a little more than a quarter of the book. Let me hope that the rest is going to be better. I have always loved what Ms Roy wrote – all those essays on various subjects. I admire the rebel in her. I share that rebellion, in fact. My own writings, more often than not, remain at that raw emotional level. The person who gifted me the copy of The Ministry even remarked on the similarities between some of my writings and Ms Roy’s. Great as Ms Roy is and diminutive as I am, I was not unduly surprised by the comparison. But when it comes to a novel, the diminutive me has greater expectations from the greatness of Ms Roy.