Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Literature of Utmost Happiness: A Review

When I began the book, despite on-the-fence reviews and a generally sceptical audience, I was enthralled. Planting her feet firmly in Old Delhi, Roy begins the book with a hermaphrodite born in the same space as RoohAfza, a graveyard that very quickly becomes a guest house, a boy indirectly blinded by Subodh Gupta and enough satin and sequins for the entire cast of Cats. What starts out a cross between the brilliance of  City Of Djinns and Middlesex, turns very quickly into a scrapbook of Arundhati Roy's own socio-political journey over the last two decades. So much so that at times you pause and say, "Oh Arundhati separate the novelist from the activist for Chrissake!"

Though the book begins with Anjum, it is also the story of four friends - Naga, Musa, the "Landlord" Mr Biplab Dasgupta and one Tilotamma or Tilo of raw hair, angular features and extraordinary character. No prizes for guessing who Tilo will remind you of or is most likely loosely based on. And she's mesmerising. The book spans thirty years with a light touch, and traces the journeys of these four friends as they try to find their way to Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services (and petting zoo?) at the Graveyard.

Somewhere the book ventures into magic realism but something tells you with Roy this isn't a genre but a way of life. It is how she genuinely sees the world, not how she wishes she saw it. There are butterflies and bulls that appear at odd hours, boys that become fire and babies resembling baby seals. There are groups of friends that give you hope - a Bengali, a Kashmiri, a Keralite and a Delhi boy. A Hijra, an Imam, an erstwhile mortician and security guard, a jet setting builder, a goat trader, a protesting doctor and a graphic designer. You see? It is the world as it should be. A world where the borders between humans, if not those between countries, attempt to erase.

Yes it is part manisfesto, and touches on every political scar dealt to this country since the Mughal Era (no seriously, she manages to include partition, '84, Bhopal, the North East, Godhra etc etc in 400 short pages), and yes there are times it gets both painful and tedious. When 25 pages from the end of the novel she takes a detour, adds a character and gives her a background that includes rape and other torture and a three generation life story littered with social evil, you almost want to groan. But that's the beauty of it, you feel like such a little shit when you do. So you read. And you learn. And you feel the shame and sadness you avoid otherwise, while living your grand life of books and holidays and first world problems. And there, Arundhati Roy succeeds, she makes you feel with her what she has had the burden of feeling alone all these years. She sparks your conscience.

With her the personal has always been political, so I'm not sure why we expected less, or expected an easier novel. But here's the genius of it - the novel, for all its mention of torture techniques, is funny. Its humour may be dry and dark but it's definitely there, almost a survival skill beneath all that sorrow.

The book is a reminder of everything we should be fighting for (and have already lost) as a country, told with the broken-hearted elegance, nonchalance, rage and charm of an Old Delhi courtesan with both boy and girl parts. I'm not sure whether an international audience will find it as fascinating, and I'm deeply against ideas of patriotism and the problems that sentiment carries, but I do think, this is at the heart of it an "India" book. It is lament and love song both. It is a bomb which under the right gaze will detonate a thousand thoughts, a thousand feelings. At one point Roy asks, "What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?" And truly - who gets to decide?


  1. Hello Karuna! Been following you for some months on Instagram and would like to meet you in person as you are in Kolkata. I want to know your story, discuss a few ideas and shot a vlog with you. It will part of my dream vlog series, a casual conversation with the best people of India. ( Basically the people I want to meet and talk to ��)

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