Great Expectations

For fans of Arundhati Roy and her first novel, The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than 40 languages, her long awaited second novel,  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness provides a much needed fix of her outstanding intellect, sharp insight and superb language.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, shares some of the features of The God of Small Things, like political criticism, skillful use of different points of view, and the sheer beauty of language.

But whereas her first novel was mostly written from the point of view of a 9 year old child, and is mainly about one or two political topics, her second novel is much more ambitious in its themes, characters and points of view.

This makes the novel simultaneously richer and less enjoyable to read.                    

The first quarter of the book is about Aftab.  A boy born into a middle class Indian family in Dehli, who discovers very early in life that he should be a woman. He runs away from home, undergoes operations, changes his name to Anjum and picks up residence in a Khwabgah, a communal home for transvestites.  Later Anjum leaves the Khwabgah and starts living in a graveyard.

The rest of the storyline is mainly about a love quadrangle. Four students of architecture in a Dehli university: one girl, Tilo, and three boys, Musa, Naga and Biplap, all three of whom are in love with Tilo.

In chapters that range from nine lines to 88 pages, using paragraphs that are one word to over a page long, the story jumps back and forth in time, following the main four characters, as their lives intersect with Anjum, and hundreds of others over decades.

Roy tackles a cornucopia of issues in her novel.

The oppression of women by men, religion and society is depicted through Tilo, an independent, level headed professional woman who constantly needs to fight for her choices, despite the support she gets from the three men who love her. Women have to face the trauma of rape and torture, wanted and unwanted children, eager and reluctant motherhoods, with the ensuing guilt, blame and desperation.

The herculean efforts of the LGBTQ community are portrayed in the conflicts and camaraderie of the gay, lesbian, transvestite and hermaphrodite people living in Khwabgahs. They have their internal differences, but stand up for each other in the world outside. And they are delightfully ingenious in earning their keep despite their absolute exclusion from society.

Political, religious, ethnic and class conflicts of all stripes are portrayed.  Clashes between Muslims and Hindus, Indians and Kashmiris, Indians and Adivasis, rich and poor, upper-caste and lower –caste, the government and communists, are portrayed in graphic detail. So is the extreme violence: “It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling form the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores—as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers—life went on as before.”

Overall the characters and their relationships with each other are well-developed, vivid and believable despite their quirky and twisted natures. Tilo and Musa’s no-nonsense love for each other, and the sacrifices she makes just to be with him are touching and convincing. So are the sacrifices Naga makes for Tilo despite knowing full well she doesn’t love him. Anjum’s exceptional personality is painted with colourful strokes. The way she changes over a lifetime, snapping out of her temporary depression and starting her own business in the graveyard, the way she develops her network of her employees, business partners, tenants, friends, and devotees, the way she manages to gain authority despite being a transvestite in a society that has nothing but disgust and contempt for her, are both magical and credible.

Another endearing quality of her writing is that Roy and her characters treat the animals in her book like people. They are not pet and owner, but friends. The relationship of Gulrez, Musa’s retarded best friend with his rooster, Sultan, and his cats, Agha and Khanum is nothing short of admirable. The same is true about Zainab and her goat, and Anjum and her dog, Biroo.

Roy’s language itself is enough to carry the reader through the book. Her settings are as vivid as a movie. A drive down Delhi streets reads, “As it drove on, the gardens disappeared, the roads grew bumpy and potholed, the pavements grew crowded with sleeping bodies. Dogs, goats, cows, humans. Parked cycle rickshaws stacked one behind the other lie the vertebrae in a serpent’s skeleton.”

The nature of Tilo and Musa’s love is summarized in a nugget like, “In matters of the heart, they had a virtual forest of safety nets.”

Roy’s delightful sarcasm is refreshing and often makes the painful parts of her story more than bearable. Like her use of the refrain:

“Of Course women.

“ Women of course,”  every time she finishes depicting an episode about women.

There is no end to the book’s excellent qualities.

However it is too much.

The scope of the book is too big. There are too many inconsequential characters, too many insignificant names and too many conflicts. Too many points of view, too many Hindu and Urdu words, too many totally unnecessary details. Many of the names are mentioned just once and bear no significance. Like the names of thirteen houseboats anchored in the lake near Srinagar, HB Shaheen, HB Jannat, HB Queen Victoria, etc. etc.  Hundreds of unimportant characters are named and described, leaving the reader baffled about which ones are important enough to remember, and eventually giving up altogether.

Roy wants to show India with all its complexities and intricacies. The result is a multilayered and cavernous maze that at times tests her fans’ perseverance.

Add to this the convoluted non-chronological structure of the novel and the reader feels like being led on a “slow goose chase”. The sub-plot of Amrik Singh and Jalib Qadri, which is introduced in the first half of the book, is out of place, and only makes sense 150 pages later, when we find out more about Singh. By that time, we have met scores of other characters and don’t quite remember who Amrik Singh was.

Roy is a skillful crafter of language, but in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness at times she gets carried away with it. The book is chock full of lists and parallel structures. “Servants wearing their employers’ expensive cast-offs are being walked by even better-dressed dogs  –Labradors, German Shepherds, Dobermans, beagles, dachshunds, cocker spaniels—“ , and “…they grew brinjals, beans, chilies, tomatoes and several kinds of gourds,…”, and “…stories of wars and massacres, bombings and butchery…”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness can be described as The God of Small Things on steroids. It’s beautiful, painful and insightful, but too big, too busy and too tangled for its own good.


Nationality, Ethnicity, Identity

Sometimes it seems like despite all the progress we’ve made, despite having landed on the moon and planned to go to Mars, despite creating literature, poetry, music and arts, despite the ability to be philosophical, spiritual and imaginative, human beings are stuck in the pit of their primal instincts. The need for power leads to abuse, violence, torture, agony and genocide.

Every time, at some point after this happens, heads of state tsk tsk the perpetrators, utter some evasive statements to appease the survivors, but fail to do anything resembling delivering justice. In time the memory of the victims fades and life goes on as usual, leaving those survivors and the grief stricken to fend for themselves.

Koom Kankesan’s latest novel, The Tamil Dream, is about this scenario’s repeat performance in Sri Lanka in 2009. But the book is set in Toronto and is written from two alternating points of view. Daniel, a Canadian high-school teacher of Tamil ancestry, who doesn’t even speak Tamil, and Niranjan, a 16-year-old Tamil boy, whom his parents have managed to send  to Canada, lest he, like his older brother, be captured and enlisted by the Tamil Tigers.

Daniel is seemingly fully Canadian. He lives with his ambitious Canadian girlfriend, resents his own very Tamil parents, whom he criticizes bitterly for his strict and physically abusive upbringing, the guilt trips they put him through, and their generally stingy and miserable existence.

Niranjan, on the other hand, misses his family who are in Sri Lanka and worries about them. He runs away from the family who sponsored him and housed him, and is ironically taken in by a Tamil drug-dealer, working for Tamil Tigers. He starts failing at school, where Daniel is a teacher. The family who sponsored Niranjan asks Daniel for help, Daniel reluctantly agrees, tries to help, but it’s not that easy. His girlfriend doesn’t want him to get involved. Niranjan is less than straightforward with him. Each one of them has his own set of problems. And politics and power plays get in the way.

Through the intersecting and widely contrasting lives of Daniel and Niranjan, the book portrays the plight of the Tamil immigrants.  It explores the internal conflicts of its members, the conflicts within the Tamil Diaspora living in Toronto, the conflicts between Tamils and other ethnic groups, and Tamils and the Canadian society and government.

Young Tamils whose family upbringing is very strict and whose corporal punishment at the hands of their parents is considered normal by their families, but criminal by their teachers and government, have a serious dilemma. Those who report the abuse risk severing their ties with their families, who love them, and want the best for them, despite their abusive ways.  Kankesan creates colourful characters of surviving Tamil Tiger expats and their various ways of collecting money for their comrades at home. They use any method at their disposal, including drug dealing, intimidation, and extortion from members of their own community, many of whom can’t stand them and try to avoid them at any cost. He paints gruesome scenes of rivalry between Tamil and Korean drug dealer gangs, with some gratuitous violence thrown in. But the violence isn’t just inter-racial, it is also inside the Tamil community when dues are not paid on time or the pecking order isn’t observed. And what’s interesting is it’s as if the police does not exist. Nobody goes to the police for protection or to complain. Scores are settled strictly internally.

That doesn’t seem far-fetched in the world of Kankesan’s novel, because it portrays the authorities as indifferent to the plight of the Tamils. Despite accepting Tamil immigrants and refugees from Sri Lanka, and giving them the opportunity to survive, prosper and raise their families in peace, Canada, its people and institutions—schools, boards of educations—don’t understand and aren’t interested in Tamils’ problems. Neither do they want to get involved in the politics of Tamils’ country of origin, even if it involves genocide. The weeks long, thousands strong protests by Tamils demanding Canadian government intervene in the slaughter of thousands of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka by the ruling Sinhalese government, do not get any response from the government. To add insult to injury, they occupy only a few minutes on the evening news, and are but a nuisance to the commuters, (who are delayed because of road closures) employers, (whose employees take days off work) and school officials, (whose absenteeism doesn’t bode well for their reputation.)

The Tamil Dream is not a criticism of the Canadian society or government, neither is it a judgment on the Tamil culture, although it is not very complimentary about it. It is simply a portrayal of an all too common story: that of an oppressed nation in its desperation to cope with its predicament. It doesn’t matter how far they flee, or how poorly or well they assimilate into their host country, there’s no way out of the trauma of their ethnicity for these people, at least for the first two or three generations. Daniel, who doesn’t speak Tamil, is harshly critical of his culture, is as Canadian as any immigrant can hope to become, and is accused by his father of not being a Tamil anymore, muses despite himself, “ I am Tamil, and no matter where I go, that cannot be excised. My hands are Tamil, my legs are Tamil, my tongue is Tamil. My very brain is Tamil, no matter what my father said.”

Kankesan weaves a rich tapestry of people, lives and events to paint a truthful portrait of a Diaspora of a persecuted nation. It is realistic and relatable for anyone with a similar experience, and enriching and educating for anyone without.


Not the Same Degree of Satisfaction

Although it explores profound themes in an intelligent and underhanded way, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a laborious read with excruciatingly repetitive dialogue, artificial and stilted language, and unnecessary and long-winded descriptions of landscape and strategies of hand to hand combat.

There are reasons for each of those choices which, after the novelty wears off, do not justify their prolonged use, and the time-investment required to read the novel to the very bitter end, and still be left with many loose threads and inconsistencies within its fantasy world confines.

The story is a road trip set in medieval England, where Britons and Saxons live and kill side by side. An elderly British couple sets out to find their son, who they believe lives in a nearby village. On the road they pass through villages and forests, take boat trips, come across and share parts of their journey with a Saxon warrior, a young Saxon boy bitten by a dragon, an Arthurian knight, a medicine woman, a she-dragon, a variety of monks, soldiers, animals, birds, ogres and people.

As the couple encounter road block after road block, they notice and explore memory loss, its advantages and disadvantages. They are close, tender and loving towards each other. Is it to their advantage to let the bygones be bygones and not to try to remember the past? If they did remember all the details of their long life together, would they still love each other as much as they do now? While the wife insists that remembering everything will strengthen their already affectionate and loving relationship, the husband is not so sure. What if she remembers a trespass on his part and stops loving him? What will he do at this stage in his life, when he doesn’t have anyone else?

On a larger scale is a general amnesia useful to keep two warring parties at peace? There’s been a long-lasting peace between the Saxons and Britons, because somehow they have forgotten all the carnage and ransacking that took place in the past between them. They have forgotten the war-crimes so they don’t seek revenge. What if the amnesia lifted? Is it always good to know and speak the truth, keep records of wrongs, and keep reminding and teaching the younger generations to hate the enemy and seek revenge?

Is it possible to remember, but forgive? What if people from the enemy’s tribe help you? What if they raise you and are kind to you, and you become close friends with them? Are you betraying your nation? Do you have a duty to fan the flames of hatred and revenge, because their fathers killed your fathers? Where does it all end?

When is guilt warranted? When you slaughter the innocent, or when you forget the enemy slaughtered your innocents? Is being a warrior, with all the courage and skill involved in becoming one, an honourable occupation? Warriors are trained to kill without mercy. Is being able to do that, while you call yourself a Christian, cause for pride or guilt? What about conscientious objectors? Are they heroes or traitors? What role does religion play in all of this?

And finally what happens when you cross the river? Does anyone know? If they do, are they telling you the truth? Does it matter?

All these ideas and more are explored throughout the busy parable that is The Buried Giant. The themes loudly reverberate with all the wars and atrocities going on in the world today.

Similar to Never Let me Go Ishiguro uses a technique that for lack of a better term I’ll call reverse dramatic irony, whereby he leads/misleads you to believe one thing, whereas the truth is something else. The characters either know the truth all along, or find it out before the reader, but their behavior doesn’t betray that knowledge/discovery. The reader is the last one to find it out at the 11th hour and gets a nice jolt.

Whereas the use of this technique is smoothly integrated and effective in Never Let me Go, it feels arbitrary and bumpy in The Buried Giant.

If Ishiguro’s previous books have you hooked so much that like me, you can’t resist reading The Buried Giant, go ahead and do it. But don’t expect the same degree of satisfaction.

You have been warned.