new release

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written by Arundhati Roy, who is famous for being the winner of the Man Booker Prize Award for her previous work of fiction, The God of Small Things (and is famous still for eliciting vile hatred among the gatekeepers of Indian Nationalism and Patriotism).

Anything to do with Roy becomes political, as might be the case with this review. Even though I’ve tried to be apolitical, how can I seem to objectively review this book? Roy is, after all, a woman who stokes the deepest fears in people who admire her, detest her, or, who try to be indifferent to her. I’m aware of the political speak that the review of this book can seem to exude, just as the book itself did. After all, as Roy says, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Before the book was released, commentators commented on the political undertones of the novel. I was intrigued. When I purchased the book, I mulled over the meaning of the poem on the book jacket for a long time.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody.
No. By slowly becoming everything."

What does the poem mean? Are people shattered in the course of their lives? Are the shattered people reduced to things? Are the people reduced to things after being shattered? Will knowing the stories of shattered people’s lives leave me shattered too? Can’t I tell a shattered story without being affected? Should I be stoic and unreasonably tree-like in my attempt to tell the shattered story of the dehumanised shattered people? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. Such angst is a hallmark of Roy’s works, especially now, when she’s weaving metaphors through every sentence.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I figure, is the place that the (shattered?) people of the periphery congregate to; and if it had to be a physical location, it would be the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, an ascetic Sufi saint who was executed by the Mughal King, Aurangzeb, for the crime of blasphemy, being naked, and mostly for being a nuisance. The enigma of the saint shines through in all the protagonists – eccentric people from the fringes who live their ludicrous lives with aplomb.

One of our protagonists, Aftab or Anjum, a transgender person, or a Hijra, as she likes to be called, was introduced to the Sufi saint by her grief-ridden mother (for having given birth to a Hijra). After many years, during which time Anjum discovers her sexuality, moves out of her house, into Khwabgah (a place where Hijras stayed, and which literally translates to “a house of dreams”), attains fame, etc., she finds her daughter at the Shrine. Anjum’s life changes as tragedy strikes soon afterward, and she goes off to live in a grave yard.

Saddam Hussein, a security guard who rides a pony, is another such eccentric character. He, too, ends up living with Anjum in Jannat, the palace in the grave yard.

Another main protagonist, Tilotamma, is an architect who is possibly modeled after Roy herself. In her life, everything is a metaphor. As a young graduate student in Delhi, she falls in love with a passionate and handsome man, who goes on to become a Kashmiri militant fighting for Azaadi, and who calls her Babajaan. She is also romanced by a idealistic hardcore investigative journalist who is soon absorbed into the State’s news mill. She loves him for a brief period, but then falls out of love gradually. She’s also the love of a man who joins the Intelligence Bureau; a true patriot who thinks they can never really be together, for reasons ranging from her being “rootless” while he belonged to an “upper caste”, him being married to a woman of his parents’ choice, to her being as aloof as she is, etc. And towards the end of the book, or somewhere in the middle (it’s hard to say when), she also adopts an abandoned child born to a raped Maoist militant. Tilo’s story, or multitude of stories, was my hook.

Endearing characters apart, the book traces some of the most seminal moments in Indian history, like the partition, the emergency, the 1984 sikh riots, Godra 2002, Kashmir 2010 and 2016, Maoist movements in Andhra Pradesh, the India Against Corruption movement 2010, to name a few. But these events are scattered across the book like bread crumbs, in a jumbled up time-line, which only a keen reader can keep track of.

When the reader turns the last page, though, she wonders why this is no more than a work of fiction. Is it not an argument made through fiction? Argument or not, the very obvious references to the Indian leadership and polity can make the book more of a political memorandum than a piece of literature.

In an interview, Roy was asked why she resorted to fiction when the reality, or Duniya, is so starkly fantastic and mildly dystopian. She said, “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves”. That declaration pretty much sums up this book: an attempt to make sense of the world – of the dance of the world – by threading together the shattered tales of a shattered people.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, happiness is redefined and is free of the crutches of social norms and facts. It’s written with a luxuriant flow of words and with the ragged edge of a penmanship that seeks to speak directly to the reader. If you read the book as a work of contemporary fiction, it may be a 4/5 experience. If not, I can’t say.

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A Machiavellian holocaust

This is a review of An Era of Darkness, by Shashi Tharoor. The book was written as an extension of Tharoor’s speech at Oxford Union, where the role of the British in the colonies was debated.

Tharoor does not hold the distinction of being a staunch nationalist, but is rather admired for his rational thought and an exhibition of vast knowledge about his country, India. His previous books which have gained plaudits from historians include Pax Indica, India Shastra, among others.

An Era of Darkness begins by effectively demonstrating the agenda behind the construction of Indian history of the pre-colonial times by James Mill and others. While writers like Mill claimed that the Indian rulers before the British were brutish, Tharoor makes the case against the British for claiming to be the altruistic moral force that she wants to be seen as. He also refutes the ideas that pre-British times were the ‘Dark Ages’ of India. The “White man’s burden” (India), Tharoor writes, could have lived and thrived were it not for the British, who extinguish just about everything going well for India when they set up their very first factory (a storage unit) here.

Colonial apologists are often caught praising the British for the wondrous contributions that they made, without which India may not be the giant that she is today. Tharoor argues that neither was the stated intention of the British to rule well, nor was it anything but exploitation of the land, resources and people. Besides, even if the intentions were as charitable as they are made out to be, nothing can justify the cruel truths of British colonialism.

The book describes, among other facets of the colonial rule, the looting of resources and treasures, killing off of indigent industries, racism, policies of divide and rule that rankle our present with communal conflicts, misgovernance for economic interests of the British, the gag on the press, the dysfunctional administration that killed millions in famines. He also examines the apparent advantages of the Raj. He scoffs at suggestions that the Raj has been ‘good’. The utility or aesthetics of the railways, English education, tea, cricket, etc., he says, are a result not of British intention, but despite their intentions.

The bulk of his arguments against the colonial rule is solid. Where he falters, if at all, is in his somewhat repeated resort to a hypothetical rule of the land by Indian rulers. Even in doing so, though, he’s maintained a scholarly rigor in comparing India with other states, and in sticking with hard facts for the most part. Also, the chapter on reparations and return of stolen antiquities is an exercise that might well be futile, although well intended. Despite the fervour with which Tharoor and other writers speak of it, the fact is that the cost of colonialism is impossible to determine, and the antiquities will not be returned any time soon (because, in the words of UK’s former Prime Minister, “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British museum would be empty.”).

Tharoor’s wit and lyrical writing makes this a very entertaining read. And a necessary one, when you realise how far reaching the effects of the colonial rule are. That the British don’t even acknowledge their horrible deeds done in their colonies, through their education system, or through official channels (as Germany does, for instance), is saddening; and if you go by Tharoor, it’s also expected of them, since, after all, their forefathers were comfortable with seeming to be a moral force rather than actually being one, when they ruled over India.

4/5

That the loot, pillage and killings of such magnitude has been brushed under the carpet, and that the British are instead lauded for being the harbingers of modernity and democracy in the colonies they occupied, makes for a holocaust that only Machiavelli could have outdone.

Fortunately, the bluff on the British rule has been called.

Welcome to Zombieland

So, audiobooks. For those book purists who look down upon eReaders because “I love the FEEL of paper pages!”, this might cause spontaneous combustion. But for people who spend a not-insignificant part of their day in crowded buses, hanging on for dear life, it might not be such a bad idea!

…Unless, like me, you have terrible listening comprehension. Like zero.

I still tried, because I hadn’t read anything in ages. So here is my very vague review of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.

This book was published in 2015 and got overall good reviews, with someone (I forget who) dubbing it the modern day American Psycho. I loved the satire on modern society in AP, but found it somewhat dated, since it was published in the 90s. I was hoping that YTCHABLM would have more relatable humour.

It did, sorta. There’s some bashing of consumerism, with a mega-supermarket chain called Wally’s (sound familiar?) that uses some strange marketing tactics to suck people in. Also an all-natural junk food called Kandy Kakes with aggressive advertising and an infinite shelf life.

But apart from that, it’s the strange, uber introspective narrative of a girl called A who finds herself being replaced by her roommate B and abandoned by her boyfriend C (such naming. much wow). She has a mindless job and all the charisma and personality of an overripe banana. Her roommate on the other hand is dependent and helpless, and eats only popsicles, because oranges are too hard to peel.

The entire novel is an overly dramatic monologue, with some entertaining observations. The drama is intentional, but tends to get on one’s nerves, because the plot as a whole is not terribly eventful. It’s more about the wit and funny-strange observations on culture than any beginning-to-end storyline. The audiobook version that’s available on Amazon Audible has a narrator that fits the character very well.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel unless you’re a big fan of satire, but I DO recommend using your one month free trial of Audible if you have an Amazon account. It’s a new medium of storytelling that’s worth a try.

3/5

One small step for SciFi, one giant leap for engineers

This is my review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

Let’s talk about the representation of different professions in pop culture.

Lawyers- Boston Legal, Suits, The Practice

Doctors- House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and those old hospital soaps (one of which had George Clooney)

Psychic detectives (and this isn’t even a profession)- Psych, The Mentalist, Dexter (sort of)

Billionaire industrialists- Batman, Iron Man

Advertising- Mad Men, wasn’t Chandler in F.R.I.E.N.D.S also in advertising?

Chefs- Masterchef, ’nuff said

Engineers- Uh, Dilbert?

We live in an age where astrophysics is a more sexy profession than engineering. Luckily, the huge popularity of The Martian could change that. Not that my engineering degree equipped me to repair NASA-designed high technology equipment on the surface of Mars….

This story is about Mark Watney, astronaut/botanist/mechanical engineer, who is left for dead on Mars by his crew. Turns out he wasn’t dead, and needs to use his wits and engineering superpowers to survive on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

I’m one of those weirdos who loves sci-fi but not fantasy, and this book is just about perfect. Weir has clearly done his research- the book gives the right level of technical detail without becoming heavy or boring. Mark’s tone is humourous and witty and the plot moves at a consistently quick pace. The only complaint I had was that it reads like a movie plot; not an flowery adjective or wasted word to be found. Could be a plus too, if you like no-nonsense narrative.

This book is a solid 4.5/5. Read it if you’re a fan of the Hitchhiker’s series, or sci-fi/comedy in general.

Live another sol!