For the past two months, the thousand-year-old city of Delhi has been under a shroud of toxic smog. About ten times more polluted than Beijing, Delhi’s air is so poisonous that schools are often shut down. On the roads, car headlights twinkle behind the smoke like distant stars. If you step out wearing an air filter mask (“Useless,” the doctors say) you will glimpse—piecemeal—the facades of Delhi’s age-old tombs levitating in the haze.
Like Delhi mausoleums appearing like pieces of a jigsaw in the haze, graves form the framework of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an elegy to graveyards and the disenfranchised they have been home to for millennia; to the unknown dead, the dying alive, and those so dispossessed that they might as well be nonexistent. The book is a dirge. Once this becomes apparent, burials show their faces everywhere in its pages.
It’s not a surprise, then, that a large part of the novel is set in Delhi. A seat of power for almost a thousand years, the city is riddled with mausoleums, some over eight hundred years old. In Delhi, the past and the present encroach upon each other, and one can see centuries coexisting in the ancient tombs towering over crowded red lights or wedged between shiny malls. The face of death is always public.
These tombs—grand tombs, with poetry inscribed on their faces—are obviously of the ancient elite. The Archeological Survey of India has a list of one hundred and seventy-six “officially recognized” Delhi tombs. But the city’s old gullies are home to innumerable unmarked graves and tiny tombs, often built over with homes and shops. It’s this sedimented, unrecorded history of the city—that of the forgotten, of outcasts—that Roy is interested in.
We find Anjum in one such graveyard at the beginning of the book. Anjum was born with both a penis and a vagina in the labyrinths of Chandni Chowk. Her family names her Aftab (Urdu for “sun”) and raises her as a boy. Later, she runs away to the Khwabgah to live with the hallowed eunuchs of Old Delhi, whose traditions are as old as the crypts littered throughout the city. She changes her name to Anjum (Urdu for “star”), pierces her nose, and starts wearing “disco saris” with bangles and anklets, enchanting filmmakers, foreign journalists, and businessmen.
Anjum’s binary star is Tilo, a Malayali who came to Delhi to study architecture. If Anjum is from the Khwabgah—The House of Dreams—Tilo belongs to the Duniya, the real world. What the book makes clear from the beginning is how political tragedy in Duniya causes devastating personal anguish in all parallel worlds. And that, if disaster is political, then so are death and its discontents, locked inside the burial chambers that are invoked again and again in the story.
As Tilo and her college boyfriend Musa rekindle their romance on a boathouse on the Dal Lake, the tales of Kashmiri people’s abduction, torture and extrajudicial killings smolder like the kangri firepots they carried under their clothes in winter. As if in premonition, before Musa becomes a militant, he draws watercolors of the ruins of Delhi. These paintings, too, are evocations of graves—dead cities, preserved like fossils.
Describing the Kashmiri freedom movement, Roy writes, “Graveyards sprang up in parks and meadows… Tombstones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth.” These days, Kashmir’s valleys are funerary grounds, their famed apple orchards soaked with blood. Livelihoods and tourism have dried up because of the violence, but “for gravediggers there was no rest. It was just workworkwork.”
In Delhi, woods that were once emperors’ summer retreats are now home to luxury boutiques selling high-end designer clothing. Tellingly, Tilo calls one such mall, complete with multi-tiered parking lots, “the world’s mazar [mausoleum]. Maybe the mannequin-shoppers are ghosts trying to buy what no longer exists.” Compare this with the goings-on far north in Kashmir: “As the war progressed, graveyards became as common as the multi-story parking lots that were springing up in the burgeoning cities in the plains.”
While Tilo bears witness to the graveyards of Kashmir, Anjum gets embroiled in the Gujarat riots of 2002, a genocide in which over a thousand Muslims were murdered by Hindu mobs, “infants impaled on their saffron tridents.” Although the group Anjum is traveling with is slaughtered, she is spared because the murderers believe killing a eunuch brings bad luck. In the thick of this violence, the mob’s chants about graveyards are especially dire: “Mussalman ka ek hi stan! Qabaristan ya Pakistan!” (“Muslims belong either in Pakistan or in a graveyard.”)
Anjum is a changed person when she returns to the Khwabgah, haunted by her murdered companions. She leaves the House of Dreams, “unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard” next to a hospital morgue, and starts constructing a home where, slowly, people who live on the fringes of society—the poor, the homeless, Dalits and Muslims, eunuchs and prostitutes, illegitimate children—come to gather. Unwanted animals find shelter here, too, and the graveyard becomes “a Noah’s ark of injured animals.” Anjum christens the graveyard Jannat Guest House. Jannat means paradise, and by locating it in Delhi, Roy turns the necropolis into a parallel government, “the graveyard Politburo.” The utopia is complete with biryani and kebab feasts, English and science lessons at subsidized fees, and a vegetable garden thriving on the nutrients of long-festering bodies.
Against the backdrop of countless national tragedies, Roy writes, “for ordinary people the consolidation of their dead became, in itself, an act of defiance.” In Jannat, in the absence of bodies, letters and shirts are buried as symbolic acts. For the residents, life becomes “a little easier to bear.” Roy tries to resuscitate these buried ghosts—to give them a voice, a face, some agency.
Those who tend to categorize literatures from the third world in specific boxes might explain the analogy with those dreaded words: magical realism. But in India, people who have nowhere to go make real homes in unreal places. Living in a graveyard is not a metaphor but a fact of life in that country. In Roy’s graveyard, the dispossessed find un-loneliness, bonhomie, even solace.
In Hindi, the word for “ghost” and “past” is the same: bhoot. Jannat Guesthouse is not only the perfect analogy for Delhi, a city littered with crypts, but for all of India—a young postcolonial nation with a long history and one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Like in Jannat Guesthouse, in India, too, “the souls of the present and the departed mingle, like guests at the same party.” One only has to peek inside the perfumed closets to find a cache of skeletons hiding behind the sequined shararas.
It seems fitting that in a novel bubbling with religious strife, the most lovingly described places of worship are the mausoleums of Delhi where Muslims and Hindus offer supplications together. Graves pervade not only prayers but daily pleasures. Before smoking hashish on a mosquito-ridden Delhi rooftop under the moon, Tilo and Dasgupta hang out at the mausoleum of Mirza Ghalib, a beloved Urdu poet who died three centuries ago. They listen to qawwalis at the burial quarters of the thirteenth century Sufi sage Nizamuddin.
Despite the pall of death, the book is frequently funny, interspersed with Urdu shers that are more bawdy than beautiful. While the oddball residents of Jannat are from different castes, classes, religions, and genders, and speak distinct languages, they have their unorthodoxy in common. Together, they are situated at the fringes of society: outside of the Duniya, inside Anjum’s graveyard. Roy breathes life into them by providing the microscopic, eccentric details of their personalities.
A few kinks in the narrative emerge when the numerous characters start coming together. The meeting of The Valley of Death with Delhi’s graveyards—while ideologically and spiritually in sync—sometimes feels labored in terms of the story. Skimming the detailed descriptions of Kejriwal, Modi and Anna Hazare, I uncharitably wondered whether Roy’s editors had been too star-struck to suggest a tighter edit. But as the story progressed, I remembered that the root of the word “grave” yields cognates that mean both “to dig” as well as “to bury.” In invoking India’s recent history, from the Emergency to the 2014 national election, Roy shows how the grand cartography of political history has had profoundly tragic personal repercussions for people like Jannat’s residents. She not only excavates but also enshrines India’s marginalized and their unheard stories.
The cover of the book shows a photograph of an anonymous Delhi tomb. On the marble tomb lie a red rose and a dead fly. In writing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy has given life to smoggy subcontinental grief that doesn’t want to be edited or have its dead flies Photoshopped away. The back cover has these lines: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By solely becoming everything.” For a book so bounteous with graves, let these lines serve as an epitaph and the shattered stories will fall into place.