“At the magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke. When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years…” Mystical, romantic, timeless, transporting—here we go again. Western readers consume South Asian literary fiction like butter chicken at a lunch buffet, keen to enjoy rich and steamy evocations of distant places and people whose private and public tribulations tend to be wrapped up, if not suffocated, in a great deal of exotic gauze. This makes for a perfectly guilty reading pleasure: we can both develop feelings of solidarity and empathy with those living in extreme poverty, and enjoy some tasty descriptions of curry.
Arundhati Roy’s fiction doesn’t so easily inspire menu options for Book Club meetings. On the opening page of her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, we learn that after a hundred million years, these white-backed vultures “have been wiped out”:
The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase the production of milk, worked—works —like nerve gas on white-backed vultures.... As cattle turned into better dairy machines, as the city ate more ice cream…as it drank more mango milkshake, vultures’ necks began to droop...and one by one they tumbled off their branches, dead.
Roy’s greatness as a writer resides in the poise and ease with which she introduces a jarring term like diclofenac into the novel, and not simply in contrasting juxtaposition with mango milkshakes. Rather, she lyrically reveals a causal relation between large-scale bird poisoning and these sweet treats, before caustically assuring us at the end of this opening not to worry too much about this happy, heedless consumption. After all, when it comes to South Asian fiction, “There was so much else to look forward to”—for both the characters and the reader.
That’s certainly the case with Roy’s new novel, if not in ways that invite straightforwardly positive comparisons with its predecessor, The God of Small Things. That book was published to prizes, praise, and bestseller status, twenty years ago. The long gap between Roy’s first and second novels reminds one of Marilynn Robinson’s career. There was a twenty-four-year period between Robinson’s much-beloved Housekeeping and the acclaimed Gilead. While admiring readers lamented the pause in their writing fiction, both Roy and Robinson meanwhile published other kinds of work that attested to concerns and commitments beyond their literary achievements, significant as these are. Since the publication of Roy’s first novel, she has written books about India’s emergence as a nuclear power, the persistence of its caste system, the political currency of sectarian division and violence, the extreme contradictions of India’s opening to globalized capitalism alongside its continued disenfranchisement of the poor and politically marginalized, and, not unrelatedly, the armed resistance to the state organized by Marxist-Naxalite rebels in central India. Roy’s gifts as a storyteller and as an evocative, pointedly observant writer inform her searing nonfiction but never govern it. Likewise, she has clearly drawn on the information and insights she’s gained from these books in developing the various storylines of her new novel. There is, for instance, a section about Naxalite rebels that immediately recalls Walking with the Comrades, Roy’s 2011 in situ study of the movement.