The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

I am cross-posting my review of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel. This review originally appeared on The South Asian Idea in June 2017.

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

To read more of my book reviews, you can visit https://kabiraltaf.wordpress.com/

 

1947-48 Kashmir War

Extracts from Major Amin’s history of the 1947-48 war.

THE 1947-48 Kashmir War

Major Agha Humayun Amin

The war of lost opportunities 
History is made by those who seize fleeting opportunities in the critical time span in any particular situation and relentlessly execute their plans without second thoughts, subduing inner fears, overcoming procrastination and vacillation, and above all by those who are propelled by the burning desire to defeat the enemy rather than any half hearted judiciousness and timidity. Ninety years of loyalism and too much of constitutionalism had however made the Muslims of 1947 slow in taking the initiative and too much obsessed with consequences of every situation.This attitude was excellent as long as the British were the rulers, but not for a crisis situation, in which geography, time and space, alignment of communications and weather temporarily favoured Pakistan, in case initiative and boldness was exercised and simple but audacious plans were executed in the shortest possible time!

Today, it is fashionable to blame the Indians, Mountbatten, Gracey etc as far as the 1947-48 War is concerned. A dispassionate study of the events of 1947-48 clearly proves that victory was closer in 1947 than ever again as far as the Pakistan Army was concerned. Opportunities were lost because very few people who mattered at any level apart from Mr Jinnah, Brigadier Akbar Khan and some  others were really interested in doing anything!
Continue reading “1947-48 Kashmir War”

Operation Grand Slam (1965 War)

The following is a long extract from Major Amin’s book on the India-Pakistan wars. Other extracts will be posted later. Since this is a very long chapter, I have highlighed and italicized certain sections that the reader can jump to and get the basic story, without bothering with the details. Of course, anyone interested in the details can read the whole thing. 

OPERATION GRAND SLAM 

By Major Agha Humayun Amin

Background

1965 was an eventful year in Indo-Pak history. The Pakistani military ruler Ayub emerged victorious in the Presidential elections held in January 1965 amidst allegations of rigging. This factor created a desire in Ayub to improve his political image by a limited gain in the realm of foreign relations. He got an opportunity to do so in April 1965 over a minor border dispute with India in the Rann of Kutch area. The Pakistan Army dominated the skirmishes in the Rann area as a result of which a climate of overconfidence was created in the Pakistani military and political establishment.7

In May 1965 following the jubilation in Pakistan because of the Rann affair Ayub became keen to launch the proposed “Operation Gibraltar”: a proposed plan to launch guerrillas into Indian held Kashmir with the objective of creating a popular uprising, finally forcing India to, abandon Kashmir. Ayub  went to Murree on 13 May 1965 to attend a briefing on the conduct of Operation Gibraltar.8 We will not go into the controversy surrounding this plan, which is basically an exercise in futility, and mud slinging initiated by some self-styled experts, motivated largely by personal rivalry and ulterior biases, since the prime aim of this article is to discuss the military significance of Operation Grand Slam and its connection with “Operation Gibraltar”. In this briefing Ayub “examined”  the “Operation Gibraltar” plan prepared by Major General Akhtar Malik, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 12 Division. The 12 Division was responsible for the defence of the entire border of Pakistan occupied Kashmir from Ladakh in the north till Chamb near the internationally recognised border to the south. It was during this briefing that Ayub suggested that the 12 Division should also capture Akhnur.9 This attack was codenamed “Operation Grand Slam”. General Musa, the then C in C  Army and Altaf Gauhar the then Information Secretary and Ayub’s close confidant, the two principal defenders of Ayub have not given any explanation about what exactly was the strategic rationale of “Grand Slam” and what was its proposed timing in relation to “Operation Gibraltar”. We will discuss this aspect in detail in the last portion of this article. Continue reading “Operation Grand Slam (1965 War)”