On hermaphrodites, language, and the West’s image of India

I have been an admirer of Arundhati Roy for a long time. An Ordinary Person’s Guide to the Empire was the first of her works that I read. Her writing has since informed and shaped my view of the world. I got around to reading her work of fiction (The God of Small Things) very late. For me, the impression of her as a political activist was so firmly entrenched in my thoughts that I couldn’t imagine her as a just another ‘fiction writer’. I think I even read The God of Small Things out of boredom only to find myself utterly shocked and deeply moved by her ability to narrate the complexity of human life so beautifully. Therefore, when I found out about the launch of her new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in Brussels, I jumped at the opportunity.

I had heard over and over again from people that her fiction had nothing to do with her politics. For me, it was hard to see how God of Small Things was not a political novel. Did it not raise questions about caste and class? Did it not make us think about the cruelties and injustices being committed all around us in the name of religion, patriotism or what have you? It all finally made so much sense at the book launch when AR in her typical polite and elegant way raised another question: I don’t understand when people say I am a writer-activist, as if the work of a writer is to offer mere entertainment. “Aren’t we [writers] supposed to be dangerous”? And I thought to myself, that’s right! She’s nailed it. Somehow we have come to perceive fiction writing the way we watch Netflix series: some offer laughter and tragedy so we can disconnect from the troubles of our own lives; others give just enough insight into history or something for us to assuage our guilt of having completely wasted our precious time. But historically, hasn’t the job of writers been to raise questions? To make us think?

At the launch, elaborating on her work as a writer, she explained what she had expressed long ago in her essay ‘Come September’ about fiction and non-fiction being only different techniques of story telling.

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness starts off with the depiction of a graveyard where white-backed vultures died of diclofenac poisoning and here you find one of the protagonists of the story. Anjum – a hermaphrodite, talking about names and bonding over a shared cigarette with The Man Who Knew English…

Who says my name is Anjum?  I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil. I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.

The book moves through different landscapes – not just geographical but also personal and emotional. AR compared stories to cities. The way each city has its parks, ghettos, shopping malls or graveyards–a way of delineating boundaries, marginalizing some and elevating others–each story also has it’s way of highlighting some characters/aspects while relegating others to the shadows. About the geographic locations, the author did not comment much apart from what was revealed through a short film shown to the audience at the beginning of the book launch. Of all the images (still or moving, Bollywood or otherwise) capturing the beauty or poverty of the Indian subcontinent, this was unarguably the most powerful imagery I have seen. From the way morning sun rays filter through the narrow alleys of old Delhi to the snow covered graveyards in Kashmir, the photography screams at you and then deafens you with its silence.

Behind every story is a desire to communicate a complexity of emotions; the non-linearity of things that surround us. Films relay this through images and books through their language. For those who have read The God of Small Things know that the novel is a play-field of linguistic innovations. Malayalam, Hindi and English words stringed together like beads on a rosary. As beautiful and effortless as this nativization of English sounds, it can sometimes intimidate new readers and keeps them from feeling the warmth of the story. The on-stage narration of the prologue by AR and the first few interview questions about the MOUH had already revealed the use of Urdu* in this book. Questioning her proclivity to invent new words she was asked if she considers her audience and their ability to comprehend English peppered with foreign words. She responded by expressing her belief in the power of stories to go beyond languages and borders. While her books may be set in India and use the languages spoken there but given the universality of human emotion and sentiment, she said, “it can’t be so hard for us to understand each other”. Forms and structures become insignificant when the sentiment is heartfelt.

I had found out about the book launch just a couple of days before the event. When I went to buy tickets, only the first few rows of the event hall were booked. Given the kind of reputation Arundhati Roy holds as a rebel writer, I was not surprised to see a lot of empty seats on the booking screen. Little did I know. There was a big turnout at the theater on the day of the launch. The crowd constituted of mostly Europeans sporting beautifully embroidered Indian suits and some actual Indians chatting animatedly, laying claim to their Booker-prize winning author. In the fifteen minutes or so leading up to the event, my husband and I started chatting with a lady standing next to us. The lady had not read any of AR’s non-fiction and “didn’t quite take to” The God of Small Things. Buttt she loves reading ‘Indian’ authors and goes to Kerela every year for an Ayurveda course. She used to have an Indian class fellow who works for the government and bows to the President just as his subordinates bow to him. She told us it was strange for her as a European to see that. Andddd for her, she said, “India is the place to be”. Her interest in AR made no sense to me but I was amused anyway. A few more minutes, overheard conversations, and shalwar kameez clad Europeans passed by and I finally understood what was going on around me. I realized that we were not at a book launch (of an author of significant substance) but at an Indian cultural event!

It was ironic to see AR being made out to be some sort of a celebrity, knowing that it was completely against anything she stands for. In one of her earlier interviews, she was asked what aspects of India she represented to the international community and she said:

I will tell you one thing about the West. I always say that you know that someone doesn’t know anything about India the minute you see them striving to understand it. Because those of us who live here have ceased to try. It doesn’t matter. You don’t understand it any more or less than you understand anything else, but you just live in it and get on with it … You want somebody to hook on to who represents India, but the fact is that I don’t represent India and nobody represents India and nobody can claim to … what is really Indian? That you sit and chant Vedas in some temple? How do you define Indian? People do strive to inhabit the definition that India has been given by the West. That does happen. But it’s complete nonsense. I keep saying just replace authenticity with honesty.

I wish more people tried to read her essays to really appreciate and understand the essence of the stories she is trying to tell us through her fiction.

The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as nonfiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in. John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a story-teller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories; it’s about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast unfettered power by a State or a country, a corporation or an institution—or even an individual, a spouse, a friend, a sibling—regardless of ideology, results in excesses…

I haven’t finished reading the book yet but I am already beginning to see how many taboos are being broken. She brings queers, trans, addicts, orphans – minorities, all right next to you on the sofa and makes you befriend them.

Given the political circumstances that we’re living in today, the timing of the book couldn’t have been any better. I can’t wait to get back to the book and find out how the lives of all these interesting and varied characters overlap.


*Urdu and Hindi are variants of the same language. The basic difference is in the way they are written: Urdu has an Arabic script and Hindi has a Devanagari script. More importantly, the languages are unfortunately ascribed to different groups of people. Urdu is associated with Muslims and is widely spoken in Pakistan, whereas Hindi is associated with Hindus and is widely spoken in India. AR’s novel shows a common use of Urdu language in the Muslim community in Delhi and is what she refers to as the ghettoization of language.

One thought on “On hermaphrodites, language, and the West’s image of India

  1. I agree 100% , writers are powerful beings who can change the direction of thinking of their readers. The fan following is not a mere liking but a whole shift of thoughts that the readers carry with them of their favourite writers.

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