books, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Arundhati Roy

“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.”

Following up on a meteoric debut must be daunting, even crippling. When Arundhati IMG_0839Roy first published her debut work of fiction, “The God of Small Things”, in 1997 it was met with critical acclaim – including the Man Booker Prize – and popular attention. It was gripping, controversial, incendiary, and, in my opinion, brilliant. Twenty years later, years not of silence or absence, but of alternate pursuits, Roy has published her second novel. Twenty years is a long time. It’s a generation of anticipation. It can dangerously raise expectations.

It is hard, and maybe unfair, to judge “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” against “The God of Small Things”, yet it is impossible to judge it outside of that context, as well. Like “The God of Small Things”, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” has certainly provoked mixed reactions from its readers. For me, I honestly can’t unpack whether I would have approved more of it had I not known Roy’s earlier work and believed in her gift, or whether I would have simply abandoned it, not having the commitment to Roy that forced me to purchase and consume this book its entirety.

“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is centered (primarily) around Anjum, a transgender woman – a ‘Hijra’ – born Aftab to parents desperate for, and eventually heartbroken by, their long-awaited son.

          “‘D’you know why God made Hijras?’ she asked Aftab one afternoon while she flipped through a dog-eared 1967 issue of Vogue, lingering over the blonde ladies with bare legs who so enthralled her.
          ‘No, why?’
          ‘It was an experiment. He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.'”

The story takes place in Delhi, both New and Old, across several decades, with excursions into the quagmire that is Kashmir and beyond. The scope is sprawling; it is about war and peace, personal and political struggle, and a rag-tag collection of remarkable human beings forging a colony of sorts within the confines of a graveyard.

“‘Once you have fallen off the edge like all of us have, including our Biroo,’ Anjum said, ‘you will never stop falling. And as you fall you will hold on to other falling people. The sooner you understand that the better. This place where we live, where we have made our home, is the place of falling people. Here there is no baqeeqat. Arre, even we aren’t real. We don’t really exist.'”

There is Tilo, the enigmatic beauty; Zainab, Anjum’s foundling and adopted daughter; Saddam Hussain, a dissident and revolutionary; and a cast of suitors and friends that are complicated to follow and confounding to understand.

“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is also unavoidably about caste and class, about prejudices and oppression, about poverty and exploitation.

“Fiercely competitive TV channels covered the story of the breaking city as ‘Breaking News.’ Nobody pointed out the irony. They unleashed their untrained, but excellent-looking, young reporters, who spread across the city like a rash, asking urgent, empty questions; they asked the poor what it was like to be poor, the hungry what it was like to be hungry, the homeless what it was like to be homeless. ‘Bhai Sahib, yeh bataaiye, aap ko kaisa lag raha hai…?’ Tell me, brother, how does it feel to be …? The TV channels never ran out of sponsorship for their live telecasts of despair. They never ran out of despair.”

Arundhati Roy is an accomplished writer and a well-respected advocate and political critic. Her past two decades of political activism and analysis certainly inform and color her work, a fact which may have turned off some readers. Her overt political nature wasn’t a problem for me, however. Instead, it was simply the lack of a through thread that captivated, an emotional connection that compelled me forward. There were beautiful, well-constructed passages throughout “The Ministry”, but the whole package was a disappointment. It didn’t resonate, and I found myself forcing my way through it rather than being unable to put it down.

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books, Essays, LGBTQ, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“we are never meeting in real life” by samantha irby

“I don’t know, man. I’m just dubious of spending the majority of my awake minutes with someone I show my privates to who also needs to know how much money I am making and is keeping a mental checklist of all the times I forget to drag the recycling to the curb. And also being in a town without real bagels. People are boring and terrible. I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups, my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge! I’m impatient. I like the whole bed. I hate anyone touching and moving my haphazardly arranged possessions all the time. Plus, I’m a downright horrible sharer, and I can’t guarantee that I won’t write my name on something in the refrigerator I don’t want her to eat. These quirks, if I’m being generous, have had thirty-six years to consolidate into one giant mass of ‘mine.’ How do you get over that? Am I going to need hypnosis?!”

I find it totally irresistible not to compare Samantha Irby with any number of IMG_0671writers and comedians. She is like the acerbic love-child of Roxane Gay and Jenny Lawson, with a twist of Lindy West and a splash of Jessica Williams. Yet Samantha Irby is also indisputably her own self, a force of fearless and uncommon wit.

“we are never meeting in real life” is a collection of joyfully angry, wildly sarcastic, painfully funny, and deeply self-deprecating essays. Irby’s writing sizzles and pops, daring you to look away, tempting you to choke back your laughter. Her essays are boldly revealing and yet, be assured, reader, you aren’t getting anything Irby isn’t willing to give. Her revelatory writing does just enough to make you fall in love and want to be her drinking buddy while promising that you “are never meeting in real life.”

Irby writes about growing up in chaotic poverty and frequent neglect:

“I was trying to fill this gaping hole inside me with ‘stuff I couldn’t have when I was a little kid,’ and I assumed that one day, when I had finally bought enough magazines and name-brand snack foods to feel caught up, the feeling would go away. But it hasn’t. And because I know the value of a dollar, when I get one, I want to buy the nicest thing I can with it. I’m still buying hardcover books and department-store mascara, still daydreaming about what I’m going to spend my 401(k) on when I withdraw that shit early, because who are we kidding? I’m not trying to live to sixty-five, are you nuts? Technically, I can afford it. I make good money, and I don’t have any debt, because I’ve never owned shit and I dropped out of college. I pay for everything in cash because I don’t understand APRs, and my credit file was so thin from so many years of living off the grid that when I finally got around to applying for a Discover card, Experian thought I might be dead.”

In a spate of hilarious, heartbreaking anecdotes about the horrors of dating and meeting people in real life, Irby shares the challenges of being a ridiculously engaging person in a body that often makes her seem invisible or, at the very least, unseen.

“[T]here’s just only so long you can keep having the best conversations of your life before you decide to get over your weird fear of bloated ankles and ask that fat bitch you can’t stop rushing home to e-mail to meet you in a bar you know your friends won’t be at so you can make each other laugh in person.”

“So when I finally happened upon this handsome stranger, one who had all the hobbies and interests of the prototypical lovers I breathlessly detailed in my journals, one who took me on dates that he paid for, one who made actual love instead of trying to fuck me in the face, I thought it was kismet. It had to be. So what if he didn’t ever have time to have long philosophical talks with me or fit a quick lunch into his grad school schedule? He told me he loved me and wanted to spend his life with me, and he proved it by never ever calling or using the extra toothbrush I’d carefully arranged in the medicine cabinet in what should have been our bathroom.”

Samantha Irby’s writing is fresh, honest, and sometimes raunchy – all in the best ways. Her collection of essays is unapologetic and unforgettable. “we are never meeting in real life” is wickedly good.