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Len Cohen comes in somewhere, perhaps on the Dal lake. Maybe not with those famous, wind-blown lines of his—“There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”—but they will do as a marker for this. Arundhati Roy, the novelist, is back. With a sprawling book, about being broken but being alive despite that, or maybe because of that. Eking out, drawing forth, from a frame where morbidity wells up like pus, a strange kind of sunshine. It’s an unlikely, fragile place for spring to bloom—a living quarters that includes the dead, just downwind of a morgue and mountains of medical waste. But it happens, like hardy blossoms cutting defiantly through rock. Like something that shouldn’t exist, but does.
That goes for the novel too. In many ways, this is a book of flaws. Its plot is an elaborate contrivance that allows the author to trawl through her pet themes, almost all of her very political non-fiction resume, tie them up in a loose bundle, and recast them in the complex half-light of fiction. Kashmir and Bastar get fused in the form of a dark-skinned child of rape. Once you get past the story elements at each step, there are lengthy portions that are fairly indistinguishable from her essays. That same mincing diagnosis of society and politics, that familiar sarcasm and comedy of manners, whose bounties are variable—a rich vein at times, Facebook-grade invective at others. At each turn, there are ‘non-fiction’ snapshots, little Wikipediatric diversions, or something from the Delhiwallah blog, lightly alchemised by her prose. Also deadpan portions about well-known events, explanatory footnotes within the main body that have all the flair of an intelligence despatch, a journalist’s story brief or an unfunny cartoon.
As it lurches between magical and social realism, so to speak, you don’t know whether to marvel at her ability to telescope events, build a collage of everything, or be exasperated at this baedeker of headline events. One wonders if they were separate processes of the imagination, joined at the seams in a running kantha stitch, different provinces in an experiment with unity and open borders. The architecture that accomplishes this is elaborate, so wrought as to be almost unreal—a Fatehpur Sikri of prose, with many zones of self-sufficient beauty, a cupola here, a horse’s stable there, a dak bungalow on the other side. Or, in this case, an Old Delhi graveyard, a houseboat on the Dal…beauty, pain and a terror of the soul at once.
In a sense, it’s inevitable. Criticism is a vital organismic function, and if banished from the mainstream, it will seek other outlets. It’s natural that this refusal of ‘the new normal’ comes not from a geopolitics expert but from one related to a sense of beauty—a province that never will be conquered. And so literature will take on the burden, and become dissent, sometimes just by existing or, as with Roy, by making frequent sorties into the real world to rescue someone.
Can literature take the weight? Depends on the writer. Dissenters of old often evolved complex, allusive gestures. We must judge this too by the terms of its internal aesthetic struggles. Our novelist has a known preference for direct, kamikaze assaults—abidha, as they say in Sanskrit. But she also accesses ordinary reality through a supra-rational, poetic lens, shot through with the sharp colours of her mordant wit. The two come in turns, a medley that becomes polyphonic only when seen in totality. The only ‘I’ in the novel, an Intelligence Bureau man given over to alcohol, speaks in a kind of Stephanian bureaucratese. And then she returns, on the edge of surreal, Lewis Carroll on morphine, her voice thrilling to, and ecstasising with, her symphony of words.
There’s no cross-linguistic play here, only stray code-switching within a stable matrix of English. But poetic images rattle off the page perilously, majestically, like a Marshall over. Hair like coal, barbed wire teeth, a night that smells of charred insect, a eunuch queen being sunned along with the lime and mango pickles. The exaltation is held down by piss and shit. And then, reality comes barging in a tad infelicitously, like a reluctant tax official come to attach property. It’s an unwieldy piece of aeromodelling, but once it takes off, it soars. Like those birds that know no borders.
Exhibit A is Aftab/Anjum, a hermaphrodite, a s/he, a stateless person in a world of strict genders. He turns into she within two sentences on Page 25, but that doesn’t hush that elaborate allegory of despair. She has Chengiz Khan’s genes—that very virile line ends in a person who can neither conceive nor father a child. But you glimpse a new kind of empire, first as she finds her coven of lovely bitches, the sorority with a secret language of claps, and then as she becomes the innkeeper for all those who don’t fit elsewhere, the landlady of an open house for non-conformists. How does Roy approximate to that in-between subjectivity? Imperfectly, from a little distance. No intimate, adolescent sexuality—no embodied, lived experience there. Till she turns 18, the figure is built up with an external eye, the mother’s view, the doctor’s view, and ascribed longings. Anjum’s imperfect mothering of a baby (this is also a book of abandoned babies) is more real than her sexuality. And yet, by the end, you see her as a genuine creativist.
Kashmir comes in through Musa, taciturn, dignified, not easily revealing of his secrets. Also substantially through the IB man, as also the army torturer, his sexy co-torturer, his sold-out Kashmiri junior, a captured militant. Its politics is unambiguous, but this is no pamphlet. The actual K stories come in a series of short parables—miniatures full of wrought irony and dark wit. The victimhood (protesters as ants, armless people turned to arms) is as strikingly offered as the introspection. The common trope of Kashmiri duplicity is both stated, and self-admitted by Musa as the only available weapon. Also, the jehadism, the martyrdom sweeping in “like a mist from across the border”, every tiny facet in this medley of mutually cancelling non sequiturs. The many voices set up a hall of smoky mirrors in which you’re not sure you recognise yourself. Every species of do-gooding or victimhood is shot through with a flash of its contrary. The prismatic light of the Joint Interrogation Centre shows up an ambiguous, many-fangled truth. A mainlander suspicious of Roy’s motives need only read this book to know that her critical gaze remains intact along with her moral core. For her, Kashmir is paradox regained.
Then there’s Tilo, the lapsed architect, the Roy alter-ego, insinuating herself into the text half-way through. The author, hitherto unobtrusive, except as the all-seeing descriptive voice, creates this new presence and lets her soak in the narrative, journeying to its frontiers, a quiet Calamity Jane. The self-referentiality sets up complex zones of intimacy. It allows her to mock herself at times. It also creates a bridge between this story and The God of Small Things. It gives us a strong mother in her last, devastating moments of derangement. And an unknown Paraya father. In a way, it’s a literary version of a Gandhian gesture, exorcising the prejudices in our blood, an elaborate guilt-reduction mechanism. It is also a way of saying that all of us in India have a Paraya father whose name we do not know.
It’s also a Delhi novel. Readers familiar with the city will feel the kinship, others will get a series of tableaux. But animating it all, Delhi, Kashmir or everywhere else, is a kind of enchantment. Music floating through with a redeeming force. And a whole integrated biome—animals are constantly streaking through the story’s many alleyways, as allegory, portent, event, and bare life. Owlet, buffalo, cement hippo, pedigreed strays in a South Delhi colony, mutant pigs, spectral mares, brinjal pups, a donkey with kind eyes, a goat with a maulana beard, two roosters (one is a Kashmiri), a moth squadron, a parrot that swears like a lascar, ventriloquising the humans. They are no props, but cherubs floating in a world of zoomorphic humans. When a butcher arrives in Chitli Qabar like a star cricketer, and inaugurates a street IPL of blood and sacrifice, it foreshadows the real thing.
The portions where her mastery over her clay disappears—as if she just had to put it out there—are perhaps on Gujarat, where the metaphors are mechanised more than animalised. Rioters are metal parakeets, with no inner life. And when Manmohan Singh is condemned by the terms of masculinity (“all the charisma of a trapped rabbit”). But for the rest, over and above all the forensics of the human condition, beyond the romance and the expertly edited thriller, what we get is also a feat of comic-fabulist genius. A very human warmth, an elfin charm that cannot be explained by the prose, a fairy tale light shining over “an acute, perilous sanity”.