A Scene from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Busy street in New Delhi : Stock Photo

Excerpt from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

There is a scene in the novel that just rivetied me. It is such a powerful reminder that in the end we are who we are.

A baby has suddenly appeared on a site where some desperately poor people in India are staging protests. Their causes are legion. At this point, the author hints that the child, who is the color of night, may be supernatural. A man with political ambitions wants to hand the mysterious baby over to the police. An old Hijra–an ancient Hindu term for what we would call a trans women, a category of persons who are at once holy and despised–has moved to protect the child, arguing that the child would quickly die if dumped into an orphanage.

“And yet, in order to arm themselves for battle, they retreated  right back into what they sought to escape, into what they were used to, into what they really were.

He, a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind. She, a woman trapped in a man’s body. He, raging at a world where the balance sheets did not tally. She, raging at her glands, her organs, her skin, the texture of her hair, the width of her shoulders, the timbre of her voice. He, fighting for a way to impose fiscal integrity on a decaying system. She, wanting to pluck the very stars from the sky and grind them into a potion that would give her proper breasts and hips and a long, thick plait of hair that would swing from side to side as she walked, and yes, that most well stocked of Delhi’s vast stock of invectives, that insult of all insults, a Maa ki Choot, a mother’s cunt. He, who had spent his days tracking tax dodges, pay-offs, and sweetheart deals. She, who for years had lived like a tree in an old graveyard, where, on lazy mornings and late at night, the spirits of the old poets whom she loved, Ghalib, Mir, and Zauq, came to recite their verse, drink, argue, and gamble. He, who filled in forms and ticked boxes. She, who never knew which box to tick, which queue to stand in, which public toilet to enter (Kings or Queens? Lords or Ladies? Sirs or Hers?) He, who believed he was always right. She, who knew she was all wrong, always wrong. He, reduced by his certainties. She, augmented by her ambiguity. He, who wanted a law. She, who wanted a baby.

A circle formed around them; furious, curious, assessing the adversaries, picking sides. It didn’t matter. Which tight-arsed Gandian accountant stood a chance in hell in a one-to-one public face-off against an old, Old Delhi Hijra?

Anjum bent low and brought her face within kissing distance of Mr. Aggarwal’s.

Ai Hai! Why so angry, jaan? Won’t you look at me?”

Saddam Hussain clenched his fists. Ishrat restrained him. She took a deep breath and waded into the battlefield, intervening in the practiced way that only Hijras knew how to when it came to protecting each other–by making a declaration of war and peace at the same time. Her arrire, which had looked absurd only a few hours ago, could not have been more appropriate for what she needed to do now. She started the spread-fingers Hijra clap and began to dance, moving her hips obscenely, swirling her chunni, her outrageous, aggressive sexuality aimed at humiating Mr. Aggarwal, who had never in all his life faught a fair street fight. Damp patches appeared in the armpits of his white shirt.”


Why Are Your Protagonists Always Women?

1909 London young suff

I have a small confession: I also write fiction and have completed two novels, one of which is available on Amazon.

Years ago, someone who read my stuff asked me why all my protagonists were women.

The question caught me off guard, and I probably gave some sort of incoherent answer. The truth was that I was using my fiction writing as a way to inhabit women’s lives in fictional worlds in a way that, at the time, I was unable to inhabit a woman’s life in the real world.

It was a safety valve that bought me some time in my long struggle not to be transgender In the end, it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.

Sublimation never is.

I just saw a piece about the first English translation of The Odyssey ever done by a woman. All translation is a creative act, as Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian poet and short-story author who was himself an important translator of fiction, pointed out. With different languages, since literal translation is rarely possible, the translator must make decisions about how to express what is being said. Inevitably, who the translator is will affect the final product.

Many of the older translations done by males had a decidedly sexist tone.

I want to read Emily Wilson’s version!