The Atlantic Posts

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions.  Laura Miller writing in The Slate ( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlantic calls it a “fascinating mess”.  Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children concluded.  Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.

Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family.  It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.

There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was  interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.

Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599

A fistful of journalism: An interview with Deca collective

Deca( I interviewed some members of  the DECA collective. Founder-member, Sonia Faleiro facilitated the conversation via email. This was uploaded on the Hindu website on 11 April 2015 at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-fistful-of-journalism/article7088990.ece and a shorter version of it in print on 12 April 2015. I am also c&p the text below.) 

The members of Deca, a global journalism cooperative, share the reason for sharing it, and the future of web publishing. 

Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices ( www.decastories.com and @decastories). It takes its cue from Magnum Photos, a member-owned cooperative that changed the rules of photojournalism in the 1950s. Magnum’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took advantage of the technological shifts of the time — portable 35mm cameras and fast, cheap film processing —to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important. With journalism entering an era of dramatic change with tablets and smartphones replacing print books and newspapers, established journalists can now bring their stories directly to readers. These shifts — and agencies like Magnum — are Deca’s inspiration.

Deca’s members have authored acclaimed books and articles in magazines like Harper’sThe Atlantic,The New YorkerTimeScienceRolling StoneGQNational GeographicOutsideBloomberg Businessweek, and The New York Times Magazine. The members — who are based in Rome, London, Shanghai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Seattle, Washington DC, UAE, Lebanon, and South Africa — include winners and finalists of prestigious awards like Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, PEN Literary Award, Livingston Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, and Los Angeles Book Prize. Since Deca’s launch in mid-2014, five stories have been published. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men was No. 1 on Amazon India and was selected as a ‘Kindle Select 25’ (one of 25 best books in the Amazon Kindle storefront across all markets).

Once a month, Deca publishes a non-fiction story about the world, somewhere between a long article and a short book. Each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest. The eight founding members are Sonia Faleiro, Stephan Faris, McKenzie Funk, Vanessa M. Gezari, Marc Herman, Mara Hvistendahl, Delphine Schrank, and Tom Zoellner. Recently, Elizabeth Dickinson, Rania Abouzeid, and Richard Poplak became members too. In a freewheeling interview, Deca’s members talk about why they started Deca and the future of publishing on the web. Excerpts:

What prompted the creation of Deca?

Our inspiration — and proposed response to any coming changes — are one and the same. New technologies may be gutting the market for print journalism but they have a silver-ish lining: If journalists want to write directly for their readers, it’s now cheap and easy to pull off. No longer do the two sides need a magazine in order to find one another. Note that we also found inspiration in newer photo cooperatives like Noor and VII, which came about after a more recent sea change in photography: digital cameras. We wanted to tell the important stories of our times, to do so in detail, and for as wide a readership as possible. But we also wanted to maintain the standards we’ve become used to working for great traditional media. We wanted to be sure we’d be well edited, copy edited, and beautifully published. Deca does all of this along with providing us the support and security of working with a group of similarly idealistic but also very hard-working people.

Once you publish the long-form stories, what next?

Photo cooperatives have long functioned as a way to keep archival photos by its members from disappearing in the dust bin. It’s likewise possible that Deca could package and put out anthologies of its members’ work — stories sitting in our individual archives that are newly relevant today.

What are the rules that you foresee changing of making content available on smartphones?

A shocking proportion of people now read their news and books on their smartphones. It helps that screens keep on getting bigger, which is true of Amazon’s phone as well as the new iPhone, apparently. Stories can now live independently of their publications.

How will crowdsourcing work for this collective?

Kickstarter’s been a smashing success so far. But it will go on in some fashion via our website and a campaign on the new crowdsourcing platform Tugboat. Many publications are now using a slow-drip version of the NPR model: “If you like us, please support us.”

How will the collective work add new authors?

New authors will be added subject to a unanimous vote. We’re obviously looking to work with great writers. But we are a co-op so we also want to be sure that whoever we bring on board understands that this is about shared effort, responsibility, wins and losses. They must also be pretty easy to work with.

What is the selection process?

We publish only members’ work and have no plans to do otherwise. We do have plans to eventually translate members’ stories to other languages, however.

Will you develop this into a subscription model or will it remain as an offering of digital singles on KDP?

Yes. Subscribers are signing up now via Kickstarter. Our app is up and running and so is our subscription service. So basically we now sell singles on Amazon. We sell singles and subs through our app that people can download to their smartphones or digital devices. Readers can subscribe to Deca for $14.99, which buys them 10 stories (http://www.decastories.com/store/subscribe/). Readers can also buy singles from our website to read online (http://www.decastories.com/13men/)

Why did you opt for a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM model) when models such as Creative Commons are becoming popular?

Perhaps mainly because we’re a bunch of writers, not techies or business people, and funding our work via the DRM is the model we could most easily wrap our heads around. Creative Commons is great, but we’ve yet to understand how, if readers don’t pay, we can’t fund reporting trips, let alone pay ourselves. So we’ve started with a pay-to-read model and are crossing our fingers. The money for research has to come from somewhere. Readers supporting journalists directly — outside the framework of a magazine or a large media organisation — is also a trend. Even so, our subscription for a full year costs about the same as a single night out at the movies, and directly expresses your support for the continued existence of this kind of journalism.

Will you ever consider anthologising these e-singles in print? (Guernica announced in summer of 2014 it will be publishing an annual print-anthology.)

Absolutely considering. We’re still fond of print, even if we’re enabled by digital. And there may already be cases when you see Deca’s work in print: When new Deca stories come out, we aim to partner with magazines and publish excerpts therein. In fact, Of Ice and Men was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. They published a whopping 9k word excerpt.

12 April 2015
Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

It is a novel worth reading.

Here are a few more related links:

9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499