Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – by Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMOUH) -review by Manisha Subramanian 

 (no worries- no “spoilers” included)

Full disclosure– I am a jabra fan of A. Roy. Whether I agree with her political views or not, I love her incandescent writing. I’m awed by her fearless activism, her doggedness over lost causes, her fierce moral and physical courage. I’m impressed by her facility to dive headlong into the darkest reaches of our society; by how she doesn’t just open our eyes to our country’s vast and persisting injustices, but grabs us by the collar and pushes our noses into the unthinkable horrors the powerful inflict so casually on the powerless. By how she then dares us to return unruffled to our alfa-alfa-sprouts-for-lunch, lavender-scented-candles-in-the-bathroom, Crate and Barrel lives. I am enthralled by her whimsical writing style, her unashamedly autobiographical character portrayals, and the sudden and unnerving, but ooh-this-makes-total-sense flights into magic realism. I am bemused by her knowledge and uninhibited use of shuddh hindi gaalis ( read TMOUH for the street lingo, if nothing else!). I admire her totally-madcap-but-it-works sartorial style (Only she can carry off a bowler hat with a sari with such elan), and of course, I love the wild curls (note the full-on Wicca-goddess tousle in her profile picture on the jacket of TMOUH). But most of all, I relate to her writing because she speaks in “our” idiom with all our verbal mannerisms, twitches, tics, and slang; she speaks with the voice of our generation, but with the idealism still burning bright.
(Did I mention that I am a fan of A. Roy?)

The book, now-The Ministry of Utmost Happiness;  the book for which we waited for almost twenty years. Twenty years, and our hearts have barely healed after she’d ripped them out for little Rahel and Estha in The God of Small Things (TGOST)…
TGOST drew us into the saga of a single family; the story unfolded through the point of view of the children, and the narrative swirled back and forth around a terrible incident which shattered their young lives.
TMOUH on the other hand paints a broader canvas; the book covers certain dark events in our country’s recent history and rings clangorous bells portending further darkness to come. The tale is told through the lives of several characters who sear themselves into our sensibility and stay with us. And herein lies the problem- the characters are beautifully etched and their back-stories carefully developed, but there are just too many of them; multiple protagonists with multiple storylines and parallel sub-plots – all demanding our emotional investment. The narrative tries to pull in all the causes Arundhati has supported or been involved with in the last twenty years since TGOST; so the book tries to follow distinct and separate motifs ranging from the Kashmir insurgency, the Naxalite rebellion in Bastar, the Gujarat massacres, to the soul-destroying rise in consumerism, and the mindless depredation of the environment. In keeping with A’s consistent championship of the marginalized and dispossessed, all these themes are interwoven into the main narrative which intriguingly has a transgender woman at the center. There is an attempt at a point to bring in all these separate threads together, and this is where them the book stumbles somewhat- the device used to mesh the sub-plots seems too contrived and artificial. Also, the different characters who pop in and out of the story are so compellingly wrought that you want to know more about them, but it feels as if their stories have been left suspended in a trail of ellipses….
All in all, I loved the book, but I want- no, I predict a sequel featuring Miss Jabeen the Second!
Yeh dil maange more

Korean Spa-Nirvana

Los Angeles has a thriving Korean community mostly concentrated in what’s called Korea Town, a vibrant, commercial hub of very successful retail businesses. Apart from the expected gyoza stalls, Korean barbecue joints, and clothing stores specifically catering to petite Asian women, the definitive attraction of the neighbourhood are its celebrated spas offering traditional Korean treatments for mind and body relaxation.

I signed up online for one such session at a spa recommended by my daughter. A lower-back pain- had been bothering me for a while (the result of gruelling 11-hour stints at the computer), and I decided that their “Nirvana Massage” which promised to realign the body’s meridians would perhaps do the trick. Here’s the experience:

The spa is strictly for women only. The catch is that once you’re inside, you have to – ahem -disrobe…completely! After you’ve nerved yourself into doing the needful, you are escorted to the treatment area. You get over the shock of all the casual display of, er… buffery, and, desperately clutching your towel to yourself, step in – to alternately cook yourself in the saunas, and cool down with plunges in the treatment pools. When the therapist has determined that you’ve been tempered to the right degree, she calls you into the inner sanctum for a scrub.

You lie fish-like on a slippery rubber-covered slab, and the therapist, herself stripped down to her working uniform of a black swimsuit, sluices you with scalding hot water and begins her business. She’s ready with her tools of torture- scrubbing mittens lined with what feels like sand-paper, and boy, is she determined to get you clean! She pries and pokes, she scours and exfoliates, and short of scraping you with a potato peeler, she does everything to make sure that every inch of your skin is scrubbed, buffed, and polished.
A final rinse and you escape with your flayed skin to the massage rooms.

Aaah- the promised Nirvaana massage- you relax face-down on the table, breathing in the calming lavender fumes and letting the soothing notes of the new-age music wash over you. Soon, your poor, sore muscles will be gently massaged into relaxation….

Fooled ya! The masseuse arrives; she has obviously trained with the Korean Secret Service and does not mean to go easy on you. Cruel fingers prod and probe and quickly find your vulnerable spots. She digs and pummels with arms and elbows, and all the ancient torture-techniques of the Orient are put into play. Your muffled howls and protests are met only with soft giggles. The agony continues for about an hour, and just when you’re convinced that your soul is about to leave your body, the pressure miraculously eases. Nurse Ratched changes gears and now rubs you down with some herbal emollient. The back and limbs are thoroughly massaged, each muscle is gently pressed, every tight knot kneaded till it slowly relaxes. Heated stones with mystic powers are placed on your spine and rolled over your shoulders. Your bones absorb the healing warmth and let out a deep, thankful sigh! The masseuse grabs your hair and gives your scalp a tingling rub. The tension has ebbed from your head, your muscles have relaxed into a grateful liquid pool, and your body feels like it’s floating.
You thank the assassin/angel as she sends you off with a hot cup of strengthening tea.

You head to the saunas again for a final bake in the Himalayan Salt Sauna. The hushed room is bathed in soft amber light filtering in though the salt panes-like the diffused luminosity from a stained-glass window. You lie down on the floor on heated pebbles which gently warm your bones. The charcoal blocks lining the ceiling act as cleansers. The sauna waves penetrate your skin and into your being. The toxins absorbed by your body slowly leach out as you sweat. You wish you could remain in this soothing cocoon forever… Relaxed, your body and spirit freed of stress, you drift off into a honey-amber doze….

Soon, too soon, a whisper from the therapist reminds you that your twenty minutes are up.
You get dressed and head out, your body rejuvenated, your soul cleansed, and your Qui energy restored!

PS- I’m hooked! My back-pain is gone, and I’m doing it all over again next week…

Itwaari “Haat” – Los Angeles style! Sunday Farmers Market at Hollywood

The institution of the Farmers Market is one of the redeeming features of urban living in the United States. These open-air markets held in local communities offer city-dwellers access to fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit and are a picturesque and “green” alternative to the gray, artificially-lit supermarkets stocked with insipid, genetically-modified produce pulled out of cold-storage. While a majority of Americans still go to regular grocery stores for their monthly mega-hauls of irradiated potatoes, artificially-ripened tomatoes, and bags of bland, mealy apples, once a week the cognoscenti sling on their reusable canvas/jute/cotton bags (jholas) and head, preferably cycling or walking, to the neighbourhood Farmers Market. These markets are promoted by local administrations and allow farmers and growers to sell their produce directly to the public – the fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of their flavour, nutritional content is preserved, and, as the produce is locally-grown and does not have to travel far to reach the consumer, there is the additional benefit of reduced food-miles.. Along with the freshest in-season produce, many markets offer flowers, cheeses, baked goods, local artisans’ products, and all kinds of local and ethnic food. They also attract street performers, musicians and artists who put up little side-shows and exhibitions. Humdrum grocery shopping is transformed into a complete sensory experience- the colours from the vegetables, fruit, and flowers are a feast for the eyes, the tantalising aromas wafting from the food stalls pique the appetite, and as the sounds of jazz mingle with children’s laughter, the spirit revives in the air and sunshine.

For me, these Farmers Markets stir up nostalgia for the haats of small-town India. One of my earliest childhood memories is of accompanying my mother every Saturday to the Shaniwar Haat in Mhow. While my mother shopped for vegetables, my sister and I would walk around gingerly amidst the crowds and the bustle, fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells around us. We would stare covetously at the colourful ghagras of the vegetable-sellers, marvel at the mysterious potions peddled in brown bottles-“guaranteed to cure all ailments”, and feel sorry for the bandar-wallah’s sad little monkey whimpering in his little skirt and cap. We would patiently follow our mother from stall to stall in anticipation of the reward promised at the end of the visit – roasted channas deftly twisted up into a newspaper cone, or bunches of green gram on-the-stalk to be painstakingly shelled at home, warm bhuttas pulled out of the coal angeethi, dripping with butter and rubbed with salty-tangy masala, or tart squishy bers in tiny little black earthen matkas. (The one thing we were never, never, allowed was the juice from the ganne ka thela.) My romance with the haat continued as an adult. Once every week, I shed my corporate persona and joined the housewives, factory-workers, students and all the other citizenry at the local haat of whichever town in India I happened to be living in. It was my turn to shop for gobhi and alu while my little daughter skipped blissfully by my side, a balloon in one hand and a paper pin-wheel in the other. The haat which was a shopping mall, entertainment center, and convivial watering-hole never lost its allure.

Here in Los Angeles, amid the steel-and-concrete of my structured life-style, I look for the relaxed ambiance of my haat experiences. So, once every week, I slip on my sneakers, put on some sun-block, and armed with a couple of re-usable grocery bags, join other jholawallas in the trek to the nearest Farmers Market. This Sunday it is the Hollywood Farmers Market held on the celebrated Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Itwari Image 1

Traffic-stops have been placed to block off a long stretch of the street. The notes of a saxophone reach me before I enter the little swing-gate. I am early. Some of the vendors are still setting up their stalls; unloading produce from small vans, arranging vegetables on make-shift stands, unfurling banners announcing themselves as “certified organic farms”. I have skipped breakfast, and my stomach protests. Not a problem – I move towards the section where the food stalls are already doing a brisk business, and am immediately engulfed by the tantalizing aromas of at least ten different world cuisines. There is Mexican street food and Korean barbecue, Thai curry, Jamaican sausages, Japanese Sushi, French crepes, falafels, and bagels. Pizzas compete with hot-dogs, a sandwich stand boasts of 25 different kind of cold and grilled sandwiches and there are at least four vendors offering variations on the standard American breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash-browns and toast. I get myself a pupusa which is the Salvadoran version of paratha – mine is stuffed with cheese and vegetables – and walk back towards the produce section.

The variety of the produce and the sheer visual impact of the colours takes my breath away every time. Piles of snowy cauliflowers are banked with green lettuce. Oranges and tangerines spill out like sunsets from wooden crates. Brinjals glow deep purple behind heaps of tender radishes flushed with the palest pink. Small boxes of black blueberries and rosy raspberries are stacked in a Mondrian-like arrangement. They are outshonee by the famous California strawberries –each perfect red cone smoulders like a ruby adorned with a fringe of emerald leaves, and I completely understand all the folk-lore associated with this enticing fruit. I see bell-peppers arranged in heaps by colour – green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. I stop by strange and hitherto un-encountered specimens; a many-tentacled citron called “Buddha’s fingers”, a leechee-like “dragon-fruit” with scales and fins, which looks like it could open its mouth any minute and spew out flames, a waxy orange “kobacho” which is like a persimmon crossed with a mango. There is a stall specializing in tomatoes – on display is an astounding range – from huge heirloom tomatoes the size of small pumpkins to tiny pearl tomatoes no bigger than pepper-corns.

 

By now the market is filling up with customers and the energy is building. There are the Farmers Market regulars; veterans who know which is the best stall for mushrooms, and when the first crop of spring asparagus will be in. Tourists rush from stall to stall with their cameras clicking. Earnest young people press flyers into my hands to solicit support for their particular environmental or political cause. Children gather around the cages where rescued dogs wait to be adopted. More street performers get into the act – a six-piece band starts assembling – the Farmers Market routinely sponsors emerging musical talent – a lone flutist squats at the kerb piping out plaintive New Age music. Customers mill around tarot card readers and massage booths. Since this is Los Angeles, celebrity sightings are common in this particular farmers market. But I’m too busy loading my canvas bags with green beans and leeks, cherry tomatoes and bell-peppers to look around for famous faces. (One could ask the vendors for plastic bags, but at the risk of disapproving looks from the regulars who are very “green-minded” and always bring their own re-usable bags.)

I then head for the flower section – a treat which I have reserved for the last. The flower stands are ablaze with all the glorious colours of Fall. Gerberas, chrysanthemums, sunflowers, birds-of-paradise bloom in every shade of russet, orange, gold, and amber. My eyes are suddenly drawn to tubs of marigolds standing in front of a stall, yes, actual genda phools lighting up a corner of the market. Delighted, I wrap my arms around a generous bunch and inhale deeply. Instantly, I am engulfed in a wave of nostalgia. The notes of “Careless Whisper” float down from the saxophone artiste. As I start towards the exit with my loaded bags, and an armful of flaming gendas, I reflect on the commonality between this experience and my memories of haats past. Instead of roasted channas, there is kettle corn, the bandar has been replaced by the shelter-dogs, and the gullible here have their bhavishya told by tarot card readers. And, as if to underscore the connection, there it is, just before the exit – an honest-to-goodness ganne-ka-ras stand! The years roll away, and I am back with my mother at the Shaniwar Haat in Mhow.Itwari Image 18