This ambitious novel by Arundhati Roy begins with the story of a woman named Anjum. Born intersex, Anjum was raised as a boy, but as soon as she was able to choose for herself she gave herself the name Anjum and went to live with a group of Hijra women in Delhi. Eventually, she created a new home community for herself in a derelict graveyard. Her story is intimate, focused on a few characters living their lives separate from the political unrest happening around the country. When they get caught up in violence, it’s by chance, not choice.
But after about 100 pages, the book takes a turn and we meet a new group of characters—a woman named Tilo and the intelligence officer (Biplab), freedom fighter (Musa), and journalist (Naga) who love her. Their story shifts from Delhi to Kashmir and back again, each taking a side in the war for Kashmir, and those choices affect their relationships with each other. Here, the book’s scope expands, and the Anjum story is left behind. The connection between the two is hinted at, but not spelled out until the conclusion, where all the major characters come back together, and their fates are revealed.
As I was reading, I found the shift in scope frustrating and the section about Tilo unecessarily confusing. Roy does not tell the story chronologically. She begins by having Biplap, the book’s only first-person narrator, share his memories in flashback—sometimes with flashbacks inside flashbacks. And then she runs at some of the same events as experienced by Musa, Naga, and Tilo. With each new telling of the same story, we get new information, and events that seem mysterious and incomprehensible take clearer shape. On reflection, I find this pretty ingenious although I struggled to really settle into the book.
Part of the struggle is due to my own ignorance of the history of India and Kashmir. Roy refers to events, such as the 1984 Union Carbide explosion, that I vaguely remember hearing about, and I know there have been conflicts in Kashmir, but I don’t know much about them. This, of course, isn’t Roy’s fault, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to cater to my level of ignorance. It is, however, worth noting that if you’re like me and decide to read this, that you may need to consult Wikipedia once in a while to get your bearings.
In the end, I think that Anjum’s story and Tilo’s story could have been better tied together, although I think Roy is getting at some interesting ideas about identity and choice by telling both of these stories in the same novel. It is, at times, a very sad story, but there’s warmth and humor to it as well. It’s not my favorite among the Booker longlist, but it is excellent. In fact, all four books that I’ve read from this year’s list are superior to anything on last year’s list. Although Lincoln in the Bardo is my favorite so far, I’d have a hard time choosing between Exit West, The Underground Railroad, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. All of them are fine novels, with some flaws. Here’s hoping the rest of the list is as strong.