The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

The new video Saddam showed her began with a shot of several rusty pickup trucks parked in the compound of a genteel old colonial bungalow—the office of a local District Collector in Gujarat. The trucks were piled high with old carcasses and skeletons of cows. Furious young Dalit men unloaded the carcasses and began flinging them into the deep, colonnaded verandah of the bungalow. They left a macabre trail of cow skeletons in the driveway, placed a huge, horned skull on the Collector’s office table and draped serpentine cow vertebrae like antimacassars over the backs of his pretty armchairs.

Anjum watched the video looking shocked, the light from the mobile phone screen bouncing off her perfect white tooth. It was clear the men were shouting, but the volume on the phone was turned down so as not to wake Miss Jebeen.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, phones are used not only for one-to-one communication but also the networked dispersal of politically-charged emotions. The novel is set in contemporary Kashmir, a region claimed by India and Pakistan. Amidst this clash of nation states, the characters use smartphone apps like WhatsApp to send photos, videos and jokes across national boundaries. Just as often as they use the devices to speak across distance, they crowd around a single phone screen to watch viral videos together in physical proximity. As the above passage indicates, the potency of the shared content bypasses straightforward linguistic signification. Their imagery and sound burst into the turmoil of everyday mixed reality, introducing affects that jostle with and meld into personal relationships and social bonds. The videos often depict animals—cows, goats, roosters—who fall victim to the impulses of local political conflicts. For characters actively involved in combat, phones are primarily encountered as tools of war. They use them to maintain insurgent networks while also proving wary of them as potential surveillance devices. The novel therefore presents the circulation of information and affects through smartphones as a new terrain or texture in ongoing conflict and struggle.

by Richard Bingham