“Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’: The Worlding of Queer Lives Under Neoliberalism” by Mauve Perle Tahat

“’You’ve already been to my funeral. You’ve already laid flowers at my grave. What more can they do to me? I’m a shadow at high noon. I don’t exist.’The last time she met him he said something to her, casually, jokingly, but with heartbreak in his eyes. It made her blood freeze.

‘These days in Kashmir, you can be killed for surviving.’

In battle, Musa told Tilo, enemies can’t break your spirit, only friends can.”

The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness

 Chapter 8: The Tenant (273)


My curiosity always prompts me to investigate what other people are saying about the text I’m reading. This is the reason I could immediately appreciate reader response theory–my go-to theorists being Walter J. Ong[1] and Audre Lorde[2]. The main assertions these two authors make, in their own way, is 1) the audience the author imagines for a text largely determines how they write it and 2) that audience does not exist but in the writer’s head, so essentially an author writes for themselves. This theory seems especially relevant to Roy’s novel, particularly in relation to queer theory. The extent of the author’s beliefs and politics are palpable in a work of fiction, even if the author thinks they are only writing with aesthetic goals. What bothered me about some of the informal reviews of Roy’s latest novel was how unwilling readers seemed to be in their political imagination. For this reason I need to explicate the theoretical basis for Roy’s text as I understand it. To a lay person, because of the politically weak representation of queer rights in major discourses, there is a tension which needs to be worked through, especially when considering the debate to keep queer theory a-political and based on “gender and sexuality rights.”

Presently, queer people are used as human rights tokens, discussed in relation to gender categorization/documentation, marriage equality debates, and policy while the most marginalized continue to struggle. Queerness is not merely a desire to marry a same sex partner, it is a politically salient position against exploitation and co-option of identity. Arundhati Roy’s book, The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness, is a case study of queer lives within a particular sociopolitical locality of India’s Delhi. The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness expands the definition of queerness to include those who are marginalized by global capitalism, expanding the boundaries of human rights considerations, and foregrounding queer and non binary characters. Through narrative measures, deploying illustrative characters, Roy asserts with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness there are people who will always struggle to survive under global capitalism and colonial imperialist gazes. When someone lives an existence which can be called queer and does not fit the dominant paradigm, unable to be categorized, they are continually in a state of living while dead to the world, unless for brief novelty (as in the character Anjum’s Jannat Guest House as a tourist attraction would represent Jasbir Puar’s idea of “pink tourism”). These people’s traumas are continually reified by society which further marginalizes them through lack of access to “legal” employment, healthcare, and, often, shelter. I assert queer definitions of personhood are commonly overlooked and invalidated by present human rights discourses in favor of “homonormative” queer people. Due to this, what has become inevitability, we see a marked resistance in these communities by creating their own worlds tied to their stories of resilience and creative survival.

Dipika Jain and Oishik Sircar, editors of “New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture, and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times” explain the tie between queer lives and coloniality by noting:

…the new intimacies between sexuality and neoliberalism that celebrate modernity and the birth of the disciplined sexual citizen are nothing but reproductions of the old colonial desire of civilizing the native. In the case of colonialism, the native was being disciplined to be brought into the folds of civilisation and today the queer is being tamed and brought into the folds of the secular market and nation-state. The new intimacy between queer organizing and the law is akin to the old and continuing desire for legalism and rule of law in the postcolony that will help it become a democracy. The new intimacy between public health and queer visibility is a very sophisticated repetition of colonial quarantine measures and surveilling bodies that carried contagious diseases. (16)

When thinking of queer lives it becomes imperative we approach our understandings through a framework of difference in order to create a perception of human lives with multidimensionality. Human rights discourses have a tendency to create flat depictions of people. The way to avoid this is to understand the worlds of resilience and survival queer people create and to illustrate this concept I will rely on the concept of “worlding.”  In a 2010 interview regarding her book Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine Through Transnational Frames, Mei Zhan provides a definition of worlding which is postcolonially aligned and applicable for this project because: “In insisting that knowledge-making is world-making, worlding foregrounds the fact that translocal encounters simultaneously produce dynamic forms…and animate uneven visions, understandings, and practices of what makes up our worlds and our places in them”(Wolf-Meyer). Zhan sees worlding as an analytic. She continues to explain:

Within this conversation “worlding” does a few things for me. It gets away from “globalization” which, on the one hand, tends to emphasize totality and inevitability and to rely on the metaphor of circulation; on the other, too often assumes the local and the global as spatially and conceptually distinctive (and therefore reliable) starting points for interactions and connections. Worlding thus helps reimagine the complexity, contingency, and serendipitous moments of everyday socialities, as well as the ways that anthropologists can engage them. It is an analytic that, I hope, subverts deep-seated dichotomous thinking and habitual dividing practices: local/global, traditional/modern, culture/science, text/context, ethnography/theory, knowing/being, data/analysis, epistemology/ontology. What if we think of these as provisional outcomes of shifting associations and processes: products of worlding rather than the foundations and starting points of social analyses? (Wolf-Meyer)

Jasbir Puar also refers to her own formation to explain accepted norms of queerness, homonationalism, as an analytic. This is significant because Puar rejects queerness as a sexual identity and instead tends to agree with the sociopolitical orientation of queerness–a radical act of resistance. Homonationalism is a way for countries to highlight their “progressive” politics while maintaining an oppressive and decidedly capitalist formation. Puar explains, “Instead of thinking of homonationalism as an accusation, an identity, a bad politics, I have been thinking about it as an analytic to apprehend state formation and a structure of modernity: as an assemblage of geopolitical and historical forces, neoliberal interests in capitalist accumulation both
cultural and material, biopolitical state practices of population control, and affective investments in discourses of freedom, liberation, and rights”(Puar 337). She continues to discuss how homonationalism is a way to understand “liberal rights discourses and how those rights discourses produce narratives of progress and modernity that continue to accord some populations access to citizenship—cultural and legal—at the expense of the delimitation and expulsion of other populations”(Puar 337).

In a special edition of the Jindal Global Law Review, “Law, Culture, and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times,” the editors also point out this has been a decade of sex rights: “the recognition of the human rights of sexually marginalized people internationally” citing precedents all over the world which recognize people with queer sexualities are (obviously) people–a very basic concession (Jain i). However, the writers featured in this volume recognize how this misses the mark and note “all of these armed with the virtues of liberalism and its vicissitudes in marketism, secularism, masculinism, nationalism, legalism and an unflinching belief in corporate globalisation‘s magical ability to turn former Queer outlaws into entrepreneurial and consumptive citizens, provided they play by the rules of the state-market nexus”(Jain ii). There is an emphasis on making subjects homonormative, palatable. The problem with that is, the authors point out, “to recognize only the rights of those homosexual men who have the privilege of access to private space” is exceptionalist and does not take a postcolonial stance because: “The primacy put on private sex is clearly an elitist qualifier to read down the law because it excludes from its purview a whole range of non-elite and indigenous sexually marginalized people who do not enjoy the privilege of a private space. The ‘privacy’ standard is a myth because those who do have access to private space are already outside the reach of the law”(Jain 9). This becomes important for the discussion of  The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness because it is a novel set in Delhi, India where Arundhati Roy can situate us within a political landscape where secular Hinduism designates the Dalit or “untouchable” caste who do not have spaces of their own. The characters in this text create their own worlds, first in the setting of the Khwabgah, then in the cemetery turned Jannat Guest House and Funeral Parlor, which has to be politically deliberate on the part of Roy. These are public spaces. Roy’s prose take a variety of creative risks by switching from omniscient to first person narrator, exploring government documents and journal notes in the lives of characters, and foregrounding characters on the sociopolitical margins–showing their subject position is not completely staked. Through Anjum and S. Tilottama we are also privy to nonbinary storylines with characters who have queer orientations/subject positions. It is in the affected storytelling of these characters along with Saddam Hussein, Biplab Dasgupta and others that we gain some insight into the Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir region, survey gender discourses in postcolonial contexts, and considerations of human rights. Roy dedicates this book to “the unconsoled.” The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness should be examined in the context of India’s queer political climate pointing out the particulars which make up day-to-day queer life under neoliberalism. After considering one region, we can also reflect on the world more broadly, but it is useful to have a case study–the literature along with corresponding theorists and widely accepted and distributed human rights documents.

To think generally of gender as a political site of resistance and labor, Canadian scholar Bobby Noble explains, “Gender can be an often pleasurable making of the self. If gender is also labour, then gender can be unmade, or at least, gender can be remade so that power works through it with less categorical precision. A practice of strategically unmaking one’s self, in a context where being a gender means also being embodied in hegemonic ways, is a class, trans, anti-racist and union politic I want to cultivate in this era where ‘self’ is the hottest and most insidious commodity” (Noble 96). Noble also refers to trans people as “deconstruction workers”(102).  It is critical to consider the cultural context for transgender people in India, since Roy’s book highlights the lives of hijras, specifically Anjum. Ashwini Sukthankar, in “Complicating Gender: Rights of Transexuals in India,” interviews hijras in India and explains the differences between hijras and transgender people. This is an excerpt from the interviewee, Vividha, which highlights the economic difference of hijras versus transgender people:

The hijra discourse is very different from the discourse of transgender or transexual persons. There are differences of class, of language, of the kinds of discrimination, harassment and violations faced. For me, when I think of transgender or transsexual persons, what comes to my mind is people who have greater access to information and have very different class privilege. For hijras, that’s not the case–lots of us are not English speaking. And, unlike many transsexuals who get expensive surgery and can pass as men or women, lots of hijras are very easily recognizable as hijras. (Sukthankar 165)

Early in the novel Anjum learns not to be afraid of herself and that “Hijras were chosen people, beloved of the Almighty. The word Hijra…meant a Body in which a Holy Soul lives”(Roy 31). Roy situates Anjum as not just a survivor (instead of “victim”) but someone who is working in a tradition with its own mythology (the good type of mythology), which has been passed down by affirming mentors. Roy creates characters who illustrate the need for a deeper understanding of queer individuals and possible orientations often overlooked by society. She highlights how they are denied space but somehow survive creating their own, often fighting battles within larger national political conflicts out of necessity but also for the benefit of future, potentially spaceless human beings. The queer characters of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness reorient space in a way that is authentic to them but disorienting to others.

In both human rights documents specific to queer issues the emphasis is on degeneracy and disease, which I argue is intentional and detrimental, stigmatizing queer positioning as if to say “If you choose to be queer, you choose to get AIDS, HIV and related illnesses.” This makes the struggle for equality in healthcare exceedingly problematic since healthcare providers have this faulty framework and perception of the rights of queer individuals. The most recent United Nations “Discussion Paper” on “Transgender Health and Human Rights” begins its discourse well enough:

The legal, economic, and, social marginalization of trans people affects every aspect of their lives. Social exclusion is reflected in laws that do not acknowledge the existence of trans people, either as a third gender or as a people who wish to transition from male to female, or from female to male. Without legal protection, trans people are vulnerable to daily violence and discrimination with cumulative impacts. (2)

As the paragraph goes on the focus shifts to an ahistorical AIDS centered discussion: “Some impacts are visible, such as the HIV epidemic among transwomen in many parts of the world” (2). This may seem harmless or even accurate, but what this document is doing (and more clearly as the paragraph continues) is assigning queer sexuality and gender identity as the reason for disease, socioeconomic hardship, and other forms of violence. This is, again, a bandage approach, or, as Jasbir Puar would say “homonormative” approach to human rights. The truth is, if an individual doesn’t buy into the capitalist ideals of modern society they are living a queer life, one that is not supported by those who are able to successfully navigate neoliberal terrains. Let’s also look at the verbiage within the Indian cultural context where they include “third gender” and “hijras” as part of the discussion.

Asian countries have centuries-old histories of existence of gender-variant males – who in present times would have been labelled as ‘transgender women’. India is no exception. Kama Sutra provides vivid description of sexual life of people with ‘third nature’ (Tritiya Prakriti). In India, people with a wide range of transgender-related identities, cultures, or experiences exist – including Hijras, Aravanis, Kothis, Jogtas/Jogappas, and Shiv-Shakthis (See glossary). Often these people have been part of the broader culture and treated with great respect, at least in the past, although some are still accorded particular respect even in the present. The term ‘transgender people’ is generally used to describe those who transgress social gender norms. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term to signify individuals who defy rigid, binary gender constructions, and who express or present a breaking and/or blurring of culturally prevalent stereotypical gender roles. Transgender people may live full- or part-time in the gender role ‘opposite’ to their biological sex. (“Hijras/Transgender Women in India: HIV, Human Rights And Social Exclusion” 3)

This is all fine to say, but again, this takes for granted the lack of private spaces and the importance of understanding private space as inaccessible for people under neoliberalism. Even the title of the document is problematic because it centers degeneracy and disease as the natural occurrence for those who transgress social boundaries. The issue with these documents is they put the onus on the individual who “chooses” to be queer.  There’s a dichotomy of “exclusion vs. inclusion,” which could imply if people simply don’t “deviate” they will get along fine. Overall, though, I found the U.S.-focused dialogue on queer issues far inferior to the discourse offered by the India-focused documents. This is notable: because the U.S. sees from a gaze which is overall more imperial and capitalist their rhetoric does reflect a rugged individual sentiment more so than India’s literature on queer rights. India’s queer rights literature also reflects the superior social policy compared to the U.S.:

Social welfare departments provide a variety of social welfare schemes for socially and economically disadvantaged groups. However, so far, no specific schemes are available for Hijras except some rare cases of providing land for Aravanis in Tamil Nadu. Recently, the state government of Andhra Pradesh has ordered the Minority Welfare Department to consider ‘Hijras’ as a minority and develop welfare schemes for them. Stringent and cumbersome procedures need for address proof, identity proof, and income certificate all hinder even deserving people from making use of available schemes. In addition, most Hijras/TG communities do not know much about social welfare schemes available for them. Only the Department of Social Welfare in the state of Tamil Nadu has recently established ‘Aravanigal/Transgender Women Welfare
Board’ to address the social welfare issues of Aravanis/Hijras. No other state has replicated this initiative so far. (“Hijras/Transgender Women in India: HIV, Human Rights And Social Exclusion” 9)

I did not set out to do a study in comparative politics, but I could not help but notice this superior policy; in the U.S. there are issues just giving children welfare, and since the time of Reagan U.S. people have demonized welfare in general. People who are queer in their orientation to social norms are still human and should not be left for dead. This small sentiment is why government and NGO literature must focus on phenomena such as AIDS to create a reason to discard people.

One of the most critically acclaimed books I found on the subject of queerness in India, Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-One Queer Interviews compiled and introduced by R Raj Rao and Dibyajyoti Sarma, was put together after feeling the impetus to have meetings of queer individuals that weren’t centered on HIV and AIDs. It seems like a simple thought, but when all funding for queer communities is centered around diseases, people start to also question their own identities, pathologizing them, perhaps rejecting themselves. The namesake of Whistling in the Dark comes from an interview with a trans woman, Hoshang Merchant, where she says: “If you are asking about the camp of the transsexual on the borders of which I have lived all my life, then I would call that the camp of the queen, a whistling in the dark, if not a horrible grimace of the dark played out in full public glare” (Rao 2).

Queer people create their own world because they see differently. The characters in The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness have learned the power of imagination. What strikes me about The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness is these characters have every chance to reject themselves, but they do not. Queer individuals are brave because they set out on a path that is not “recommended,” and even if their parents, like Anjum’s in the story, accept and love them, they often meet perplexed people who don’t understand why anyone would “choose” a queer orientation when they could simply be like everyone else. To be queer is to understand your life as political and to imagine a world that doesn’t exist yet and to be brave enough to make that world every day.



Works Cited

“Discussion Paper: Transgender Health and Human Rights.” United Nations Development Programme. United Nations Development Programme HIV Health and Development, 2013.

“Hijras/Transgender Women in India: HIV, Human Rights And Social Exclusion.” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India, 2010.

Jain, Dipika and Oishik Sircar, eds. New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture, and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times. Jindal Global Law Review, Vol. 4 Issue 1 August 2012.

Lorde, Audre. “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.” Sister Outsider. Crossing Press, 2012.

Narrain, Arvind and Gautam Bhan. Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. Yoda Press, 2009.

Noble, Bobby. “Our Bodies are Not Ourselves: Tranny Guys and the Racialized Class Politics of Embodiment.” Trans/forming Feminisms: Trans/feminist Voices Speak Out. Canadian Scholars Press, 2006.

Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” PMLA Vol. 90, No. 1 (Jan.,1975), pp. 9-21.

Puar, Jasbir. “Rethinking Homonationalism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies. Volume 45, Issue 2 (Queer Affects). Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Rao, R. Raj and Dibyajyoti Sarma. Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-One Queer Interviews. SAGE Publications India, 2009.

Roy, Arundhati. The Ministry of the Utmost Happiness. Hamish Hamilton, 2017.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. “Thinking Through Other Worlds: An Interview with Mei Zhan.”Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology, 2010.

[1] Walter J. Ong “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction”

[2] Audre Lorde “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”

%d bloggers like this: