A Supermarket of Grief
Roy’s second novel illuminates humankind’s paradoxical
capacities for cruelty and kindness.
BY DONNA SEAMAN
Roy lit up the literary cosmos with her first novel, The God of Small Things (1997), a Man Booker Prize winner that continues to be avidly read and cherished the world over. In the intervening 20 years, the exceptionally
talented, caring, and intrepid Roy devoted herself to social activism while writing
numerous articles and five books of inquisitive, finely crafted nonfiction. She also
worked on her second novel, which is her second masterpiece.
As the ironic title suggests, this is a saga of eviscerating social critique and caustic
humor, but it is also a deeply tragic and profoundly beautiful book in its linguistic
chiaroscuro. As her intriguingly complex characters endure terror and absurdity,
treachery and wonder, tyranny and passion, Roy explicates the horrific conflicts
roiling twenty-first-century India and brutally occupied Kashmir. But as specific
as her unnerving dramatization is of the dire clashes between Hindus and Muslims
over faith, territory, and justice, her depiction of the consequences of extreme ide-ologies, systemic corruption, and rampant violence is of universal resonance.
The unifying force in this tale of suffering, sacrifice, and transcendence is Anjum,
an intersex person who lives as a woman in New Delhi, initially as a glamorous
standout among the transgender Hijra, a group with a long, fascinating history
in South Asia. After barely surviving anti-Muslim atrocities fueled by 9/11, An-
jum retreats to a graveyard, where she cobbles together a sanctuary she calls the
Jannat (which translates as “paradise”) Guest Home and Funeral Services. There
a foundling brings together Anjum and her enclave and a quartet of friends and
lovers who met in college. Artist Tilottama, like Roy, is the daughter of a divorced
Syrian Christian mother. Biplab became a high-ranking Indian intelligence of-
ficer; Musa, a daring Kashmiri freedom fighter and master of disguises; and Naga,
a famous journalist. Each of the three men loves Tilottama, and all four are under
threat from Amrik Singh, a “cold-blooded” Indian army officer tagged as the
“Butcher of Kashmir.”
From Anjum’s cemetery refuge to a small Delhi apartment, a movie theater
turned into a torture facility, a Kashmiri houseboat, and the jungle hideouts of
Maoist rebels, Roy’s entrancing, imaginative, and wrenching epic exposes relentless
strategies of oppression, including the abuse and murder of innocents, the cynical
lies of counterinsurgency efforts, the “infrastructure of impunity,” and the com-
modification of trauma in the “supermarket of grief.” Roy joins Dickens, Naipaul,
García Márquez, and Rushdie in her abiding compassion, storytelling magic, and
piquant wit as she questions our perceptions of gender, family, home, country, war,
freedom, love, and death in this righteous and tender illumination of humankind’s
paradoxical capacities for cruelty and kindness.
The Ministry of
By Arundhati Roy.
June 2017. 464p. Knopf, $28.95