It begins with the life of Anjum, who is a hijra, who is making her life in an abandoned graveyard after years of random confusion and disappointment. The community of people she builds up around her populates the book, coming and going about their own lives, which she details along with the lives of the central characters. I enjoyed the backstories of these minor players, it creates depth and colour. The first part of the book covers Anjum's world, it has its troubles but it is relatively calm and stable. It is not a social critique or a demand for a change to the caste system, it is simply a portrayal of the way things are. The picture she paints of this world is both sordid and divided. Poverty is endemic but the people are accepting of the status quo and seem to find comfort in their own little niches.
"Right next to the waste-recyclers and the sewage workers was the plushest part of the pavement, a glittering public toilet with floating glass mirrors and a shiny granite floor. The toilet lights stayed on, night and day. It cost one rupee for a piss, two for a shit and three for a shower. Not many on the pavement would afford these rates, Many pissed outside the toilet, against the wall. So, though the toilet was spotlessly clean inside, from the outside it gave off the sharp smoky smell of stale urine. It didn't matter very much to the management; the toilet's revenue came from elsewhere. The exterior wall doubled up as a billboard that advertised something new every week." (p.112)
While it is a political book it is also a literary book, and she always gets her point across in elegant ways:
"The horse's hooves echoed on an empty street.
Payal the thin day-mare clop-clipped through a part of the city she oughtn't to be in.
On her back, astride a red cloth saddle edged with gold tassels, two riders: Saddam Hussain and Ishrat-the-Beautiful. In a part of the city they oughtn't to be in. No signs said so, because everything was a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold." (p.135)
The second part of the book is narrated by Biplab Dasgupta, one of a group of friends who's bond is formed during play rehearsals, from where he gets his nickname, Garson Hobart. Their India is a much more volatile place. The book from here on is peppered with violence, some of it quite extreme, that often left me shaken. The religious divide she portrays is something it is hard to understand for someone looking in from the outside. This, the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, an event I recall vividly:
"For a few days after the assassination, mobs led by her supports and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lives were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city. From my window seat in a bus on a bright beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. they pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South African-style with a burning tyre while people stood around baying their encouragement. I hurried home and waited for the shock of what I had witnessed to hit me. Oddly it never did. The only shock I felt was the shock at my own equanimity. I was disgusted by the stupidity, the futility of it all, but somehow, I was not shocked. It could be that my familiarity with the gory history of the city I had grown up in had something to do with it. It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores - as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers - life went on as before." (p.150)
Tilo is the character who dominates much of the rest of the story;
"She smoked Ganesh beedis that she kept in a scarlet Dunhill cigarette packet. She would look right through the disappointment on the faces of those who had tried to scam what they thought was an imported filter cigarette off her, and ended up instead with a beedi that they were too embarrassed not to smoke, especially when she was offering to light it for them. I saw this happen a number of times, but her expression always remained impassive - there was never a smile or the exchange of an amused glance with a friend, so I could never tell whether she was playing a practical joke or whether this was just the way she did things. The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As thought she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked - like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage." (p.153-4)
She is idolised by Biplab, he remains at a distance never admitting his feelings for her, but, like a true love never abandons her, ensuring her rescue (spoiler) from her darkest moment.
"I asked her - it was a stupid question - what precautions she took to make sure she stayed safe. She said she didn't dispute the rumour in the neighbourhood that she worked for a well-known drug dealer. That way, she said, people assumed she had protection.
I decided to brazen it out and ask about Musa, where he was, whether they were still together, whether they planned to get married. She said, 'I'm not marrying anybody.' When I asked her why she felt that way, she said she wanted to be free to die irresponsibly, without notice and for no reason." (p.159)
By the time you have staggered through the 400 pages you almost become immune to the random killing, though you feel as if this is deliberate on the authors part. I felt there was an element of cynicism and fatalism to people's attitude to the violence.
"The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient - perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration.)
Later it was established that the explosion had been caused by a car driving over an empty carton of Mango Frooti on the next street. Who was to blame? Who had left the packet of Mango Frooti (Fresh'n'Juicy) on the street? India or Kashmir? Or Pakistan? Who had driven over it? A tribunal was instituted to inquire into the causes of the massacre. The facts were never established. Nobody was blamed. This was Kashmir. It was Kashmir's fault." (p.324)
How does a society continue to function when so many of its people have been so traumatised? You get some of the answer in the closing pages when the characters create memorials to their loved ones within the graveyard. The bonds of friendship are the driving force of this novel and it is the thing that leaves the book feeling hopeful. It is quite a hard book to read but also an important one. The world so often forgets about people who's trauma becomes old news. Arundhati Roy's writing and activism over the last twenty years has been focussed on political change, and in this story you can sense her passionate commitment to the fate of Kashmir. While she is not necessarily making a case here for separation, she is telling the world about this tiny corner of humanity, trying to shine a light on the injustices of the current situation.