- Published: 30 April 2018
- ISBN: 9780241980767
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $22.99
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017
Where do old birds go to die?
She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches. She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb. She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.
When she first moved in, she endured months of casual cruelty like a tree would – without flinching. She didn’t turn to see which small boy had thrown a stone at her, didn’t crane her neck to read the insults scratched into her bark. When people called her names – clown without a circus, queen without a palace – she let the hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain.
It was only after Ziauddin, the blind imam who had once led the prayers in the Fatehpuri Masjid, befriended her and began to visit her that the neighbourhood decided it was time to leave her in peace.
Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” she asked. “What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?” The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.”
The Man Who Knew English said it was clever of her to come up with that one. He said he’d never have thought of it himself. She said, “How could you have, with your standard of Urdu? What d’you think? English makes you clever automatically?”
He laughed. She laughed at his laugh. They shared a filter cigarette. He complained that Wills Navy Cut cigarettes were short and stumpy and simply not worth the price. She said she preferred them any day to Four Square or the very manly Red & White.
She didn’t remember his name now. Perhaps she never knew it. He was long gone, the Man Who Knew English, to wherever he had to go. And she was living in the graveyard behind the government hospital. For company she had her steel Godrej almirah in which she kept her music – scratched records and tapes – an old harmonium, her clothes, jewellery, her father’s poetry books, her photo albums and a few press clippings that had survived the fire at the Khwabgah. She hung the key around her neck on a black thread along with her bent silver toothpick. She slept on a threadbare Persian carpet that she locked up in the day and unrolled between two graves at night (as a private joke, never the same two on consecutive nights). She still smoked. Still Navy Cut.
One morning, while she read the newspaper aloud to him, the old imam, who clearly hadn’t been listening, asked – affecting a casual air – “Is it true that even the Hindus among you are buried, not cremated?”
Sensing trouble, she prevaricated. “True? Is what true? What is Truth?”
Unwilling to be deflected from his line of inquiry, the imam muttered a mechanical response. “Sach Khuda hai. Khuda hi Sach hai.” Truth is God. God is Truth. The sort of wisdom that was available on the backs of the painted trucks that roared down the highways. Then he narrowed his blindgreen eyes and asked in a slygreen whisper: “Tell me, you people, when you die, where do they bury you? Who bathes the bodies? Who says the prayers?”
Anjum said nothing for a long time. Then she leaned across and whispered back, untree-like, “Imam Sahib, when people speak of colour – red, blue, orange, when they describe the sky at sunset, or moonrise during Ramzaan – what goes through your mind?”
Having wounded each other thus, deeply, almost mortally, the two sat quietly side by side on someone’s sunny grave, haemorrhaging. Eventually it was Anjum who broke the silence.
“You tell me,” she said. “You’re the Imam Sahib, not me. Where do old birds go to die? Do they fall on us like stones from the sky? Do we stumble on their bodies in the streets? Do you not think that the All-Seeing, Almighty One who put us on this Earth has made proper arrangements to take us away?”
That day the imam’s visit ended earlier than usual. Anjum watched him leave, tap-tap-tapping his way through the graves, his seeing-eye cane making music as it encountered the empty booze bottles and discarded syringes that littered his path. She didn’t stop him. She knew he’d be back. No matter how elaborate its charade, she recognised loneliness when she saw it. She sensed that in some strange tangential way, he needed her shade as much as she needed his. And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.
Even though Anjum’s departure from the Khwabgah had been far from cordial, she knew that its dreams and its secrets were not hers alone to betray.
I was idling away the pre-cocktail ennui, flicking cards into the coal scuttle, when in buttled Jeeves with the quenching tray.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
The members of the National Security Council and their advisors all rose as President Bedford Travers entered the White House Situation Room located beneath the Oval Office.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath.
I am searching your face for remnants of the young man, the one who wrote of the cries of the holy Lammergeier as it feeds on the bones of the dead.