books writing literature

Hijra Means Everything

“Hijra” is the key with which to unlock Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, an intricate, convoluted “Hijra” means “hermaphrodite” in Urdu, the official language of both Pakistan and the northern Indian region of Kashmir, a place that is itself a blended organism with both Hindu and Muslim limbs.

If you look up “Urdu” in Wikipedia, here is what you will find. 

…a Persianized standard register of the Hindustani language

(click on “persianized;” it deserves to be delved)

Roy’s most recent novel, written over a decade after the publication of her Booker Prize-winning “The God of Small Things,” posits India as “hijra,” a being irrevocably in conflict with, and because of, its genetic composition. The flash point of this conflict is Kashmir, a region where a fifty-year war still rages between the Muslim majority and the Hindu official guard. And, though Kashmir is where India’s battle over identity is most gruesome, Roy’s characters represent a war that is wrought everywhere: in Kerala between the Christians and the Hindus, in Gujarat between the low and high castes, in the mountains between the Communists and the State, in the cities between the brick and the slum.  One of Roy’s most fortunate characters goes to Iraq for work and comes back brandishing the slogan below, originally said by US Marine Corps General James Mattis:


Be professional. Be polite. And have a plan to kill everyone you meet.

Roy’s India is a place of lurking death, where survivors must overcome trauma only to help others overcome theirs. Pseudo families form from the remains. This is the case for the hijras of Delhi, whose abode is burnt down and take refuge in an abandoned cemetery, gradually building a commune where tired souls find their solace. Building what will be Roy’s “Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

The problem with this utmost unhappy world is not so much the how of its characters’ suffering, but the why. Why, especially applies, to the battle raging in Kashmir, which occupies half the novel with its gruesome and precise forms of torture. 

Azadi, the word

The story goes that the battles are fought over “Azadi,” Persian for “freedom.” The question though is freedom from what. The Indian government? Hindu majorities? Poverty? Muslim sectionalism? None of this is clear in the book, perhaps because it is not clear in real life either. If you look up the complex Kashmir conflict on the internet, you will actually even find a quote by Roy beseeching the actors to sit down and define what each means by “Azadi.”

The above is not to say the war is being fought for nothing. No. This is to say the war is endless; it was become a permanent state of being. Roy’s world is a Hijra looking for Azadi via sexual determination, something he/she can never obtain. But, he/she rages on, finds refuge atop a cemetery, cares for orphan children, wears lipstick, learns to use a cellphone, takes in a wounded enemy to live a patchwork life on new literal terms.