This is the latest from Arundhati Roy, she of The God of Small Things fame. It is a big, sprawling stewpot of a novel, that weaves together the lives of two main characters. One strand of this giant braid follows Anjum, a hijra, or transwoman, struggling to make a life for herself in Delhi. The other follows Tilo, a thorny and irresistible architect turned activist (who seems to be modeled on Roy herself), and the three men who fall in love with her.
The book begins and ends in a graveyard. Anjum lives in a multigenerational joint family of other hijras; together they raise a child. Later, she and a few other characters move into a graveyard. They sleep between the headstones, plant vegetables, create a new kind of human family that can obliterate the divisions between the living and the dead. This graveyard is the inverse of the Garden of Eden—a paradise whose defining feature, rather than innocence, is experience and endurance.
Conversely, we follow Tilo the activitist into Kashmir, and is a lot about the war in and for Kashmir, the struggle between at the time of this story, India and the Kashmir resistance. It is a story of horror and violence and unimaginable cruelty, while the story of Anjum is one of a resistance movement of a different kind. In the end, we see the two stories converge, somewhat unconvincingly, but by this time, we readers are so exhausted by the journey we are just relieved and happy to see an ending in sight.
The whole book is about resistance — the gays, addicts, Muslims, orphans, and other casualties of the national project of making India great again. The book is filled with characters, but most of them, if not all of them, are stand-ins for causes, which while not subtle, is still effective for this Western reader. It is colorful, demanding of the reader’s attention, and has something to say about oppression, resistance and hope. Something we Americans can use right about now.