Where to begin? This is, I suppose, a story about survival, except of course in the long term we do not survive. Anjun does survive. S/he is a Hijra and the Hijra life is all about survival. Dr. Azad Bhartiya does survive and he is a hunger striker. Khadija does survive and she is a guerrilla fighter. Tilo survives and becomes a teacher. But so many do not survive. Miss Jebeen the first does not survive and neither do her parents. They are killed. Amrik Singh does not survive, and nor does his wife or his three sons. He kills his family and then commits suicide. Some die of natural causes. Some are murdered. That is the nature of war.
And this story is about a war: the war in Kashmir. It is a dreadful war. It has been fought, on and off, since the partition of the Indian sub-continent seventy years ago. Arundhati Roy, however, is quite specific. This is not just about the war in Kashmir. It is about the war, as she describes it, of the rich on the poor. It is about Union Carbide and the disaster at Bhopal. It is about the mining companies driving indigenous people out of the forests. It is a war about the confrontations between ideologies and religions.
It is hardly surprising that an environmental campaigner of more than twenty years would take such a view. Nor is it surprising that an anti-apartheid campaigner, as I am, would not be disturbed by it. It is a view, however, that many people will be uncomfortable with, and will find upsetting if not downright objectionable. It is something that the reader has to deal with if that person is going to enjoy this book.
Another factor that a reader from the western world may find difficult is that this is a book that is firmly embedded in Indian culture. And I mean, very specifically, not the culture of the Indian takeaway, but the culture of India. The opening chapters of this story are set in the Hijra community. Hijra are transvestites, transgender and even hermaphrodites. They do not really fit any understanding that westerners would have of such words. Their presence at weddings for instance is thought to be a blessing. This is not something that we in the West can really understand.
There is a great deal in this book about the Mughal and pre-Mughal cultures of India, about Urdu poetry and about the stories of India. [The Urdu poetry thankfully is translated].
So why would you read this book? Because it is a beautiful story, told with a great deal of passion. Because you will like the characters, or most of them anyway, and you will want to know how their stories unfold. Because the writing is skilful, and the use of English is extraordinary. Because you will learn something about the world.
I am not going to say that this is an easy book to read. But I would say that it is one that you should read and enjoy.