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Why ‘The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness’ Is A Chaos I’m Happy To Have Stepped Into

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The very day I finished reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, the news of the novel not making it to the Booker prize final shortlist arrived.

I was still so hungover by my reading of the book that the news didn’t come as a shock at all. If one book by an author wins a Booker prize and the second one does not, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter is a weaker piece of art. In my opinion, if a reader thoroughly delves into the book, they will realise how defiantly beautiful and unforgettable it is, despite the Booker honour not attached to it.

The long span of years the novel makes its way through – moving to and fro between the past and present, the present and future, and the future and past – justifies why it took Arundhati Roy 20 years to write it.

Years of Roy’s traveling, experiencing the various political struggles in different parts of the country, writing non-fiction essays with all the urgency they required to be written in, reflecting, thinking of starting a novel and then finally finishing it – all of this is quite purely visible in the 438 pages of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”.

The concept of the co-existence of the dead and the living, and the bonhomie between the two, is phenomenally striking. Before this novel happened to me, I always had either a spooky or an adventurous understanding of the place called the graveyard. But this novel quite sensibly reveals the significance of it in the lives of the Kashmiri Muslims who have to frequently visit their very own ‘Mazaar-e-Shohadda‘ (Martyrs’ Graveyard) only to declare the new dead members alive forever, the significance of it to a devastated transgender woman, Anjum – one of the survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots – who makes her home amidst the graves of her loved ones in the old city of Shahjahanabad and names it ‘Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services’.

Jantar Mantar – a heritage site in the capital city of India where there is  an observatory of astronomical instruments built by an old King, Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, but which has also become the centre of all kinds of resistance movements where people from different parts of the country arrive to register their unwavering struggles, accompanied by activists, students, artists, writers, poets, sympathisers, empathisers, lunatics, dreamers and so on – is the focal point from where, through the unusual turn of events around a mysteriously beautiful woman, Tilottama, we are driven into the valley of Kashmir and then to the forests of central India.

While ’emergency’ is declared very rarely in any part of the rest of India, Roy satirically points out how ‘normalcy’ is declared from time to time in the Kashmir valley and the central India forests.

The extremely filthy and rigid caste system prevailing in India and present within Hinduism  is darkly described in the book. Those parts reminded me of one of the interviews of Arundhati Roy where she said that the full name of an individual is like a bar code at the back of a product.

Animals are as much a part of the book as the human beings are and contribute to the story in their own peculiar ways. This is the author’s way of reminding us, that we, the Homo sapiens, are only a part of the many species existing in this world, and hence keeping us grounded.

I was able to understand the relevance of the title of the book once I had finished reading it. The utmost happiness the title refers to is about how happiness is perceived differently by different people. Evidently it’s not a ‘happy’ novel at all. In fact, it is about how the characters derive happiness by standing unfazed in the face of the stormy tragedies they’re dealing with and hence, making the creators of the tragedies uncomfortable.

What makes the novel even more beautiful is the number of languages it accommodates besides English – Urdu, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telugu, Kashmiri – in the form of poetry, music, conversations and names. This kind of writing broadens the pan Indian canvas of the novel and plays a very relevant role in protecting our nation from the constant efforts being made to transform it into a monolithic state.

Arundhati Roy is undoubtedly and unabashedly above all the Bookers and Nobels.

Kritika Sharad is a former student of Gargi College, University of Delhi.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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