Book Review: Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
I fell into the latter camp. The God of Small Things floored me. I was overwhelmed by the courage and the power of Roy's words. Some writers can make you feel the emotions of the book, not just in empathy with the characters but, as though you have lived it yourself. No matter what you think of her plots or her politics, there is no denying that Roy has that power in spades.
If The God of Small Things delivered a gut-wrenching punch of sadness, I began The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with the, perhaps naive, expectation that Roy might deliver a dose of happy feeling.
Roy’s fans have waited twenty years for her second novel. Rumours spread in 2011 that Roy was working on a novel but she took her own sweet time, making The Ministry of Utmost Happiness one of the most hotly anticipated books of the decade.
Since winning the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut, Roy has been an activist on human rights and environmental issues. She has protested against government corruption in India and against the rise of Hindu Nationalism. She has campaigned for Kashmiri Independence and in defense of Maoist rebels. In 2016, Roy published Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, a collection of essays with actor John Cusack based on their meeting with whistle blower Edward Snowden.
Early last year, a Kashmiri separatist whom Roy had championed was hanged. Student protests ensued and Roy was accused of inciting disorder. She fled India, in genuine fear for her life, and camped in a London hotel to finish her novel.
It is clear that those two decades of experience are poured into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I was reminded of that Hemingway quotation about good writing requiring only that the writer sits down at a typewriter and bleeds.There is so much of Roy's anger, frustration and sorrow swelling her sentences, there seems almost a risk that her blood will seep from the pages.
Tilo, the pivotal character of the story, is the daughter of a scandalous liaison between a Syrian Christian mother and a Hindu Indian father of lower status. Tilo is beautiful, a graduate of architecture and a human rights activist; so far, so autobiographical.
During Tilo’s college days in Delhi, three men fall madly, and irrevocably, in love with her. I suppose that’s a fantasy we’ve all entertained but in Roy’s case, one suspects there could be truth in it.
‘She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked- like pets.’
The first of these three men plays the role, occasionally, of narrator. Biplab Dasgupta rises through the ranks of the Intelligence Bureau and continues to watch out for Tilo.
‘I loved her without pride. And without hope.’
Naga then, the ‘breezy and mercurial’ showman, the one you would expect to get the girl, becomes a journalist, bridging the divide between establishment and insurrection.
It is Musa, ‘solid, dependable, a rock’, with his jet black hair and chipped tooth, who unexpectedly becomes a militant in the battle for Kashmiri independence and wins Tilo’s heart.
None of the three men, however, represents a fixed point on which to hang her happiness.
For that, Roy has woven another complete story, wholly separate for most of the book and yet fundamental to the plot.
When Jahanara Begum discovers indisputable girl parts nestling beneath her infant son’s boy parts, she prays first that the problem will go away somehow and then, failing that, she prays to find a way to love Aftab.
‘Her fifth reaction was to pick up her baby and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed.’
Aftab’s father persists in denial.
‘Tendencies are no problem. Everybody has some tendency or the other. Tendencies can always be managed.’
It turns out that Aftab’s tendencies are not to be managed. ‘It wasn’t Aftab’s girl part that was just an appendage.’ He undergoes surgery to become Anjum and moves in to the Khabgah, the House of Dreams, with the other eunuchs or Hijras, women trapped inside the bodies of men. Anjum lives, and even reigns supreme, in this other universe for thirty years before understanding that, to realise her dreams, she must re-enter the Duniya, the real world. She takes up residence in a graveyard and builds, amongst the graves, a refuge for all the assorted outcasts of the Duniya. Yes, it is every bit as bizarre as it sounds.
‘Anjum spoke as though it was a world that everybody ought to be familiar with; in fact, the only world worth being familiar with.’
What Roy has created is a patchwork. Segments of the book are hilarious; others are obscenely cruel. Disparate vignettes are threaded together when you least expect it. A vast and varied collection of characters provide background colour and texture but the reader struggles to know who, and what, will turn out to be relevant.
The narrative is deliberately chaotic and confusing which this reader found exhausting. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a big book, and not an easy book. It reads a little as though Salman Rushdie and Richard Curtis got together to do Bollywood.
And yet, yes, it made me feel.
When I stopped concentrating so hard and let the words blur a little, when I stretched my field of vision to see the big picture, that patchwork formed a pattern of hope.
Anjum’s graveyard guesthouse is the ideal world where outcasts discover solidarity and each individual knows the liberation to cross lines. It is a place where an Untouchable can find love, where a Hindu might become Muslim, where a man might become a mother and even the dead have a voice. Whether or not you can believe in that, even for a minute, is probably the deciding factor in whether or not you will like this book.
Anjum describes the conflict within her body as her own, inner, Indo-Pak war. We all, of course, experience our personal Indo-Pak conflict, we all have our ‘tendencies’, and we all need to find great courage to navigate our inner borders. In a world where the price of happiness may come down to finding the utmost courage, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made me feel brave.
Buy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness here.