The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Introduced by Emma Fowle, Sarah Stuttard and Julia Webb-Harvey
#ABookaDayAwayFromHay series by readers of this blog
Twenty years after the publication of her award-winning debut novel, God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s hotly-anticipated second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was always going to be a saga of epic proportions. Unusually for any book, let alone one published two decades after the first, Roy even cites the same cover designer in her acknowledgements. If this is indicative of the publishing power she now wields, it may go some way to explaining the major flaw of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – namely that despite the sometimes-soaring prose and ambitious multi-generational storytelling, you cannot help but wonder, if Roy had not written this, would it be a significantly shorter and tighter book?
In the years since publishing her first novel, Roy has established herself as an activist and outspoken critic of Indian nationalism, as well as a prolific non-fiction author. Her political views and non-fiction writing have clearly influenced her storytelling. She deftly weaves historical references and political posturing into this vast multi-character story, even referencing the title of one of her non-fiction works, An Algebra of Infinite Injustice.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness follows the stories of two main characters: Aftab/Anjum, a Muslim intersex person, or Hijra, living in a graveyard, and Tilo, an architecture student who becomes embroiled in the Kashmir separatist movement by association through her lover, Musa. The seemingly separate stories find commonality in everyday themes: rejection by family; place and role in society; love, and loss. Roy’s genius however is in the sweeping up of these micro themes into a more macro storyline that is ambitious and far-reaching.
The novel gives one the feeling of being dropped directly into the heart of India, as the lives of the characters rub up against each other and crowd in on the reader’s personal space. Together with the vast roll call of characters, this gives the book an overpopulated feel, much like it’s host country. The reader must work hard to hold on to the characters as stories are elevated and then abandoned, some to be returned to, but others not. Characters weave in and out and around each other, only really falling into place as the book draws to its conclusions. This is never truer than of the book’s main protagonists, Anjum and Tilo, whose lives converge and eventually combine only at the book’s end.
The narrative is as fractured as the political situation in India and Kashmir. Roy’s expertise and passion is evident throughout, sustaining and carrying the individual stories through the epic sweep of the novel. Tilo is affected by what she witnesses in Kashmir. Musa, Tilo’s lover, is defined by his activism. Ultimately, the Kashmiri conflict lies at the heart of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with a cascade of misery being paraded before the reader through the massacres and torture chambers described within it. However, in parts it lacks the conviction of God of Small Things, with Roy giving a surprisingly sympathetic treatment to Biplab Dagsupta, old friend of Tilo. As a senior officer in the Indian Intelligence Bureau, Biplab rescues Tilo when she falls foul of the Intelligence Bureau. In order to counter this, Biplab is presented as an alcoholic with a failing marriage, unable to act on his long-held secret desire for Tilo, even when presented with the opportunity to rescue her. This has the effect of destabilising his narrative and providing a convenient foil to any accusations of sympathy towards the nationalist cause.
Roy’s wide deployment of narrative techniques (prose, poems, lists, letters, statements, text messages and even an alphabet) does nothing to sooth the passage through the book for the reader. The chapters vary in length and the whole narrative has an unanchored, fragmented feel to it. Roy meanders from character to character and it takes a patient reader, or one who can find a thread through it, to navigate successfully to the end of its winding path. That said, the beauty of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness lies squarely within Roy’s extraordinary writing. She has lost none of her magical touch for language in the intervening years since God of Small Things, and at many points, her writing is simply arresting. The opening of the book ‘… she felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb…’ is nothing short of breath-taking.
As the epic tale progresses, and one character rescues another, the fragments of the story come together to form a beautiful whole. In the end it is Anjum, for so long lost and rejected herself, who provides a sanctuary for the lost souls of the novel to congregate. Within the walls of the Jannat Guest House, in the Delhi graveyard where the novel opened, it is the baby, Miss Jebeen the Second that provides completeness to the story.
Sometimes hard to follow but always varied, the narrative of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness covers a vast and diverse landscape. It has a life of its own, or rather is made up of multiple lives, millions of lives. At no point does Roy allow the reader a moment to become settled – be it in location, association, or chronology. It is precisely that vastness, that immersive expanse that makes the novel an extraordinary work. Roy does not tell you what to think, but tells you what is. The overall experience is of navigating through a tumultuous political landscape alone, constantly tripping up on foreign words and foreign policies. With so much intricacy and variety every reader will take with them something different, through attachment and identification to different stories. Each of these stories, characters and instances are so confidently crafted that the reader must decide which means the most to them. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy has achieved what Tilo so curtly prophesised:
‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.’
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, for all its foibles and complexities, is well worth the effort to find that everything.