The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – Is Happiness Relative?
14th June, 2017
A hijra, a woman and a baby tangled in a web of Indian politics and social injustice.
The story revolves around Anjum (born Aftab), a hijra (transgender) living in Delhi and Tilo, whose lover Musa is trapped in the unrest in Kashmir. A baby, adopted by one and absconded by the other, forms a bond between the two women. In between their individual stories are the stories of Maoists, Gujrat, Kashmir, mushrooming political leaders and the unconsoled (for whom the book is dedicated).
“Why should a novel be about one thing?” – asks Chimamanda in her latest novel, Americanah which charges at a truck load of issues strongly woven into the plot. Arundhati Roy seems to ask the same question with her second novel, twenty years after her first, though with a bit of waver in its voice. The premise of the novel is present day India which is an applaud-able feat. While there are many novels written on the Independence movement (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children), Emergency period (Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance), Naxalite movement (Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others), and many more, we seem to be in want of yet another one that so blatantly points out the happenings in the ‘now’ of India.
Reading the book as an Indian who is aware of the current affairs in the country is certainly a bonus. Arundhati has spared none and included the pioneers who have made (or marred?) history including the silent prime minister (Manmohan Singh), Gujrat ka Lalla (Narendra Modi), Trapped Rabbit’s government (Congress party), old man with gummy Farex- baby smile (Anna Hazare) and the commoner Mr. Aggarwal (Kejriwal) in her book. The Anna Hazare movement that was praised as the ‘Second freedom struggle’ rose and fell at the same exponential rate and one of the characters in the book calls it the ‘motherfucker of all scams’. However, the book can be read and enjoyed at a different level without a deep understanding of Indian politics even if you do not know the real-life-persons who are mocked at.
Arundhati wants to put the whole of India, the diversity and the plethora of problems that come with it into 400+pages. So we have it all here – all of India, including the hijra community, treatment of Dalits (lower castes) in the new India, the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Anna Hazare movement, the dying of Urdu language, the rise of Hindu fanatics (‘saffron parakeets’ as Roy calls them), hatred towards the Muslim community, the prime ministers of the last few decades and ‘gau rakshaks’ (protectors of cow who say it is a holy animal). Some issues are dealt with in a more subtle manner such as the environmental hazards of plastics on animals, the spam text messages (I was glad she put that in. Seriously drives everyone crazy and no one seems to know how to completely stop receiving them), the migration of nurses from Kerala to Gulf, the fake American accent that clutches Indian throats as soon as they land in America, the usage of substandard cement in buildings, organ harvesting, hypocrisy of media that treats the fallen as mere ‘news items’, unavoidable bribery in offices and the prejudice of North Indians against the dark skinned South Indians.
Since the book tackles a lot of present-day issues, the reader is met with frequent authorial intrusions given in brackets. While this method enhanced the reading experience in Arundhati’s first novel, it does not allow the reader to melt into the world of Anjum and Tilo because of the constant reminders that there is an author lurking behind them who wants to emphasize (the tell-not-show technique perhaps?) some facts. Even though I was disturbed by the generous use of brackets in the book, it is ironical that I have included a lot many brackets in this review because there is no other way I can describe this book in a more effective way.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is no easy read and I had to take several breaks to digest the quantity of information put forth in each page. Not that I have any regrets about reading the novel because this is like a quick bullet list of the present political developments in India. The book almost feels like a student’s revision notes and the author fails to go deep into any of the issues. The reader has to be satisfied with the superficial layers or resort to research on their own to expand the various points fleetingly mentioned in the book.
A major shortcoming of the novel is the lack of focus and trying to fit in more issues than the plot can handle. The plot often feels like a lost child and by the time we wade back to it through the dark waters, one feels tired and not as enthusiastic to finish it. Since so many real-life characters were fictionalized in the book, often I found myself stumbling over the actual fictional characters and trying to google them out in case I was less informed of the political scenario – This was a frustrating task indeed. The ending was disappointing and seemed forced (There is a baby who is central to the plot; but frankly I did not care much for it).
The characters are weak (and the minor characters too many) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, perhaps because they are secondary to the overall political nature of the novel. In the beginning I was really invested in Anjum and her struggles in an Indian society as a transgender. Arundhati is successful in bringing to light the small problems within the community (such as the time when Anjum, the favourite hijra of the press and media is slowly replaced by the new hijra who knows fancy English words such as ‘cis’, ‘MtoF’ etc). However midway, Roy leaves Anjum and a baby and abruptly flies straight into the Kashmir problem that continues for several pages. By the time we make our way back to Anjum, I had no interest in knowing what happens. Tilo, in my opinion, was an extremely weak character and the plot could have been crisper had the character been omitted from the novel. She does not do significant contributions to the plot except in being the fictional Arundhati (much like Rahel in The God of Small Things, who on the other hand was a strong character) and reminiscing about her mother Maryam Ipe (based on real-life Mary Roy, Arundhati’s mother, with traces of the fictional Ammu of The God of Small Things). As a fan of Arundhati’s writing, I was delighted to make the connections between the two novels and Arundhati’s own life, but I doubt if a new reader would be as patient as the book requires him to be.
The main prerequisite to enjoy this novel is patience. To prove this point, here is a small example of how Arundhati writes about the ‘dictionary in Kashmir’. You have two pages with frequently used words from A to Z. This might look as an experimental inclusion in the book but it packs the whole gist of the Kashmir issue in alphabetical order. The writing is beautiful and uniquely descriptive; there are quotes strewn about the novel such as “Where do old birds go to die?”, “Enemies can’t break your spirit, only friends can” which force the reader to enter into a moment of quiet reflection.
There have been whispers and publicity pieces on the internet that say the book falls into the genre of magical realism. I am afraid that is not true (except for stray references like the one incident of breaking open lungs of stone to free the soul Pg. 258 or Tilo visiting Musa through “the crack in the door that the battered angels in the graveyard help open (illegally) for her” ) and the book is overtly realistic in its tone. There is a reference to Gabriel Garcia’s fictional town of One Hundred years of Solitude which Roy uses to describe the ‘Macondo madness’ in India. Perhaps an alienation with the Indian way of living might have made some descriptions seem a bit magical, but these are real incidents happening around and these are not sufficient to brand the book as a work of magical realism.
Comparison with The God of Small Things
One cannot help foraging for broken mirrors of Arundhati’s brilliant debut novel in the new one even though she has told that her readers can expect anything other than another The God of Small Things. And she is absolutely right. Both the novels are distinctly different except for some non-lustrous resemblances. For example, Tilo would be the fictional child of Ammu and Velutha of The God of Small Things, had their story ended differently. Arundhati uses her same techniques of repetition, capitalization and authorial interjection via brackets for emphasis as well as frequent shifts between the past and present during the narration. While her debut has the charm of lyrical prose swathed in beauty even when tragedy strikes her characters, the setting of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is more dingy, grim and as real as the streets of Delhi. The God of Small Things is more plot driven while the new book has many important subplots that seem to get a bit lost inside the ministry.
To Read or Not to Read?
This is the most difficult question regarding the book. The answer depends on what you expect from the novel. If you are a fan of The God of Small Things and the beautiful prose and unique metaphors used, Arundhati’s new novel would let you down. If you are non-judgmental enough to accept a novel that is so unlike its predecessor, you will find this to be a thought provoking one. The novel works as a ‘Roy-novel’ but if this was penned down by a less acclaimed novelist, perhaps it would not have been received by readers and the literary world in the same way. Read it with intermittent short breaks, allow it to grow in your mind and you will feel happy that you picked it up.
Arundhati is a brave writer who does not allow herself to succumb to a stereotyped version of herself. When she wrote a masterpiece as The God of Small Things; the world yearned for a second novel. She surprised us all by turning into an activist who ‘walked the talk and wrote the walk’. Then after twenty years, she surprises us again with a very different book, that is steeped in realities, delicious but also nothing a faithful reader would have dreamt of. If I have to recommend one of the two novels of Roy, it would be The God of Small Things that proves her finesse as a writer. But maybe you are as brave a reader as the author who wrote this novel (a little less pretty; a bit more controversial; a bit too long in want of some clipping; highly ambitious; genuinely flawed) with many loose ends but which speaks a lot of truth about today’s India. If you would like to be shocked, to be sucked into a cobweb of the dirty world of politics and social injustice, gift yourself this book today; I whole heartedly recommend it.
Title : The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author : Arundhati Roy
Publisher : Hamish Hamilton
Published : 2017
Language : English
Pages : 464
Rating : 4/5
Have you read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness? Did it grow on you after you closed the book or did you dislike the read?