The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published exactly 20 years after Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things. The first novel won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, bringing Roy into the limelight in the literary world. Every time she wrote something, people took notice. Roy deliberately steered away from fiction to talk about political events and fought for various causes. So it’s no wonder that everyone expressed excitement and an eagerness to read her new novel.
We are introduced to Anjum in the brilliant opening scene. Anjum (Aftab) is a Muslim and a eunuch. She is born as Aftab and has had a rather difficult upbringing. She now lives in Khwabgah- Dream House- with other women. On her way to a Gujrati shrine, she encounters the massacre of Hindus, which leads the government to clamp down on the Muslims. She happens to find Zainab, a three years old girl, at the steps of Jamia Mosque and takes her back to Khwabgah. Zainab grows up to be a fashion designer.
On the other end, we are introduced to S. Tillotamma, who is a student of architecture and the daughter of a Syrian Christian mother. S. Tillotamma befriends three guys- Musa, Biplab and Naga. She marries one of them, upon the request of the other, while the third secretly loves her.
The third narrative is from the Landlord’s point of view. The landlord is someone who loves S. Tillotamma but doesn’t declare his love. He recounts her journey, all the while expressing his own sentiments to towards her.
These are the three narratives in this widely complexed book that takes the readers through a lot of the political turmoil and upheavals in modern India. From the massacre of the Hindus to the land reform that disowned the poor farmers, to the Godhra train burning to the Kashmir insurgency. It’s almost as if Roy wanted to educate and enlighten the readers about the violent events of India that’s done more damage than bring out any good. The moments are so well explained that given the complexity of the entire sequences of events, one doesn’t lose track of the narrative, which in my opinion may not have been well explained in the hands of another author.
Roy has an incredible sense and magic in her hands to weave out an intricate and powerful story through all the tragic events. It’s an incredible feat to have a plethora of characters—at times I had to re-read some paragraphs to keep track of who’s who- and they all have some uniqueness to them. The beauty of it all is how well rounded the characters are- no feel they are there for the sake of being there. As a reader, I still remember something about the characters, what they did or what they said. Saddam Hussain, Major Amrik Singh, and Biplab Dasgupta stand out the most in the novel. To give away more about them would spoil the element of surprise for the readers.
Having said that, the novel can seem a little clunky at times, mainly due to the extensive, descriptive paragraphs. As a Pakistani myself, I had no issue reading the Urdu verses, or language for that matter. But I can imagine how a non-Urdu speaker may struggle to place the Urdu language, as well as the political events of India and Pakistan, in perspective. Some may find the story a bit of a drag, while others will lap up all the delicious words that sprawl all over the pages. Even though she is a brilliant storyteller, I personally felt The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a collection of different narratives. At times, it did feel like as if there is no story in motion, but just short narratives about Anjum and S. Tillotamma.
It may also put some readers of the varied perspectives in the novel. One chapter, The Landlord, is told completely in first person. Then there are some letters and Tillotamma’s notebook, and while they may seem distracting, they do allow the readers to see different perspectives to the events that unfold.
There are lots of big ideas in the novel: gender, women, parenthood, religion, life, death, war, peace, hate and love. With so many ideas, the reader will find it a delight to experience all these emotions, through various forms of narratives, that will leave a stamp on your heart as soon as you finish the novel.
One of the key element in the novel is embodied in the short poem, that sums up the lives of the main protagonists:
This drives home the point that the telling of the story cannot be done in parts, but through the assimilation of the parts. This is basically what the novel is all about.
To talk more about the novel would mean to give away the surprises. I, for one, loved the novel. The 20 years have definitely been worth it. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a powerful, engrossing and enriching read that deserves your time.