Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2022

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy’s second novel, coming twenty years after her Booker winning debut, The God of Small Things, has likewise had mixed reviews. But The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in January 2018, so it has admirers to be taken seriously.

In 2020 I retrieved my review of The God of Small Things from ‘the archive’ and published it here on the blog so you can see that I was not among the naysayers. But in tackling a review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I have to admit that I did not always know what was going on in the novel…

However, I never once considered abandoning it.  It is the kind of book that casts a spell on its readers…

I had cut out and kept from the Reviews section of The Weekend Australian Sunil Badami’s somewhat churlish 2017 review of Ministry titled ‘Voice of Righteous Anger lost in the Indian Crowd’, and so I sought enlightenment from it when I got lost after Roy summarily abandoned her central character mid novel.  She had launched into a first person narrative without making it clear who this new narrator was.  The review confirmed that the confusion was not entirely my fault and noted that Roy ‘claims’ not to revise or edit her work. Notice that snarky word ‘claims’?  Interesting choice on the reviewer’s part, I thought, but he makes his position (and his Indian credentials) clear:

But given Roy’s claims that she never revises or edits her work, many might say that having so over-spiced the masala and having thrown everything into the pot, without tasting it first, she’s rendered something, sweet spot aside, is largely unpalatable and ultimately indigestible.  (Weekend Australian, July 15-16, 2017.)

Well, I don’t agree.

The first part of the novel is narrated somewhat wryly in the third person to introduce the intriguing story of Anjum.  Anjum was born Aftab, and after botched attempts by his mother and a dodgy surgeon to render him ‘normal’, Anjum takes matters into her own hands and becomes Anjum in a hijra community called Khwabgah.  She fosters a girl called Zainab but things go badly awry when Anjum gets caught up in the endemic violence that plagues India, and she makes a new home for herself in a graveyard, along with a man who has responded to the violence that befell his family by renaming himself Saddam Hussain, because he admires the dignity with which Saddam met his death by hanging.  (The novel is full of shards of detail like this, showing that the whole world does not necessarily view events the way that the west does.) (It is also full of bits of back stories, so you don’t necessarily know what’s what at the time you’d like to know it.)

At the conclusion of this part of the novel, there’s a chapter called ‘The Nativity’ featuring a dark-skinned baby abandoned amid a mound of litter, but her fate is left dangling, and Anjum vanishes out of the story for a while.

Chapter 4 introduces Dr Azad Bhartiya who is on perpetual hunger strike against corruption (of which there are countless examples in the novel.)  S. Tilottama (a.k.a. Tilo) is also introduced as the publisher of the tracts which represent Dr Azad’s views.  The next chapter brings these characters together, but it’s not clear why.

Chapter 7, which I’m calling Part 2, is signaled by a change in narrator and with allusions to Jean Genet, a confessional tone. It took a fair few pages before I could identify this narrator as Biplap Dasgupta, Deputy Station Head, India Bravo (radio code in Kashmir for the Intelligence Bureau.)  He has a little rant in these pages, which becomes more significant as the chapters roll on.

Compared to Kabul, or anywhere else in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or for that matter any other country in our neighbourhood (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Syria —Good God!) this foggy little back lane, with its everyday humdrumness, its vulgarity, its unfortunate but tolerable inequities, its donkeys and its minor cruelties, is like a small corner of Paradise.  The shops in the market sell food and flowers and clothes and mobile phones, not grenades and machine guns.  Children play at ringing doorbells, not at being suicide bombers.  We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes, but these are only aberrations.

I feel a rush of anger at those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country.  Frankly, they can only do it because they are allowed to.  And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy.  I would not be crass enough to say this too often in public, but the truth is that it gives me great pride to be a servant of the Government of India.  (p.147).

The none-too-subtle irony here is that Arundhati Roy is herself a professional dissenter. She is a political activist who has devoted her life to the struggle for human rights and environmental causes.  And as we read on, we learn that the ‘unfortunate but tolerable inequities’ are outrageous, and that the ‘minor cruelties’ involve the routine use of torture and extrajudicial murder, exacerbating the cruelty by ‘disappearances’ so that families never know what happened to their loved ones and can never bury them according the rites and rituals of their faith.

Dasgupta is one of three men who love Tilo. Like Musa and Naga he met her years ago in college, in 1984, just before Indira Gandhi was assassinated, an event which triggered the wholesale massacre of Sikhs and was followed by the Union Carbide tragedy, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, its victims still waiting for justice. Musa becomes a militant independence activist in Kashmir, and Tilo marries Naga, a radical journalist, within weeks of Musa’s death.  The backstory of these events tumble out to surprise the reader, and to make us aware that Kashmir is more than just a disputed landmass over which Pakistan and India have territorial claims.

Enchanted by the beauty of the forest and its creatures, Dasgupta feels unsettled by the futility of the work he does.

It made one feel that Kashmir really belonged to these creatures.  That none of us who were fighting over it —Kashmiris, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese (they have a piece of it too — Aksai Chin, which used to be part of the old Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir), or for that matter Pahadis, Guijars, Dogras, Pashtuns, Shins, Ladakhis, Baltis, Gilgitis, Purikis, Wakhis, Yashkuns, Tibetans, Mongols, Tatars, Mon, Khowars —none of us, neither saint nor soldier, had the right to claim the truly heavenly beauty of that place for ourselves. (p.168)

And yet Dasgupta is sanguine about the state of affairs in Kashmir.

The militants who make it through rarely survived in the valley for more than two or at most three years.  If they weren’t captured or killed by the security forces, they slaughtered each other.  We guided them along that path, although they didn’t need much assistance  — they still don’t.  The Believers come with their guns, their prayer beads and their own Destroy Yourselves Manual. (p.169)

There are, however, moments of humour to lighten the mood.  The hijra Ishrat is impressed by Saddam’s memory for house numbers, and wriggles against him in admiration. In response he squishes her breast, and she slaps his hand away. ‘Don’t,‘ she says, ‘They cost a lot.  I’m still paying my instalments.’ 

But then there are devastating events like the River Jhelum in flood:

When the Jhelum rose and breached its banks, the city disappeared. Whole housing colonies went underwater.  Army camps, torture centres, hospitals, courthouses, police stations — all went down.  Houseboats floated over what had once been marketplaces.  Thousands of people huddled precariously on sharply sloping rooftops and in makeshift shelters set up on higher ground, waiting for rescues that never happened.  A drowned civil war was a phenomenon.  The army performed stunning helicopter rescues for TV crews.  In live round-the-clock bulletins news anchors marvelled at how much brave Indian soldiers were doing for ungrateful, surly Kashmiris who did not really deserve to be rescued.  When the flood receded, it left behind an uninhabitable city, encased in mud.  Shops full of mud, houses full of mud, banks full of mud, refrigerators, cupboards and bookshelves full of mud.  And an ungrateful, surly people who had survived without being rescued.   (p.264)

Reading this reminded me of the images we saw in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in America, when it was so obvious that there was no proper disaster planning and rescue services were wholly inadequate.  Natural disasters are inevitable, but it’s part of the job of government to protect its citizenry from the worst of it.  I hope that decision-makers in India read these pages, if nothing else.

My advice to readers of this lively, chaotic, confronting novel is to go with the flow.  Most confusions will be resolved, most back stories will be revealed, and the story itself is unforgettable.

Author: Arundhati Roy
Title: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, (Penguin Books), 2017
ISBN: 9780241303986, pbk., 445 pages
Source: Personal library purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.99. (Penguin Random House sent me a review copy, but I had already bought my own.)


Responses

  1. I read this around the time it came out in hardback, after going to an enthralling talk by Arundhati Roy here in Birmingham. It is a very complex novel, but I loved it. I found myself pulled into the chaos and swept along in the multiple narratives . Go with the flow is good advice. I can’t remember how I reviewed this one, but I have a feeling I found it a difficult one to review. Thank you for the reminder of all those extraordinary characters.

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    • Thank you, Ali, that’s much appreciated.
      Sometimes, it’s the best, most interesting books that are the hardest to review, especially when as in this case, there’s a critical spoiler that must be left for each reader to discover for herself.

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  2. That’s a really brave choice to make such a switch in narrative voice. I enjoyed her first novel and this sounds wonderful.

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  3. I loved The God of Small Things so much I’m almost unsure I’ll ever want to read it again. Some of the details have stuck with me (you mention “Saddam Hussain” and different perspectives; this reminds me, in a very different way, of how she describes the plays that, in the original version, takes several hours to unfold but are provided in potted versions for outsiders).
    I’m glad you tackled this Ministry of Utmost Happiness for the likes of me, as I’m now quite intrigued to read it too.

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    • I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

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  4. This was a DNF for me – I was struggling to continue then the ABC First Tues group talked about it and that was enough for me to leave it too. But a good friend really enjoyed her reading experience much like you, but she said it wasn’t a book she could really recommend to anyone.

    The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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  5. This does sound a fascinating books. I like the advice of Go with the Flow for more complex books. I’ve not read her but have seen her books around constantly. Stories in India are often very interesting. I wish there was more time in the days to read all I want to.

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    • Remember when we thought we would have more time for reading in retirement?
      That turned out to be wrong, eh?

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  6. I haven’t read this one but am looking forward to it. That was kind of how I imagined she wanted readers to approach it, just to take it all in, so I’m reassured to find that it worked for you that way. She had a really impressive article about the emergence of far-right political figures in India somewhere the year before last that I found very eye-opening too (in an American magazine, I believe, one I don’t normally read).

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    • I’ve read/heard? commentary that the style mirrors the overwhelming chaos that first time visitors to India experience… I don’t know about that… I haven’t been to India, but I’ve been to crowded developing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and I wonder if reactions like that are more a matter of inexperience than reality. The crowds in Venice can be just as overwhelming IMO, and we were in Venice in Autumn, not during tourist high season and not recently when the cruise ships have apparently made it unbearable to try to move through those narrow calles.
      The far-right is starting to be a real problem everywhere I think. There are some horrible people emerging here in Australia, both in politics and in the suburbs…

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  7. I’ve had this one on my shelf waiting to be read since it was released.

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  8. I thought I’d commented on this but I clearly hadn’t, probably because I wasn’t sure what to say. So, all I’ll say is that I think the recommendation to go with the flow is a good one for man y books that are stumping us. Don’t let them bog you down but go with them, and usually all – or enough – will be revealed to make it worthwhile.

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    • Yes, because rarely does an author not know how to pull the threads together!

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  9. Just skimmed through your review, Lisa. I hope to read this sometime this year. Will come back and read your review properly after I read the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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    • I look forward to seeing it!

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