The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton, 2017, SBN 978 0 241 30397 9, 439pp
I read this book a few weeks ago having bought it from Janice at Moruya Books. I had bought it at the same time as The Shadow Land (Elizabeth Kostova) and Phone by Will Self. As she saw me considering the Will Self book, Janice wondered if I read his stuff before. I hadn’t but I risked the purchase nonetheless. Later I was back in Moruya Books and I was able to tell Janice that I read 100 pages of the Will Self but had not felt that I was in need of further punishment and had laid it aside and started on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I had read Roy’s first novel (this is her second) The God of Small Things many years ago and knew what Janice meant when she said, “it will be a bit political”. It was political but it was perhaps more confronting than political; any book that causes you to think about the experiences, suffering and difficulties of others is likely to be character-forming. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, not because it is not a story well-told but because it is a story about stuff that’s sometimes hard to come to terms with.
As well as being an author, Arundhati Roy is a political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes. One of the causes she supports is Kashmiri independence. The Kashmir conflict is a territorial conflict between India and Pakistan which followed the partition of India in 1947. According to author Seema Kazi, Indian forces have committed many human rights abuses and acts of terror against Kashmiri civilian population. These abuses form part of the subject matter of this book. But the book is not single threaded. It is a patchwork of stories that Roy weaves together to create a fabric that is compelling even if it is not always easy to read. It’s full of characters … so full that I sometimes lost my way. The first character we meet is Anjum, in Delhi, who is a transexual or transgender or intersex. Anjum lives in a graveyard and we read a fairly complicated, but relatively easy to follow, series of events about how she ends up living there. Anjum gets caught up in a demonstration that results in the massacre of Hindu pilgrims and in the government reprisals against Muslims that follow. That sort of plot topography is familiar enough to us in the daily news.
The other main character is Tilo, an activist. We follow the stories of her and the three men who loved her. One of these men is Musa and it is the story of the relationship between Tilo and Musa that brings the many strands of the book together. But it’s a long read to get to the end. This is one of those books that you know is good; brilliantly architected and written, yet hard. It’s inherently “literary”; it’s a book for the critics and university undergraduates to analyse. Perhaps if I had taken note of Janice’s comments I would not have read it, but I am glad that I have.
The book is dedicated “to the unconsoled”. It begins and ends in a graveyard. Yet Anjum’s graveyard is essentially a place of safety, a place that somehow combines the certainty of death with the uncertainties and frailties of the living and combines them, in the end, into hope.