Oh how I fretted starting this novel so weighted with expectation! It took Arundhati Roy twenty years to write this second novel after the phenomenal success of her first Booker Prize-winning novel “The God of Small Things.” Add to that the fact that the author is an astute political campaigner and activist who writes extensively about Indian politics and society – which I know little about. Add to that the murmurings I’d heard about the novel’s complexity and someone who told me she had to put this novel down because, despite the beauty of the writing, the sheer extent of references was overwhelming. So I frequently picked up this book and ran my hand over the cover, read the back and put it back on my shelf. But two things prompted me to finally start reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”: it’s long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and a lovely booktuber named Annie at ‘Am I Write?’ offered to buddy read it with me. I’m so glad I was finally pushed to read it two months after its publication. While this novel is definitely a challenging read, it is also an intricately layered, surprising and wondrous depiction of a society in transition. And how glorious to find growing out of the story of this great civilization in turmoil a tender shoot of hope!
What surprised me the most since I’d avoided reading any reviews of this novel is that one of the central characters we’re introduced to at the beginning was born intersex. Anjum has both male and female genitals, but was raised as a boy. In her adolescence she leaves her family to live as a woman and joins a haveli filled with other intersex and trans people. They are a collective and family and become even more so when Anjum adopts an abandoned child named Zainab. When she takes this three-year old girl in: “Her body felt like a generous host instead of a battlefield.” It’s so beautiful and moving the way this individual whose family feel disgraced by her and who is scorned by the majority of society finds a way to pour her love into caring for someone instead of allowing herself to be crippled by being branded as a hijra outcast. However, we quickly learn that in her later years Anjum leaves her haveli called Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) to live in a graveyard where she gradually establishes a home for herself and eventually forms a community of individuals displaced by social conflict. She has a wonderfully unprejudiced view when taking people in stating: “I don’t care what you are… Muslim, Hindu, man, woman, this caste, that caste, or a camel’s arsehole.”
Rather than continuing to primarily focus on Anjum’s story (as I wished it did), the novel branches out to encompass a multiplicity of characters from many different parts of society. Roy introduces a dizzying array of people all connected with particular political movements, social clashes or devastating disasters. These centre largely around a location of vast protest called Jantar Mantar. In the centre of this vast amount of voices of dissent, a baby is abandoned and kidnapped. Who this baby is, where she came from, why she was left and what happened to her is gradually explained over a few hundred pages. But built around her story are the tales of people still caught within the repercussions of Partition, national/religious battles and especially the conflicts within Kashmir, the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. The novel mostly focuses on a group of people who knew each other in childhood and worked together in a theatrical production in their youth, but have gone on to take different sides in the political struggles. It charts their various romances, quests for revenge and how they’re helplessly drawn into conflicts that seem to have no end.
Something that really carried me along while reading this complex novel is the beauty and disarming nature of Roy’s prose. This is something that Annie (my read-along buddy) noted as well. There are frequently bizarre metaphors and descriptions which really caught my attention. For instance, there is an owl which is compared to a Japanese businessman. There’s also a character that is compared to the voice of Billie Holiday: “Not the woman so much as her voice.” At other points she has a disarming way of drawing the reader into the character's particular experience: “She could hear her hair growing. It sounded like something crumbling. A burnt thing crumbling. Coal. Toast.” These odd descriptions have a way of reaching across national and cultural boundaries to draw you into the intense dissociation from reality the character has in a moment of crisis. Roy also has an acute sense of the tragic ironies which frequently exist in this society such as an air-conditioned mortuary: “The city’s paupers who lay there in air-conditioned splendour had never experienced anything of the kind while they were alive.” The narrative frequently also serves as social commentary making observations about how it's always women and children who are oppressed and abused the most in class, religious and political warfare.
It's true, the novel’s story isn’t straightforward and it will reference a lot of things most Western readers probably won’t be familiar with. Even though I occasionally would look up terms or events, I largely resisted this temptation because I preferred to immerse myself in the flow of the story and let certain things remain mysterious for the time being. Now, I can go read up more about them. But I got to a section of the novel where I think Roy really points out why she can’t write a straightforward story. This is from one character’s notebooks: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” I think Roy probably feels the same way. She is far too knowledgeable about everything that’s going on in India, its immense history and complicated politics to write a simple story. As such this novel probably isn’t what you’d classify as “good literature” in a traditional sense because the story goes all over the place. But at the same time, Roy revolutionizes the form of the book to fit all the multitude of things going on inside her head. And, after all, that’s what the novel is for – it keeps reinventing the form to suit the subject matter and the outlook of its author.
It takes dedication, patience and time to read this novel properly. But it encompasses a vast amount of heartfelt compassion for humanity so I'm immensely grateful for the journey it took me on.