Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning debut The God Of Small Things was a sensuous, atmospheric, emotionally powerful book. India’s caste system was the motivator of the plot, and a backdrop of Keralan Communism bled through it. The book was saturated with politics, but it mainly served to inspire, sustain and contextualise the story – while at the heart of it were the troubled twins and their tragic mother.
20 years later, here comes The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Fans of Small Things will no doubt flock to read Roy’s latest offering, perhaps looking to experience, once again, the heady emotional high of her debut. This time, though, India’s politics is at the heart of the book, and the characters’ stories merely the thin blanket that wraps it. But it’s a very finely woven blanket and the book’s political heart is fascinating, enlightening, and revealed with Roy’s almost breathtakingly luxuriant writing.
On the surface, The Ministry is about is about Anjum: born with both male and female genitals she becomes one of Old Delhi’s Hijra community – an ancient tribe as out of place in a modern LGBTQ-literate society as they are in the Duniya, the real world of the rest of India. As she comes to terms with her identity, and its challenges, over the years, her longing to be a mother drives her decisions. It’s also about the baby she finds abandoned, and the other woman who claims the baby as her own: Tilo – originally an architecture student from a Christian community in Kerala, who is drawn, through love, deep into the conflict in Kashmir. These characters are beautifully drawn and constantly surprising, written with shots of brilliance, but tied with only with the barest of glimmering threads to the true content of the book.
Because The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t really about Anjum and her graveyard home, or Tilo and her painful relationship with her mother. It’s about Kashmir. It’s about the nature of sectarian conflict: what starts it, how it escalates, and who can win it. It’s about lynchings. About inter-religious tensions, power struggles and abuses of power. It’s about the inefficiency of politicians, the limits of democracy and the challenges of protest. It’s about the Union Carbide gas leak, in Bhopal, that killed thousands upon thousands of people. It’s about violence, and how it lives under the surface in India. As Roy describes it:
Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and diverse as we are continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine.
It’s about that yolk.
Roy tries to contain that whole vast landscape of struggle in this book. And, to fit it all in, she sometimes indulges in detailed deviations that have only the most tangential connections to the main story. In one scene Anjum arrives at Jantar Mantar – a fascinating old observatory – where India’s many protest groups gather, like a shop window of troubles. Roy takes us on a lengthy tour, protest by protest, struggle by struggle. For a reader who simply wants to follow the story home, it can be frustrating. It feels as if she’s taking advantage of a certain assumed indulgence on the part of the reader, a well-earned faith that reading with patience will be worth it in the end.
And IS it worth it? For those who were hypnotised by the druggy, lusty heat of The God of Small Things, the dry intellectual challenges of this may be a bit much: If The God of Small Things was Kerala, then The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Delhi. But, if you’re interested, even fleetingly, in the politics, then yes. It may be a mind-expanding insight into the Indian political landscape, but its true triumph is in how brutally, magnificently, unflinching it is. The descriptions are unflinching: you can feel India’s blood and sweat and hunger ingrained in the world she’s describing. During the sacrifice of a water buffalo for Bakr-Eid, the blood flows down the busy street while children “stamped their feet softly in the red puddles and admired their bloody shoe-prints.” And its moral stance is unflinching: it feels as if Roy knows better and shames us all a little for our misperception or misguided enthusiasms. She describes some well-off protesters joining a popular cause and experiencing “the adrenaline rush, the taste of the righteous anger that came with participating in a mass protest.”
It is sobering and admonishing, but never has it been so captivating and enjoyable to be scolded. Because at the heart of it is her amazing writing. Including this passage, one place where The Ministry really does echo her debut:
They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle – the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the strangeness of her into the straightforwardness of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him. And then of course there were the other parts – the ones that wouldn’t fit.
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin
Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Penguin, 2017). 978-0241303979, 464 pp., hardback.
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