Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Arundhati Roy shows she's goddess of small things

It has been a 20 year wait. For all her non-fiction that was supposed to slalom to a winding, screeching halt for her second coming as a novelist, the nostalgia of her first book was never going to be far behind.

Arundhati Roy is a pertinently timely writer, in that her first novel appeared 50 years on from independence and her second comes 20 years after that. And in between the two, we have filled gaps with her essays, her politics, her activism, her unabashed anti-establishment stance and the odd journalistic caper to meet an Edward Snowden.

Has the quotidian person-activist in Roy already surpassed the pedigree we are about to assign to her as a storyteller?

Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Arundhati Roy's second novel

Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Arundhati Roy's second novel

Whatever the answer to that, it is worth reminding ourselves, even to the most ardent of her fans, that she has been telling stories, real ones, and presciently more important ones at that, during her absence from fiction. Her return to spinning the mighty old yarn would thus predictably feel the weight of two decades of longing for a second hurrah. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, reels, often buckles under the spectre of having thwarted time in its wake, but just about manages to keep it together.  As Thomas Harris wrote in The Silence of the Lambs: “All good things to those who wait”.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t about the good things at all. It is, as is always the case with Roy (but we have just the one book to compare it to) about the little things. Only this time, these things are considered in the shadow of India’s poignant history, the deep-rooted political fibre, the glut of religion and caste and so much more.

We are first introduced to the world of Anjum,  a woman inside a man’s body, who grows up to be a Hijra and eventually sets up Jannat, a guest house in a graveyard for the world’s ‘oddities’. We meet characters who have similarly fractured stories, and we jump between timelines as Roy always has. Only this time it is braver, some would say, even sinister considering that the reader only just starts caring about some of these people.

By the middle of the book we have been jettisoned into Kashmir tailing the story of Tilotamma that Roy, eclectically describes as having ’the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac’. As a love story rears its head in Kashmir, Roy’s politics wages its own war of credence, and contemplates through her prose, the realities of Kashmir’s struggle for freedom. Some of her best writing appears here. Tilotamma is (perhaps like Roy herself) a bit of an enigma, a footloose soldier of conscience and conviction. Her story, for the sake of the novel, eventually merges with that of Anjum and Jannat guest house.

Roy’s novel isn’t a story about protagonists in any one way. It is a story of fragments. More than three dozen characters appear, are shown in the light of their own memories before they fade away. What gives, is a narrative besotted with problems of non-linearity. Now Roy hasn’t been known to care for any of those things, but here the jumps at times seem too abrupt, too rushed, even unnecessary. There are detailed scenes and events that though well written, are bafflingly of little use to the narrative, or whatever can be sutured together of it. Then there is the political armband that almost every character wears as an eye into an industry of history rather than history itself.

From the Emergency, to the Sikh riots of '84, through 9/11 and the Gujarat riots, to the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, almost nothing has been confined to the textbooks, as Roy seems intent on telling the wood of history rather than only telling the glass of human it has left cracked. This feels like a book written for the international reader. Reading it from the vein of familiarity, all too swollen from having experienced or learned these events through one form or another will make this voice-over of sorts feel redundant, at times even obtrusive. And hence, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Roy’s experiment garner more praise outside India than it does within India, for it doesn’t uptick a brow that hasn’t already been raised reading the papers through the last four decades, and neither does it pierce you with the poetic internal despair of the first.

Most of Roy’s poetic fervour is sacrificed in turn for journalistically telling timelines. And there are many. Perhaps, that is the most disheartening of things about the book. The loss of that ponderous voice, a verse so poetically enfeebling of the politics around it, you could be forgiven for thinking if there were a politics to love and loss at all. She does, however, carry over some of her signature narrative techniques from the first book. And with it, in places, that burst of easy, slight, yet powerful and wondrous prose, woven through the mortality of the little things it considers, like:

It was the only place in his world where he felt the air made way for him. When he arrived, it seemed to shift, to slide over, like a school friend making room for him on a classroom bench.


Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each street a carnival.

 Or a sense of tragicomedy in:

 Young reporters, who spread across the city like a rash, asking urgent, empty questions; they asked the poor what it was like to be poor, the hungry what it was like to be hungry, the homeless what it was like to be homeless.

 It would be very easy to reject the novel as bourgeois, even a spiteful attempt at authorising through fiction a disruptive history of India. It meanders in so many places, its lens alights on so many hearts, it is compelling to give up and stop caring about any of the characters. But is that the point? That for their tattered and scattered lives, despite the bed of irony, even in a novel, there is a bankruptcy of investment in their dreams? Is Roy trying to get us to read beyond the politics by repeatedly ushering it in? It would be rather easier to reject her second novel, than to love it. It could be easily mocked or called something like The Lonely Planet’s Guide to India’s Injustices Through some of its People. But how else do you tell these stories, these stories that exist simultaneously? Maybe Roy has simply given in to the expectation of writing 20 years on, THE novel, and not a novel, that is all too easy to expect of her.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness may not be the novel we want, but it certainly is one that we deserve. In a line in the first few pages of the book Roy mentions the words Hijra and Kinner as being two identifiers in India. ‘But two words do not make a language,’ she writes. But perhaps, two novels do. Perhaps Roy has.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2017 08:43 AM

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