General Fiction

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy – Book Review

I became a fan of Arundhati Roy after reading her award-winning debut novel The God of Small Things (1997) earlier this year. You can read my review of it here. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was published in 2017; twenty years after her afore-mentioned book. But unlike art which doesn’t live up the hype, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness exceeded my expectations. It is like a better sequel to an inferior prequel; like Revenge of the Sith is to Attack of the Clones.

The most unique aspect about the novel is that one of its protagonists, who is the main character for roughly 80% of the book’s length, is a hijra (Urdu for hermaphrodite). I’ve previously seen hijras be depicted as minor characters in Pakistani TV serials or in Pakistani films such as Bol, but this was the first time a third-person narrative was attached with such a figure. This is why I found the novel immensely unpredictable even though its core genre is drama. There are many elements of postcolonial literature but they only come to the surface after the first half of the story has passed.

The second-most unique feature about the book is its multi-layered main and minor characters. Anjum the hijra has her own solidly constructed background story and you might’ve never read about a character origin as unique as hers in a work of fiction. Similarly, the story of Tilo and how she married a man, Naga, who was well above her station is so fantastically written that I was blown away by the finesse of Roy’s writing style. I rarely get emotional upon reading the drama genre, even the most sentimental of novels, such as The Kite Runner, have barely lit a fire in my heart. But the story behind the baby Miss Jebeen the Second’s mother brought actual tears to my eyes. What’s even more depressing is that there are probably thousands of women in South Asia with the same story. Reality is clearly mirrored by the text comprising of Roy’s individuals, settings, and events.

Roy improved on a lot of her flaws in her debut which surprisingly won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. In that book, she overdid a lot of things such as unjustifiably repeating statements, idioms, and sentences for the sake of wit. However, in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness there is little to no needless repetition. Every sentence seems fresh as if Roy had taken many hours to come up with just one paragraph. So, it comes as no surprise that the novel took two decades to be published, and rightfully so, as it came across as such a near-perfect read.

Even more striking than the character constructions are the real-life politics interwoven into the fabrics of the narrative. The Kashmir dispute which has been going on since the separation of Indo-Pak is discussed at length, but never gets tedious. I never thought a lot about the Kashmir issue even though I’ve been living in my home country, Pakistan, for more than a year now. But I would like to get better acquainted with it after reading about it in this phenomenal piece of literature. Other South Asian related politics is also discussed without bias. The most clever tool which Roy utilized was not naming real-life figures by their actual names but giving them nicknames. The Poet Prime Minister of India is undoubtedly Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Gujarat Ka Lalla is definitely the current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and Manmohan Singh also appears discreetly in a cameo. This is a useful tactic as people who aren’t interested in politics can easily follow the story instead of getting sidetracked.

Another interesting facet of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is how versatile the book itself is. Even though the primary category which it falls in is drama, there are multiple subgenres present such as spy thriller, mystery, romance, etc. In this way, the unpredictability factor of the novel is heightened by ten times, and you never what you’ll be reading about in the next passage. For example, one section could elaborate on Kashmiris being killed by militants or by the military, the next could be about the motherly love of a Hijra towards a child she could never have brought into this world, and then you’re reading about an ill-fated romance between a Kashmiri militant and a Delhi-based architect. There is so much material in this book that you’ll wonder how the writer balanced so much varied content inside a single manuscript. And then you’ll find that the waiting period of twenty years was more than justified for this beautiful book.

Another positive point is the poetry featured throughout the novel. Whether uttered for the sake of love (Mir Taqi Mir), shouted for patriotism (Habib Jalib), or simply for the motivation of reading a poem out loud to your lover (Osip Mandelstam), there is such a huge variety of poetry referenced that it led me back to the reason I myself became a poet; in order to describe the indescribable. I reckon that without such heart-warming poems and quotations from authors across the globe, the book wouldn’t have made such an emotional impact on me as it had done on the first read.

Where the novel falters is its usage of too many metaphors to appear more postmodern than it already is. This is a flaw it shares with The God of Small Things but not at that novel’s level where some scenarios become too complex to understand even on the second or third rereading. Again, Roy stuns us with one of the most brilliant talents for description that I have ever encountered, but she sometimes makes everything appear too literary which allows the present moment in the narrative to be briefly forgotten. However, this is such a rare occurrence that I have to dismiss most of its negativity on the basis of the novel’s advantages massively outweighing its disadvantages.

To end with, this was an extremely difficult review to write as the novel is so multifaceted that it needs a thesis-level analysis in order to be properly critiqued. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that my short review has done it justice. I recommend The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to all kinds of readers as it contains something for everyone because, unlike its 1997 predecessor, it isn’t limited in its appeal.

General Fiction

The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy – Book Review

After I finished reading The God of Small Things (1997), I felt that I’ve read similar stuff before. Not only did the story seem clichéd, but the writing style felt reminiscent, despite this being my foremost reading of an Arundhati Roy book. The plot follows a dysfunctional Indian family, and the narrative is told primarily through the eyes of the young characters; the twins Rahel and Estha. The story is mainly about the transition from childhood to adulthood of these afore-mentioned individuals. In a way, the plot is a coming-of-age yarn, however, the major genre remains drama.

Why did The God of Small Things feel so familiar? Mostly because Roy’s writing style reminded me of two other authors namely R.K. Narayan and Aravind Adiga. The former is renowned as the most popular English-language Indian writer of all time (and my personal all-time favorite in regards to Indian English literature), and the latter is an Indo-Australian author who is most well-known for his debut novel, The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Booker Prize for Fiction (and deservingly so).

But Roy neither has the comical skills of Narayan nor the sarcastic flair of Adiga. She shares a tad of plot stylization techniques from the former and a fast-paced technique of writing from the latter. Narayan was a writer with an internationalist bent of mind. His novels and short stories could appeal to any reader. Roy, on the other hand, has a writing style which, in my opinion, could only satisfy Asian or semi-Asian readers.

One main reason for my afore-mentioned statement is the storyline of The God of Small Things. The Indian family depicted in the tale has at least two of its characters who have studied abroad, one who is an aspiring Marxist, another who is a female divorcee, etc. Only readers of Asian nationality or South Eastern origin can relate with these types of characters. Furthermore, Narayan never over-used Indian-language words in his works. However, Roy always utilizes too many words either from Malayalam or another language of India. Narayan also used foreign words which could easily be understood by foreign readers but Roy uses them to the point of exhaustion. I also felt that her repetition of some statements and sentences was irksome.

The worst aspect of the book is the narrowness of its appeal. As mentioned earlier, in contrast to Roy’s fiction, Narayan’s bibliography had a universal allure. I reckon that The God of Small Things is more likely to be appreciated by women than men, by readers of the literary genre than readers of other categories, and by South-Eastern readers than Western readers.

Nevertheless, The God of Small Things is not just another entry in Indian English language fiction. Roy’s  writing style might not be up to par with the greats, but she can still describe characters, scenarios and sceneries with the utmost imagination. Description-wise, she is one of the finest writers I’ve come across, and to a man who has read at least a hundred works of fiction, I hope that does count for something in terms of a critical analysis. The story, though of the sentimental kind, never gets slowed down by over-description, and thus, never gets boring throughout the novel’s 300-plus pages. Her excellent talent for depiction also remains consistent from start to finish.

Where Roy absolutely shines, and even overtakes Narayan and Adiga, is in her portrayal of lust and sex. There is only one sexual sequence in the novel but it is one which is worth reading over and over again. It is so profoundly written that I have to deem it the best scene of eroticism that I’ve ever read in a work of fiction.

All in all, The God of Small Things is Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, and this factor prominently shows throughout the entirety of the narrative. As a first book, it is a fine piece of literature. But as a 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction award winner, I felt it didn’t live up to this accolade, unlike Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

General Fiction

Red Birds (2018) by Mohammed Hanif – Book Review

Mohammed Hanif is, and after finishing his latest entry titled Red Birds (2018), will always be my favorite Asian writer of fiction of all time. His prose is as in-your-face as it can get, and his satire has a razor-sharp bite. Many readers of postcolonial literature cite Mohsin Hamid as the best Pakistani writer in the English language, but Hamid’s storytelling skills are only half that of Hanif’s, at least in my opinion.

The name Red Birds is derived from the folklore theory that when a person is killed, the last drop of their blood transforms them into a red-colored bird. This novel incorporates that philosophy in practical examples as well.

What I loved most about this book is the versatility used in the illustration of the three main figures. One is an American pilot named Major Ellie who has crash-landed in a region he was sent by the military to bomb. The second is Mutt, and as the name suggests, he’s a dog with a cunning mind of its own, and probably the most original character that I’ve come across in novel-form lately. Last but not the least is Momo, a teenage refugee who dreams of becoming a successful businessman. Most of the yarn is spun through the viewpoints of this trio of individuals.

The supporting characters are also cleverly constructed. There’s a relief worker nicknamed Lady Flowerbody, there’s Ellie’s boss Colonel Slatter, and Momo’s dysfunctional family isn’t limited to himself as it also comprises of his Father Dear, Mother Dear, and Bro Ali.

Each and every line carries the signature of Hanif’s trademark wit. The descriptions are vividly dark. And though the narrative is mostly told in a humorous fashion, there’s no shortage of realism in the tale. The aftermath of war is one of the major themes discussed in this book and it’s also deeply explored by the author. We get an insight into the dual sides of a war: the people who are hired to expedite it, and the poor victims who lose everything, even when they might be innocent bystanders.

Plato’s quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”, can be used as a one-line definition for this novel.

Red Birds is not without its defects. Even though the start and the middle portions are exceptionally well-written, the novel loses its consistency in the final half. The ending, though emotionally penned, is anti-climactic. Maybe if the length was longer than the 283 pages of the hardcover version, there might’ve been space for elaboration. The conclusion seemed as if the story had suddenly arrived at a stop sign and decided not to continue any further.

All in all, Red Birds is a must-read for fans of the literary genre. It’s superior to Hanif’s barely memorable sophomore outing Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2011)—you can read my review of it here. And it matches the sheer quality of his debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008). If only the finale of Red Birds was better, then it would’ve qualified as the best novel that I’ve read this year, yet it’s deservedly one of the finest examples of long fiction released in 2018.

You can purchase Red Birds on Amazon here.