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.