For fans of Arundhati Roy and her first novel, The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than 40 languages, her long awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness provides a much needed fix of her outstanding intellect, sharp insight and superb language.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, shares some of the features of The God of Small Things, like political criticism, skillful use of different points of view, and the sheer beauty of language.
But whereas her first novel was mostly written from the point of view of a 9 year old child, and is mainly about one or two political topics, her second novel is much more ambitious in its themes, characters and points of view.
This makes the novel simultaneously richer and less enjoyable to read.
The first quarter of the book is about Aftab. A boy born into a middle class Indian family in Dehli, who discovers very early in life that he should be a woman. He runs away from home, undergoes operations, changes his name to Anjum and picks up residence in a Khwabgah, a communal home for transvestites. Later Anjum leaves the Khwabgah and starts living in a graveyard.
The rest of the storyline is mainly about a love quadrangle. Four students of architecture in a Dehli university: one girl, Tilo, and three boys, Musa, Naga and Biplap, all three of whom are in love with Tilo.
In chapters that range from nine lines to 88 pages, using paragraphs that are one word to over a page long, the story jumps back and forth in time, following the main four characters, as their lives intersect with Anjum, and hundreds of others over decades.
Roy tackles a cornucopia of issues in her novel.
The oppression of women by men, religion and society is depicted through Tilo, an independent, level headed professional woman who constantly needs to fight for her choices, despite the support she gets from the three men who love her. Women have to face the trauma of rape and torture, wanted and unwanted children, eager and reluctant motherhoods, with the ensuing guilt, blame and desperation.
The herculean efforts of the LGBTQ community are portrayed in the conflicts and camaraderie of the gay, lesbian, transvestite and hermaphrodite people living in Khwabgahs. They have their internal differences, but stand up for each other in the world outside. And they are delightfully ingenious in earning their keep despite their absolute exclusion from society.
Political, religious, ethnic and class conflicts of all stripes are portrayed. Clashes between Muslims and Hindus, Indians and Kashmiris, Indians and Adivasis, rich and poor, upper-caste and lower –caste, the government and communists, are portrayed in graphic detail. So is the extreme violence: “It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling form the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores—as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers—life went on as before.”
Overall the characters and their relationships with each other are well-developed, vivid and believable despite their quirky and twisted natures. Tilo and Musa’s no-nonsense love for each other, and the sacrifices she makes just to be with him are touching and convincing. So are the sacrifices Naga makes for Tilo despite knowing full well she doesn’t love him. Anjum’s exceptional personality is painted with colourful strokes. The way she changes over a lifetime, snapping out of her temporary depression and starting her own business in the graveyard, the way she develops her network of her employees, business partners, tenants, friends, and devotees, the way she manages to gain authority despite being a transvestite in a society that has nothing but disgust and contempt for her, are both magical and credible.
Another endearing quality of her writing is that Roy and her characters treat the animals in her book like people. They are not pet and owner, but friends. The relationship of Gulrez, Musa’s retarded best friend with his rooster, Sultan, and his cats, Agha and Khanum is nothing short of admirable. The same is true about Zainab and her goat, and Anjum and her dog, Biroo.
Roy’s language itself is enough to carry the reader through the book. Her settings are as vivid as a movie. A drive down Delhi streets reads, “As it drove on, the gardens disappeared, the roads grew bumpy and potholed, the pavements grew crowded with sleeping bodies. Dogs, goats, cows, humans. Parked cycle rickshaws stacked one behind the other lie the vertebrae in a serpent’s skeleton.”
The nature of Tilo and Musa’s love is summarized in a nugget like, “In matters of the heart, they had a virtual forest of safety nets.”
Roy’s delightful sarcasm is refreshing and often makes the painful parts of her story more than bearable. Like her use of the refrain:
“Of Course women.
“ Women of course,” every time she finishes depicting an episode about women.
There is no end to the book’s excellent qualities.
However it is too much.
The scope of the book is too big. There are too many inconsequential characters, too many insignificant names and too many conflicts. Too many points of view, too many Hindu and Urdu words, too many totally unnecessary details. Many of the names are mentioned just once and bear no significance. Like the names of thirteen houseboats anchored in the lake near Srinagar, HB Shaheen, HB Jannat, HB Queen Victoria, etc. etc. Hundreds of unimportant characters are named and described, leaving the reader baffled about which ones are important enough to remember, and eventually giving up altogether.
Roy wants to show India with all its complexities and intricacies. The result is a multilayered and cavernous maze that at times tests her fans’ perseverance.
Add to this the convoluted non-chronological structure of the novel and the reader feels like being led on a “slow goose chase”. The sub-plot of Amrik Singh and Jalib Qadri, which is introduced in the first half of the book, is out of place, and only makes sense 150 pages later, when we find out more about Singh. By that time, we have met scores of other characters and don’t quite remember who Amrik Singh was.
Roy is a skillful crafter of language, but in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness at times she gets carried away with it. The book is chock full of lists and parallel structures. “Servants wearing their employers’ expensive cast-offs are being walked by even better-dressed dogs –Labradors, German Shepherds, Dobermans, beagles, dachshunds, cocker spaniels—“ , and “…they grew brinjals, beans, chilies, tomatoes and several kinds of gourds,…”, and “…stories of wars and massacres, bombings and butchery…”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness can be described as The God of Small Things on steroids. It’s beautiful, painful and insightful, but too big, too busy and too tangled for its own good.