The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Book Review

Two details capture the reader’s attention when they pick up a beautiful hardbound copy of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness – one, the cover art, which is modelled after a grave, complete with strewn rose petals and grimy moss and two, a tiny note that so poignantly dedicates the book to the unconsoled.  These two visually and psychologically arresting metaphors not only bookend the pages but also act as recurring motifs throughout the narrative. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s much-awaited second work of fiction came out this June and has produced a range of reactions, from praise to ambivalence to accusations of shoehorning political agendas. At the time of writing this review, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has lost out of the Man Booker race, leaving us South Asian bibliophiles rooting for Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to win the coveted prize.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is ambitious in its scope, as it tries to encapsulate and visibilize the voices of the marginalized.  Events like the Godhra riots and the Kashmiri separatist movement feature as catalysts to the proceedings of the novel. The two protagonists of the novel are Anjum, a transgender woman who builds a hotel of sorts over a graveyard and Tilottama, a fiery architect turned activist working in Kashmir (No points for guessing who Tilottama was modelled after).

The first part of the book is the story of Anjum. We learn about her family, how she was born as Aftab and how she later moved into a colorful house filled with hijras, aptly titled “Khwabgah” or the house of dreams. Anjum’s time in Khwabgah is recounted to us in flashbacks as she lives in a graveyard and interacts with a blind fakir. As interesting as Anjum’s story is, what drew me in most was the backdrop of the Old Delhi of yore, one that emanates the soul of a Hazrat Nizammudin Auliya and makes us view the much popularly derided city of Delhi through roohafza tinted glasses of nostalgia. It is the Delhi that tries hard to retain its pre-partition era tehzeeb and adaa, the Delhi that inspires the works of many, from historian William Dalrymple to filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, blogger Mayank Austen Soofi and now, Roy.

The narrative quickly swerves to Kashmir, where we meet Tilo, Garson Hobart, Musa and Naga. We see the free Kashmir movement through the eyes of four characters whose passion for theatre and human rights overrules the differences in their circumstances. This part of the novel is quite trying and bleak, as the novel desperately tries to shed a light on the ravages of war and the excruciating futility of militarized interventionism. This is emphasized in some of the more heart-wrenching moments of the book, such as the death of Musa’s wife and three-year-old daughter. The portrayal of the Indian state is unsurprisingly unflattering. The lives of Tilo and Anjum come to the same page as they try to adopt a child in Delhi. The prospect of motherhood signals a chance for redemption and reinvention in the lives of Anjum and Tilo, as they both seek to bury their past and renew their hope and reaffirm their one shot at happiness.

This narrative arc is in stark contrast to Estha’s and Rahel’s dysfunctional Aymenem based Syrian Christian family in The God of Small Things. While The God of Small Things unflinchingly portrayed the lives of a tight-knit family and its tribulations with PTSD, sex abuse, exogamy and estrangement, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, swaps the traditional concept of families with a more fluid model, one that relies less on kinship and more on the provision of mutual sanctuary. This is evident in the portrayal of a range of unconditionally loving and giving relationships between people who have no blood relation with one another.

The eponymous theme of the novel is seemingly actualized in the form of the Jannat guest house built by Anjum. The exploration of happiness through the lives of the destitute is reminiscent of Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy, albeit with entirely different styles of writing and authorial motivations.

The novel not only seeks to represent the unrepresented but also sheds light on the liminality that exists in the various folds of humanity- between the male and the female through Anjum, the living and dead through the graveyard. A seething criticism of the idea of the nation-state, one that seeks to exclusively identify with a majoritarian, hyper-masculine community at the cost of numerous other communities stands strong as the core of the story.

Roy’s writing style is vividly evocative, as she employs prose and poetry, first person and third person accounts, historicity and anecdotes, spiritual elegies and political rants while zigzagging through the past and present and more to bring her story to life.

The twenty years after Roy’s historic 1997 Booker win were spent in public scrutiny, just like her seven critically acclaimed works of nonfiction- unapologetic, scathing critiques of the state and the society, works that simultaneously bestowed her with international recognition and armies of home grown trolls. What worked against for the book was its excessive emphasis on reality (not a particularly bad thing on its own) and how it played into the story, which at some points could have overwhelmed and alienated the reader. The readers who were not put off by the starkness of the issues in the book were probably put off by the predictability of the issues that provide a backdrop to the narrative, given how Roy spent nearly two decades rallying for the very causes that bombard the narrative focus of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. 

The interpolation of politics into fiction is a tricky terrain and the grounds of criticism for this book largely come from not being able to find an effective middle ground between political interplay and novelization but at the end of the day, the book does warrant a read, as it makes a case for happiness as one that can only come to fruition with inclusion, not exclusion- a school of thought that needs more supporters now than ever.

Author: Abhilasha Cherukuri


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