“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we are continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.”
Following up on a meteoric debut must be daunting, even crippling. When Arundhati Roy first published her debut work of fiction, “The God of Small Things”, in 1997 it was met with critical acclaim – including the Man Booker Prize – and popular attention. It was gripping, controversial, incendiary, and, in my opinion, brilliant. Twenty years later, years not of silence or absence, but of alternate pursuits, Roy has published her second novel. Twenty years is a long time. It’s a generation of anticipation. It can dangerously raise expectations.
It is hard, and maybe unfair, to judge “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” against “The God of Small Things”, yet it is impossible to judge it outside of that context, as well. Like “The God of Small Things”, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” has certainly provoked mixed reactions from its readers. For me, I honestly can’t unpack whether I would have approved more of it had I not known Roy’s earlier work and believed in her gift, or whether I would have simply abandoned it, not having the commitment to Roy that forced me to purchase and consume this book its entirety.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is centered (primarily) around Anjum, a transgender woman – a ‘Hijra’ – born Aftab to parents desperate for, and eventually heartbroken by, their long-awaited son.
“‘D’you know why God made Hijras?’ she asked Aftab one afternoon while she flipped through a dog-eared 1967 issue of Vogue, lingering over the blonde ladies with bare legs who so enthralled her.
‘It was an experiment. He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.'”
The story takes place in Delhi, both New and Old, across several decades, with excursions into the quagmire that is Kashmir and beyond. The scope is sprawling; it is about war and peace, personal and political struggle, and a rag-tag collection of remarkable human beings forging a colony of sorts within the confines of a graveyard.
“‘Once you have fallen off the edge like all of us have, including our Biroo,’ Anjum said, ‘you will never stop falling. And as you fall you will hold on to other falling people. The sooner you understand that the better. This place where we live, where we have made our home, is the place of falling people. Here there is no baqeeqat. Arre, even we aren’t real. We don’t really exist.'”
There is Tilo, the enigmatic beauty; Zainab, Anjum’s foundling and adopted daughter; Saddam Hussain, a dissident and revolutionary; and a cast of suitors and friends that are complicated to follow and confounding to understand.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is also unavoidably about caste and class, about prejudices and oppression, about poverty and exploitation.
“Fiercely competitive TV channels covered the story of the breaking city as ‘Breaking News.’ Nobody pointed out the irony. They unleashed their untrained, but excellent-looking, 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. ‘Bhai Sahib, yeh bataaiye, aap ko kaisa lag raha hai…?’ Tell me, brother, how does it feel to be …? The TV channels never ran out of sponsorship for their live telecasts of despair. They never ran out of despair.”
Arundhati Roy is an accomplished writer and a well-respected advocate and political critic. Her past two decades of political activism and analysis certainly inform and color her work, a fact which may have turned off some readers. Her overt political nature wasn’t a problem for me, however. Instead, it was simply the lack of a through thread that captivated, an emotional connection that compelled me forward. There were beautiful, well-constructed passages throughout “The Ministry”, but the whole package was a disappointment. It didn’t resonate, and I found myself forcing my way through it rather than being unable to put it down.