Title: Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Genre: Political Satire, Romance, Fiction
20 years, is the amount of time that has lapsed between Roy’s two fictional novels God of Small Things and this one. She won a Booker’s prize for her first novel but had not penned down a novel since. Meanwhile she has written many articles on politics and has been a very persistent voice for human rights in India.
During these twenty years her thinking has evolved significantly and her observations have formed the plot for this one. God of Small things is one of my favorite books and I was keenly following the date of the release of this book and purchased it as soon as it hit the shelves. This novel did live up to its expectations. I hadn’t forgotten Roy’s style of writing that has remained consistent. Her story-telling, usage of language and characterization is just as complex in this book.
This book tells the stories of Anjum and Tilo. Anjum is a transgender person, hers is a story of constant struggle to find a place in the society, until she rejects the society that rejected her.
Do you know why God made Hijras? she asked Aftab.
‘It was an experiment. He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.’
Anjum sets up her own Jannat (heaven) guesthouse on a small piece of land in a graveyard where her family is buried. Jannat guesthouse becomes home to some other odd balls, a baby picked up from trash, an almost blind untouchable man, an animal lover raised by hijras, a music teacher, a molvi and Tilo.
Tilo is the other central character in this book, I don’t know if anyone else who reads it feels the same way but I could not help but draw too many similarities between her and the author herself Ms. Roy. Tilo is a strong-willed woman. Her story travels from her college days where she falls in love with Musa but eventually marries another college fellow who is a powerful journalist. Musa returns in the story as a Kashmiri freedom fighter and a man who has seen the worst of the war. The part that pertains to Tilo drags a bit towards the middle of the book as there are references to newspaper clipping and news, I was a bit lost here as I hadn’t followed the Indian politics very ardently. The aspects of Kashmir that the author has touched upon are very painful but sometimes reality is more painful than fiction. Her stance on Kashmir is well known and a bit controversial in her country. But with her remarkable story-telling she conveys the pain and sorrow of Kashmir so exquisitely that news clipping could never leave the same impact. Musa’s daughter was sprayed by bullets while watching a funeral procession in Kashmir, her body joined it too eventually. Here is an excerpt from Musa’s letter to his deceased daughter.
We were talking about a number. One hundred thousand. In winter we will have to think of snowflakes falling from the sky. Remember how you used to count them? That many people is a hundred thousand. At your funeral the crowd covered the grounds like snow. Can you picture it now? Good.
The stories of Tilo and Anjum are very distinct and each was an experience on its own. The stories overlap towards the end of the book when Tilo and Anjum find their home in the resting place of many, the Jannat guest house.
This book is not for everyone, but one can’t expect anything ordinary from Ms. Roy. It talks of a child sprayed with bullets on streets of Kashmir and this book also talks of a wedding in a graveyard. There is pain, there is ugliness yet there is hope, there is always hope in the Ministry of Utmost Happiness. So if you can put up with some complex storytelling and a bit of venom on politics this is worth a read!