Hamish Hamilton 2017
About the Book
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years – the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.
Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who love her.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. it is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love – and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.
I was unsure whether to write a review for this book, not because I didn’t like it, I did, but because I feel it falls under the definition of a ‘great novel’ or ‘literary fiction’ which had a depth to it that was perhaps to deep for me. Am I making sense? Possibly not, I know and that is the challenge for this review!
On one hand this was a book of people and relationships and poverty in India on the other this was about political tension and conflict around Kashmir, told through a vast array of characters which at times were difficult to keep up with. In mostly long chapters this book was made up of interlinked stories which had the feeling of going full circle for me, ending, at least location wise, back at the beginning.
I felt reading the book that I lacked knowledge of the politics of India and Pakistan and the Kashmir tensions and I was left with the sense that there were aspects of the overall experience that had passed me by. This is not a fast read, but for me I felt I needed to read it fairly quickly in order for the characters and plot to remain vivid in my mind. Essentially this is a book of 2 halves and 2 separate plots, which come together in a warm and satisfying ending. The first half of the book is about Anjum a hermaphrodite who finds solace in the Hijra community – Hijra – a female trapped in a male body. Character driven and relationship focussed this is told over Anjum’s lifetime, with not much of a storyline. The second part of the book, the second story, moves to Kashmir and S. Tilottama an enigmatic and solitary female who through love becomes part of the activist movement in Kashmir. Whether it was because I had become more familiar with the writing or because the plot was stronger, I am not sure, but I preferred the latter part of this book which had the character of Tilottama, striking and solitary, her story is clear and easy to follow.
As with other ‘great novels’ (The Sport of Kings comes to mind), I enjoyed this book although I found it disjointed and rambling. I gained some new knowledge from reading which I view as positive, but as someone who reads only for pleasure the book had its challenges, in particular keeping all aspects in mind as I read, as many characters came and went and some came back again! I do like to mix up my reading and for that reason I do continue to pick up books from the literary fiction genre, am I glad I read this book? yes. Would I recommend it – it’s not going to be for everyone but for those who don’t mind a heavier, character driven read, which takes a little more concentration than the usual bedtime reading, then yes, absolutely! Why not, give it a try.
Has anyone else read this book? What were your thoughts?