Here, at last, is the long-awaited second novel from Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy.
But we should not imagine that she has done nothing in the 20 years since the publication of her debut novel, The God of Small Things.
It’s just that, while she has travelled the world banging her drum against caste, globalisation, fundamentalism and other evils of the modern era, she has only published non-fiction.
Many of the elements of modern India - dalit and hijra rights, the occupation of Kashmir, tribal land enclosures, Hindu fundamentalism, Maoist uprisings, unsurprisingly are all here.
Having long been a fan of Indian writers - think the splendid Salman Rushdie, the even more splendid Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai and Gita Mehta - I was excited to be able to come to grips with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
The first part of the novel is devoted to Anjum’s story, she having been born with both male and vestigial female genitalia but choosing to “become” a woman and identifying as a hijra.
We are presented with a large cast of characters, each with a distinctive personality and story to tell. Here was a relatively straightforward, if complicated, tale and an entire novel could have been about her and her later desire to be a mother; however, the second part of the novel takes on an entirely new twist.
Roy embroils her readers with the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. An entirely new plot with new protagonists Tilo, Musa, Naga, and Biplap Dasgupta aka “Garson Hobart”, who met at university; we also meet Amrik Singh in various guises.
Each of the first four comes from a distinct caste and are the unlikeliest of companions, yet they remain connected for the rest of their lives.
They play key roles in the free Kashmir movement, a life of terrorism, violence, human rights abuses and too many funerals. Almost in passing, we read of the accidental murder of Musa’s three-year-old daughter Miss Jebeen and his wife Arifa, one that tugged on both my and Tilo’s heartstrings as Musa recounted it to her.
As we read in our newspapers regularly, this is similar to what happens in our gang-ridden townships. In fact, there is much that resonates with the South African anti-apartheid Struggle and the internecine township misery of today.
The two plot lines converge as both Tilo and Anjum desire to save an unclaimed newborn baby seemingly abandoned on a pavement in Delhi, near the graveyard where Anjum has established her bizarre community of outcasts, many from her previous life.
Both woman dream of raising this child in a life free of the conflicts plaguing India, conflicts that continue until this day.
Ironically, they eventually achieve this “utmost happiness” in Anjum’s communal Jannat Guest House in the graveyard, where the community of outcasts have come together in harmony, to raise the otherwise unwanted child.
While The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is disconcertingly annoying at times as one navigates through multiple plots and an extended cast of characters, the writing is mostly appealing and holds attention, notwithstanding the phrases in other languages:Urdu (?) Hindi (?) that are not always translated.
But she gets carried away. Many pages are given over to Tilo’s memories, which, at first grab our attention but soon lose out both on an emotional as well as novelty level.
Anjum, in particular, is convincingly written and I would have loved to read a little more about her, but Roy has a political drum to beat and so she finds it necessary to do the fatal thing that writers are warned against: she has to tell rather than show.
Those who are familiar with her political position as illustrated in her large body of non-fiction writing will find much in this book cloaked in her contempt for the Indian state and its administrators.
I so want to recommend this book wholeheartedly, but there are some caveats.
The political slant is annoyingly obvious; there are pages of incoherent ravings from Tilo’s mother on her deathbed, similarly pages devoted to Tilo’s The Reader’s Digest of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children.
Weighing in at 437 pages, tighter editing was needed and would have been helpful. Nevertheless, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
It is a heartbreaking read when it comes to looking at the history and the current state of India, and this makes it difficult to be optimistic about the future. It brought to mind Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (one of the best books I have ever read; he knew how to show, not tell).
But amidst the chaos, Roy manages to paint a picture of hope and love through her eccentrics and misfits for whom India offers no proper home but somehow tolerates, and much of the writing is enchanting.