The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (isn’t that a smashing title?) by Ahrundhati Roy is a beautiful, beautifully crafted novel filled with nuanced characters. Anjum, a “hijra” (a Hindu word meaning hermaphrodite or transgendered) moves to a graveyard and creates a safe world where people who don’t fit easily into society can find a home, and where her desire to be a mother can be made manifest.
But too soon, the novel leaves Anjum in the graveyard and, in doing so, left my connection to that world in tatters. The story moves to Kashmir, where war rages and where I was left struggling to grasp the whole context of what was happening. Instead of drawing me slowly into the difficult arrangements of class, race, caste that exist there, the book dropped into a confusing mire.
My reading of Utmost Happiness was stalled several times on account of the book’s structure. Time and again, the book would leave a character I felt connected to and shift to a more emotionally distant view of the wider political struggles in Kashmir. Compared to the character-focused chapters, these sections were much less appealing and, as a result, hard to return to after putting the book down. It’s not that the novel didn’t pay off emotionally; it’s just with a more consistent flow, I think it could have done so sooner and more satisfyingly.
Roy’s words are filled with beauty, just as they were in her Booker Prize winning novel The God of Small Things. She builds up her world with supple sentences:
“There was no tour guide on hand to tell her that in Kashmir nightmares were promiscuous. That they were unfaithful to their owners, they cartwheeled wantonly into other people’s dreams, they acknowledged no precincts, they were the greatest ambush artists of all. No fortification, no fence-building could keep them in check. In Kashmir the only thing to do with nightmares was to embrace them like old enemies. She would learn that of course. Soon.”
But the key to the book, I believe, comes near the end (this is not a spoiler, but feel free to look away now if you prefer). A character writes a poem:
“How/to/tell/a/shattered/story?/By/slowly/becoming/everybody./No/ By slowly becoming everything.”
In light of this revelation, the book is reframed as an exercise in fracturing and rebuilding. Now, its structure seems to stand for the way in which Roy wants to view the world. As a writer, I admire her choices in creating her novel’s bones in such a way as to hold the body she envisioned. As a reader, I was moved by the poem and appreciate the way it informs the entire work, even if it only aided my understanding of the book in retrospect. Perhaps if it had come earlier, it would have been the signpost I needed.
Mostly, I wanted more closeness with the characters so as to understand, through their eyes, their struggles and the world they inhabited. I wish Roy had stuck with Anjum longer. Perhaps then, the empathy she created earlier might have guided me through the more difficult parts of the story. Ultimately though, this is a beautiful book, if a challenging one. I recommend it for those who are already knowledgeable about India or are up for a challenge.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was published by Penguin Books on 6th June 2017.