‘To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.’ Arundhati Roy
We were all waiting with baited breath for the new literary offering from Arundhati Roy. Best known for the Booker Prize winning novel The God of Small Things (1997), Roy has hardly been hiding under a rock for the past twenty years. She has had a prolific career in non-fiction and is a political activist highly involved in human rights and environmental causes. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes up many of Roy’s causes—much more so than The God of Small Things. She peppers the novel with surprisingly visceral stories of ritual, cruelty, sacrifice, and heartbreak.
The main thread of the story is Anjum who becomes a hijra (a Hindu word that variously translates as hermaphrodite, third gender, eunuch, or transgender person). Born Aftab, ze has both male and female sex organs, until undergoing surgery. She forms a new family in the Khwabgah and even finds a child she takes as her own. The reader is drawn to Anjum’s magnetic personality—as are the characters in the novel. After witnessing a massacre of Hindu pilgrims and the subsequent government reprisals against Muslims, Anjum leaves her child and family at the Khwabgah to set up a home in a cemetery where a cast of misfits eventually join her, including orphans, activists, and freedom fighters.
Roy interweaves the lives of the dizzying amount of the characters, such as Tilo, the two Miss Jebeens, Saddam Hussein, and Musa. However, the achronological style, which worked so well in The God of Small Things, becomes hard to follow and (at times) feels unstructured. There are breathtaking sections of this ‘deeply humane novel’. When you can connect the dots the story feels seamlessly interwoven—but these thoughts are fleeting. If you have a long journey where you can allow yourself to conquer most of the lengthy tome it may be easier to make the connections and look past the political agenda.
This surprising and thought-provoking novel demonstrates Roy’s storytelling gifts—the language is pure poetry—but I felt that perhaps the problem for me was that the build-up was too great. (Kind of like the wait for ‘Anchorman 2’.)
In sum: Definitely recommended, but make sure you don’t have too many occasions to take a break because the unlinear and fragmented narrative can’t take it.