Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

With anticipation, I tucked into the latest offering from Arundhati Roy. More than 20 years have passed since I read her debut novel The God of Small Things and it remains vivid in my memory, each character still alive. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness‘ opens with the description of the death of the vultures in Delhi which lived up to the hype my mind created but 20% in and I closed the book. Two things I cannot read past are:

  1. Swearing: for some reason, I am more tolerant of bad language in programmes and people than I am in books. Characters who swear because that is their nature I make allowances for, but cursing in the storytelling seems unnecessary to me and this book is full of it…still number 2 was the final nail
  2. Graphic violence: I understand slaughtering of animals is part of India’s cultures and that massacres took place in the war between India and Pakistan but I haven’t the stomach to read the descriptions of the disembowelling of cows and goats or the bleeding out of men, women and children that extend over a page.

That said, Roy’s character formation and writing remain exquisite and, if you aren’t bothered by either of those, I’m sure this book is quite the education and journey. Focused on the outcasts of India, be they Muslims, transgender individuals born male, or abandoned children, Roy’s activist voice is loud. I empathised and was horrified by how each one was treated. I learnt much more about what has happened in India than was ever depicted by the news so I was sad to put this one down. Try it, see what you think, I’d love to know your thoughts!

From the back cover:

A richly moving new novel — the first since the author’s Booker-Prize winning, internationally celebrated debut, The God of Small Things, went on to become a beloved best seller and enduring classic. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi and the glittering malls of the burgeoning new metropolis to the snowy mountains and valleys of Kashmir, where war is peace and peace is war, and from time to time ‘normalcy’ is declared. Anjum unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. We encounter the incorrigible Saddam Hussain, the unforgettable Tilo and the three men who loved her – including Musa whose fate as tightly entwined with hers as their arms always used to be. Tilo’s landlord, another former suitor, is now an Intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then there are the two Miss Jebeens: the first born in Srinagar and buried, aged four, in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, in a crib of litter, on the concrete pavement of New Delhi. At once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a heart-breaker and a mind-bender, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 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, patched together by acts of love-and by hope. For this reason, fragile though they may be, they never surrender. Braiding richly complex lives together, this ravishing and deeply humane novel reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.

Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books (UK) for the advance copy.

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