The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 24 Oct 2017

Member Reviews

As much as I wanted to love The Ministry of Utmost Happiness it just wasn’t for me.

It started off great and I was completely engrossed in the story of Aftab, but then I’m not really sure what happened. I feel like I took a wrong turn along the path and was unable to find my way back. I can’t really tell you where I ended up, but it definitely led to a state of confusion and desire to get back to the beginning somehow. At times I felt like someone had spiked my green tea with something much more potent.

I liked the style of writing and the fact it was so visually descriptive, sometimes raw, occasionally shocking, and often frank and thought provoking. However, unfortunately I wasn’t gripped by enough of the story behind those words. Initially it felt like the characters were the ones leading this story, but then it’s as if the story became something else completely. 

I love controversial novels, and I’m happy to read about politics, religion and terrorism, but I felt a little overwhelmed by it in this book. I think my lack of detailed knowledge of the situation in that region of the world perhaps contributed to my confusion and lack of enjoyment of this book. I’m afraid my personal knowledge is pretty much limited to my experiences of the tensions while living amongst the Indian and Pakistani communities in Bradford twenty years ago. I think this book will appeal to those more interested in politics than characters.

I’ve had The God of Small Things on my wish list for ages, so if anyone can convince me it is somewhat different in terms of overall story, but perhaps similar in writing style, then I will definitely read it at some point, as there were snippets of this book that I did love, even though it didn’t quite work for me as a whole.
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My apologies but I just can't get on with this one. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to read it, but whilst there is real brilliance here, it wanders too far from the past. As i haven't finished, I won't be reviewing it anywhere.
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For me this eagerly anticipated second novel lacked the focus of The God of The Small Things.

This new book spread its net wide to encompass different layers of society within India as well as the differing regions. It was certainly an eye-opener for me in terms of Indian politics, corruption and the warring religions and castes

" Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg :its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence"

The novel was at its most absorbing when it dealt with Anjum. Anjum is born a hermaphrodite and it adopted by the Hijra community. She eventually sets up an unconventional guest house above her family graves (Jannat) and takes in people that on the fringes of society of Delhi.

Other strands of the story follow  characters linked to the conflict in Kashmir.

Sometimes this book seemed to lose direction and I felt bewildered and confused. in terms of the different characters and strands of plot. 

Is it an enjoyable book? I don't know? I really enjoyed parts of it but maybe nor the "whole"  Is it an important book? Yes in terms of holding up India to scrutiny at a turbulent time and maybe a crossroads historically . That is how I think this book will be judged- in the long term as a "barometer" of Indian life.

I would hesitate to reread this whereas I would certainly reread God of The Small Things. However it was an intense and I felt that the author had poured her very soul into writing it.
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I, like many people, have heard of the success of Roy's The God of Small Things from twenty years ago. It's been on my mental longlist of books to read since before Goodreads existed. Perhaps it was a mistake to put it off and opt for Roy's newer release instead, but all I can say is my expectations have significantly lowered after reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

At first, I thought the story was slow, dense and hard to follow. It took me a couple hundred pages of squinting hard to see the truth: there is no story.

These kind of books have a special place in the heart of a certain type of reader. A reader who puts beautiful, complex writing over plot and emotional pull; a reader who doesn't mind looking back over almost 500 pages and realizing very little has happened, even if it was told with pretty language.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness essentially follows two main characters in South Asia - Tilo and Anjum - the former is dragged into the center of an independence movement, while the latter is intersex and living among ghosts. However, there is a confusing mess of characters introduced throughout the book and I found it hard to warm to anyone. It is set across the span of many years, through the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but these times of tremendous upheaval and horror were narrated coldly.

The book is just very difficult to enjoy. It feels deliberately intellectual and lacking in personality. Not only is there a sea of forgettable characters, but the book zips quickly between past and present, third and first person, with almost no dialogue to separate the huge paragraphs of dense description. The book constantly has a foot in several tangents about spiritual anecdotes, diatribes, history lessons and various monologues, each of which went on far too long. When it finally came back to the main issues, it took me a while to get back on track.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book without a plot that simply explores the perspectives, past and present, of many characters. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's also not the kind of book I enjoy reading. It even feels disjointed, almost like a collection of short stories rather than a novel. I feel like The God of Small Things is going to be on my TBR a lot longer.
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Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was one of my most anticipated novels released this year.  I found Roy's debut novel, The God of Small Things, breathtaking in its beauty, and sweeping in its descriptions.  I was expecting much of the same thing with her second novel, published two decades after the first.  I wanted to be startled, to be amazed.  My interest was piqued even further when I read the novel's blurb for the first time.

Sadly, I was left feeling rather disappointed.  Roy undoubtedly discusses a plethora of important and relevant issues within The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, from gender and the effects of living as a transgender person, to politics and terrorism, but it felt to me as though she was perhaps trying to do too much.  Rather than seamlessly tie together, as the themes do in her debut novel, they are often a little disjointed, and create an almost chaotic jumbled effect in one or two places.

The writing, too, did not live up to my expectations.  I found it a little lacklustre on the whole; yes, there are some stunning descriptions, but the prose did not dazzle me.  The omniscient narrative gave a detached feel to the whole, making me feel less invested in the individuals and their plights.  The characters too posed a problem for this reader.  I admire the sheer scale of how many persons Roy crafted here, from all walks of life, and with different problems occupying them within the wider scale of Indian society.  However, I would go as far to say that some of them never really came to life, and were not as well-developed as they perhaps could, or should, have been.  Several of them seemed to lurk in the shadows of the novel, and despite the time devoted to them, remained secondary.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an ambitious novel, but I cannot help but think that it has attempted to achieve too much.  It is not at all straightforward, and I can imagine even the most patient reader getting a little frustrated at junctures.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness sadly failed to grip me.
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Well worth the long wait. A chaotic blend of anger, love, hope and heartbreak.
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A novel rich in style and opinion but scarce in narrative or interest.
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I found this book long and rambling. If I had not got it from Netgalley I do not think I would have finished it. It seems to be lots of stories and lots of characters put together in the hope it makes a book. I felt the magic of the setting just got lost.
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Many years ago, I read 'The God of Small Things', prompted by talk of its elegant exoticism, and found the novel powerfully, elegantly critical and questioning of society. Roy has written polemically and overtly about her concerns in the interim, returning now to the novel form.

What is offered in 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is again elegant. It is eloquent, skilled with its mix of narrative voices, whilst being powerfully critical in its various juxtapositions of haves and have-nots, its giving voice to the exploited and abused, and its outlining of political expediency and treachery. It is adept at conveying the legacy that governments, systems, and psychologies leave behind them, decades later, impacting on the lives of individuals today, whilst vividly displaying how the media can be used to characterise races and regional identities. 

Impressively, all this is done in a haunting, moving narrative. This truly is an empathetic, expertly-executed novel, urgently needed in an age of increasing division.
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a long and sprawling novel that seems to cover a vast swathe of current political issues, seen through the lens of modern Indian society.

We open with the story of Anjum, an intersex woman who identifies as female despite being brought up as a boy. She finds others in the same position and joins a community with them in Delhi’s old town. But gradually, she branches out on her own and forms her own community of oddballs and misfits, hanging out in a graveyard. Much of the mis-fitting seems to stem from religious and caste based prejudice.

Then the story shifts to Kashmir and the struggle between Islam and Hinduism as it escalates into full-on war. We meet a different cast of characters, one of whom, Tilo, an architect and activist, is to be the lynchpin of the Kashmiri part of the book. However, Tilo’s central role is not immediately obvious and emerges almost by default as other characters fall away.

This is a difficult book with a cast of hundreds, multiple story lines and themes jostling for attention. All with lengthy asides drawing on literature, poetry, political invective and spiritualism. And there are whole sections that are so esoteric they are almost unintelligible. And the Tilo and Anjum sections of the novel never integrate. They don’t even try to integrate. It is as though multiple sections of various incomplete novels have been gathered and bound together.

At a conceptual level, it conveys the chaos of India. Individual scenes are very evocative – whether that is in a bustling market, a protest outside Jantar Mantar or in a cinema turned torture centre in Srinigar. But as a story telling exercise it just doesn’t work. There is little plot and negligible character development. It feels like a series of scenes created and loosely linked to illustrate political points. That’s something that might work in a shorter work, but after so much of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it has long outstayed its welcome.

Nevertheless, the book clearly has something. Normally a work this disjointed would have been abandoned relatively early in the piece. But the more lucid pieces do command the attention and the novel does create a level of intrigue to see where it all might be heading.
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the latest offering from the author of The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy is a staggeringly lyrical writer and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a prime example of this.
I love the descriptive nature of Arundhati Roy’s writing, the way it manages to describe the scene and characters without going overboard. I felt like I could see and hear the sights and sounds described on the pages of the book. For example,
“At the magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a pleasure to read, not least because of Arundhati Roy’s gift for character development. I have rarely seen character development like it, she weaves together a million little threads without any being diminished.
When we first meet the protagonist, she is described as living in the graveyard ‘like a tree.’ She sleeps on a threadbare Persian carpet which she folds away and hides during the day.
“For company she had her steel Godrej almirah in which she kept her music – scratched records and tapes – an old harmonium, her clothes, jewellery, her father’s poetry books, her photo albums and a few press clippings that had survived the fire at the kwabgah.”
Anjum was the fourth of five children and her parents were delighted to be getting their first boy, until the baby was unswaddled.
That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boyparts, a small, unformed, but undeniable girlpart. She reacted with fear and shock, unsure how she would love a baby like that.
 “In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things – carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments – had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby.”
The word for people like Anjum is ‘Hijra.’
Anjum’s mother decided to keep the secret to herself and bring Anjum up as a boy. She didn’t even tell her husband the truth.
Growing up Anjum loved to sing and everyone agreed he had a sweet singing voice. As puberty dawned, and his voice broke, Anjum felt increasingly at war with his own body.
“One Spring morning Aftab saw a tall, slimhipped woman, wearing bright lipstick, gold heels and a shiny, green satin Salwar Kameez…He wanted to be here.”
Shortly after this Anjum left home and decided he wanted to live as a woman.
One of the main selling points of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the way Anjum and the other characters have their stories shown against the geopolitical landscape of India. These parts of the book were as important for me as the characters’ story.
“Partition. God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sang each other’s songs. The walled city broke open. Old families fled (Muslim). New ones arrived (Hindu) and settled around the city walls.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a story about pet goats, two babies and Saddam Hussain…what more could you want?
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What a beautiful piece of modern literature, Incredibly important! Marvelously written with political and social issues as a common theme. The setting is accurate, while the characters are larger than life. It goes into present day India criticizing politics and the economy. Castes, religion, race and gender are all discussed. There are many lessons of significant value that readers will take from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At times the plot lags in favour of getting major points across, though the book is still entirely enjoyable. Highly recommend!
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It has been a long time coming. This is Arundhati Roy’s second novel published twenty years after her Booker prize winning The God of Small Things. Was it worth the wait? Yes.

It is a sprawling tale of the dispossessed and the marginalised of Indian society with a love story thrown in for good measure. It takes us from Delhi to Kashmir where Kashmiris are fighting for independence and India and Pakistan are fighting for control of the country. 

We first meet Anjum (born Aftab) who is a hijra which is Hindu for hermaphrodite. She lives with other hijras in a sort of commune in Delhi. This is until she witnesses a massacre of Hindu pilgrims on a visit to a Gujarati shrine and the reprisals against Muslims. At this point Anjum takes up residence in a graveyard and the novel moves on before returning to her later in the book.

Then we meet Tilo, first as a feisty and secretive student and then as an activist and the men who fall in love with her. Here we move into the conflict in Kashmir and the atrocities committed by all sides.
The novel ends with Tilo taking up residence with Anjum in the graveyard.

I really enjoyed the first part of the book. It then seemed to lose its way a little and I found some chapters overlong and unnecessary. This was particular the case in the long drawn out section with Tilo and her dying mother. It did however get back on track so I’m glad I stuck with it. 

I really liked the characters of Anjum and Saddam Hussain they came to life for me. Tilo was well drawn if a little distant but that reflected her character. The brief flashes of humour were welcome in a book which deals with ‘mans’ inhumanity to ‘man’.

I was left with a desire to find out more about Kashmir and its history.

Thanks to the publishers for an ARC via NetGalley although it was a shame that some of the numbers in the book, for example dates, were replaced by little squares.
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This is a very difficult book for me to review. The writing was beautiful and there's no doubt that the author is a master of storytelling. However, I can't say that I enjoyed it as the plot line was disjointed and kept straying off. Objectively, it was an insightful and powerful  novel that touched upon so many topics - religion, love, politics... I guess it's just wasn't for me.
Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the arc.
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As I ploughed my way through this sprawling, disjointed novel I was reminded of Muriel Spark’s famous judgement on a novel she had read – “For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.” I’m afraid I don’t like this sort of thing – for much the same reasons I don’t enjoy Salman Rushdie, with whose work this latest novel from Arundhati Roy seemed to have some affinities. An epic story with a large cast of characters, diverse storylines, a cacophony of voices, a multitude of themes and issues – all set against a chaotic background of contemporary India and Kashmir. Religion, politics, nationalism, identity, caste – it’s all here, but with no compelling narrative to tie all the strands together, which I found disorientating. I did enjoy the first part of the book, which concentrates on Aftab, who later becomes Anjum, born intersex and who becomes a Hijra amongst a community of transgender women. That episode I found interesting and insightful. But after that the story became too rambling and discursive for me, and frequent journalistic passages drew me away from the narrative. Essentially this just wasn’t a book for me, and I find it hard – and perhaps unfair – to try to judge it. It didn’t work for me, I wasn’t seduced by it and I skimmed much of the central portion. A marmite book perhaps….
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A hugely sweeping novel. Ostensibly the story of Anjum, born hermaphrodite in a less than accepting India, this soon becomes so much more than that.
Everyone involved in Anjum's story has their own tale to tell, creating a rich and varied tapestry. The language too is beautiful and vivid.
This novel certainly teaches us a lot about modern India, and about gender identity. It is a demanding read, but one that is definitely worthwhile
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Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning debut The God Of Small Things was sensuous, atmospheric, emotionally powerful book. India’s caste system was the motivator of the plot, and a backdrop of Keralan Communism bled through it. The book was saturated with politics, but it mainly served to inspire, sustain and contextualise the story - while at the heart of it were the troubled twins and their tragic mother.
 
20 years later, here comes The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Fans of Small Things will no doubt flock to read Roy’s latest offering, perhaps looking to experience, once again, the heady emotional high of her debut. This time, though, India’s politics is at the heart of the book, and the characters’ stories merely the thin blanket that wraps it. But it’s a very finely woven blanket and the book’s political heart is fascinating, enlightening and revealed with Roy’s almost breathtakingly luxuriant writing.
 
On the surface, The Ministry is about is about Anjum - born with both male and female genitals she becomes one of Old Delhi’s Hijra community - an ancient tribe as out of place in a modern LGBTQ-literate society as they are in the Duniya - the real world of the rest of India. As she comes to terms with her identity, and its challenges, over the years, her longing to be a mother drives her decisions. It’s also about the baby she finds abandoned, and the other woman who claims the baby as her own: Tilo - originally an architecture student from a Christian community in Kerala who is drawn, through love, deep into the conflict in Kashmir. These characters are beautifully drawn and constantly surprising, written with shots of brilliance, but tied with only with the barest of glimmering threads to the true content of the book.
 
Because The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t really about Anjum and her graveyard home, or Tilo and her painful relationship with her mother. It’s about Kashmir. It’s about the nature of sectarian conflict; what starts it, how it escalates, and who can win it. It’s about lynchings. About inter-religious tensions, power struggles and abuses of power. It’s about the inefficiency of politicians, the limits of democracy and the challenges of protest. It’s about the Union Carbide gas leak, in Bhopal, that killed thousands upon thousands of people. It’s about violence, and how it lives under the surface in India. As Roy describes it: “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and diverse as we are continue to coexist - continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine.” It’s about that yolk.
 
Roy tries to contain that whole vast landscape of struggle in this book. And, to fit it all in, she sometimes indulges in detailed deviations that have only the most tangential connections to the main story. In one scene Anjum arrives at Jantar Mantar - a fascinating old observatory - where India’s many protest groups gather, like a shop window of troubles. Roy takes us on a lengthy tour, protest by protest, struggle by struggle. For a reader who simply wants to follow the story home, it can be frustrating. It feels as if she’s taking advantage of a certain assumed indulgence on the part of the reader, a well-earned faith that reading with patience will be worth it in the end.
 
And IS it worth it? For those who were hypnotised by the druggy, lusty heat of The God of Small Things, the dry intellectual challenges of this may be a bit much: If The God of Small Things was Kerala, then The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Delhi. But, if you’re interested, even fleetingly, in the politics; then yes. It may be a mind-expanding insight into the Indian political landscape, but its true triumph is in how brutally, magnificently, unflinching it is. The descriptions are unflinching: you can feel India’s blood and sweat and hunger ingrained in the world she’s describing. During the sacrifice of a water buffalo for Bakr-Eid, the blood flows down the busy street while children “stamped their feet softly in the red puddles and admired their bloody shoe-prints.” And its moral stance is unflinching: it feels as if Roy knows better and shames us all a little, for our misperception or misguided enthusiasms. She describes some well-off protesters joining a popular cause and experiencing: “the adrenaline rush, the taste of the righteous anger that came with participating in a mass protest.”
 
 
It is sobering and admonishing, but never has it been so captivating and enjoyable to be scolded. Because at the heart of it is her amazing writing. Including this line - one place where The Ministry really does echo her debut: “They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle - the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the strangeness of her into the straightforwardness of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him. And then of course there were the other parts - the ones that wouldn’t fit.”
 
For those just here for the story it gets ★★☆☆☆, for those who want Roy’s politics in a more digestible form than her non-fiction ★★★★☆
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Remarkable glorious writing - utterly compelling from the start, and an amazing journey through individuals and wider issues
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I loved the first part of this book but found the second - more political part - much more difficult and less enjoyable. There also seemed to be some parts which were seemed to be experimental for experiment sake rather than moving on the story. Needed a good edit in places. I wish it was better. I loved the Delhi descriptions as it really did bring the city to life.
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In Old Delhi, the hijra Anjum sets up her life in a graveyard. She is joined by a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussein. Another outcast joins them, Tilottama, and there is a baby who seems to have appeared from nowhere and belong to nobody. This group’s fates are narrated through time and in different places of India and Kashmir. All of the characters face struggles due to the political situation, either protest in Delhi or the long-lasting conflict in the Kashmir region and thus portray India in a very special way - India of the people at the fringe of society.

Arundhati Roy’s second novel might be the most awaited book of 2017. It took her twenty years to write it after her debut success “The God of Small Things” and the yardstick has been set very high for the successor. Admittedly, I struggled with the novel which is mainly caused by the plot’s structure. The story is only in party narrated in a chronological way, other sections are meandering and at times the different characters and setting were not always easy to link with each other for me. Second, the novel is highly political and if you are not familiar with India’s recent history and political struggles, a lot might be lost for you as a reader of this novel (at least I assume so).

Nevertheless, there were also a lot of aspects that I really liked. Arundhati Roy definitely is a master of words. In subtle ways she finds possibilities of expressing what happens and thus adding second or even third meanings. When Anjum has set up her small guest house in the graveyard, she is regularly inspected by municipal officers who are not “man enough” to chase her away. Considering Anjum’s situation as hermaphrodite, this is quite interesting to observe. Then her permanent resident who calls himself “Saddam Hussein”, another outcast who chose this name in admiration for the former leader’s courage in the face of death. Or when Tilo ponders about some men killed in a car accident and their fate and whom this actually concerns since they would have died anyway and wonders about “how to unknow certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know” (pos. 3095). Summarising the stat’s situation in political upeheal best are the following two quotes:
“There were rumours and couterrumours. There were rumours that might have been true, and truths that ought to have been just rumours”. (pos. 3681) and “Life went on. Death went on. The war went on.” (pos. 3835)
How can one survive in this situation, especially as an outcast? You have to fight for yourself and accordingly, it is the two women who become strong and leaders – quite a surprise in the country’s strict caste system.

The insight in how India’s society works is for me the most remarkable aspect of the novel. Not considering it as a whole, there are many stories within the novel which give you an understanding of the country’s culture and are thought-provoking.
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