The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 24 Oct 2017

Member Reviews

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.
Was this review helpful?
This was the first book I read about India. It wasn't a good experience.

I only know very little about Indian politics and even less about Roy's views. But for me, a foreign reader to this subject, this book felt less like fiction and more of a history lesson. 

While the book introduces many characters, it focuses mainly on two.  A trans, Anjum, an outcast adopted by a whorehouse and Tilottama, a riot victim. Naturally, the book's events take to Kashmir, the center of conflicts. 

The writing style was magical and lyrical at first. Until we had too much going on and at the same time nothing. What I mean is we were introduced to many characters. The narrative switched between 1st and 2nd person, from the past to present. Even though everything made a lot more sense by the end, I was left bored and unimpressed most of the time. Too many descriptions and so little dialogue to keep the plot moving, which was barely existent. I received this book 2 weeks or so before the release date and was unable to read it before last week after I finished my exams. Naturally, I would be excited to read as much as I can and thus fast, but this book took me so long to finish that I barely made it that I surpassed the release date. I haven't read Roy's other book so I had 0 expectations and even then, it managed to disappoint me. I'm not someone who minds slow paced books but we barely had anything going on here. I liked how she wrapped everything and the theme she handled (and that's why the 2 stars) but it could've been easily done in less than 300 pages. I couldn't connect with the characters no matter how much I wanted to. I couldn't care. Yes, I was sad (the violence, the rape...), yes some things made me happy but any book could've done that.

I will still read her other book, The God of Small Things since everybody said it's way better but I'm not so excited anymore. Do I recommend this book? I'm sorry but not really, unless you are a fan of Roy and share her views.
Was this review helpful?
Inevitably this book is going to be compared with The God of Small Things, I think people will either love or hate it, I personally found it to be a deeply textured and thought provoking read. I do not generally précis books in my reviews and this book is so densely packed with brilliantly observed characters that to attempt to distil them down would be a disservice to the skilled weaver of tales that is Ms Roy.

What I can  say is this is a deeply personal book, much as Small Things was before it and that despite certain political leanings, that it is a heartbreaking and interesting examination of conflicts that remain even into modern day between Pakistan and India through the prism of several normal folk who are on the fringes of society. It is a vibrant story, written in beautiful prose even when approaching matters of violence, discrimination and degradation.

Ultimately I left the story feeling uplifted and positive about the human condition and equally entertained and educated about a volatile and intriguing area of the globe.
Was this review helpful?
My initial reaction to it was one of disappointment. After a good beginning I struggled with it because there is so much description, so little plot and such a large cast of characters. At times I was on the verge of abandoning the book, but then first one episode and then another and another held my imagination and I read on. Now, though, I’m glad I finished it as the ending is clearer and more understandable than the middle, where quite frankly I was for the most part bewildered.

It’s a difficult book to read firstly because of its structure (or lack of structure) and secondly because of its content. It’s not a straight narrative, as it moves backwards and forwards in time and place and between different narrators, both in the third and first person, all of which makes it a disjointed and fragmentary book. There are stories within stories, some of which at first appear to be totally unconnected to anything else, but looking back I can see how they become interwoven into the whole (I think).

I preferred the beginning, the story about Anjum, to the rest of the book but by the end it’s as though Roy decided to bring all the strands together, to come back full circle to Anjum and the community she established in the old graveyard in Delhi. Maybe it’s because she spent 10 years or so to write it. For more details about why it took over 20 years for Arundhati Roy to write her second novel see this article, Fiction Takes Its Time in The Guardian.

I’m sure that I didn’t pick up all the political and cultural references, but the issues surrounding caste, nationalism, gender and religious conflict are clear. It’s a book about love and loss, death and survival, grief, pain and poverty. There are outcasts, the hijras – transgender individuals, rape victims, addicts and abandoned babies; and there is a lot of violence, massacres, beatings, tortures and rapes. It’s a heartbreaking book, which doesn’t spare the details. I was relieved to finish it.
Was this review helpful?
I do not think that this was the book for me. I had to stop about 30% in. It was a wide ranging novel of India. its characters, and its history, but I found it very slow going and I just couldn't finish it. The author had a wonderful way of creating the setting, her writing is wonderfully descriptive and emotive, but these glimpses of the beautiful images she created were all too infrequent. The rest of the novel was overly slow and pages would pass with very little actually happen.
I'm sure this novel will appeal to many others, but unfortunately it just wasn't for me.
Was this review helpful?
It's a good book's too long and if you are not Indian or at last know a lot about India (like me for example), it's difficult to move around castas, political problems of the last 30 years, and names, names everywhere of everything; it didn't help the book to be easy to read. That said I like the part where Anjum was the main character more than the second part but Arundhati Roy is pretty good in describing a lot of characters without getting lost. Me reading not so much. It will take me another reading to get trough everything but it still worthy.

È un buon libro ma....é piuttosto lungo e se non siete persone che conoscono bene la cultura indiana (tipo me) é piuttosto facile perdersi tra le caste, i problemi politici degli ultimi 30 anni e tutti questi nomi di divinitá, templi e quant'altro; non aiuta certo a rendere il libro piú leggibile. Detto questo la parte che mi é piaciuta di piú é quella iniziale, dove la protagonista principale é Anjum, Arundhati Roy comunque é piuttosto capace nel descrivere situazioni corali piene di personaggi, io tendo invece a perdermici. Probabilmente sará necessario leggere di nuovo questo libro per afferrarlo completamente, ma resta il fatto che ne vale comunque la pena.

Was this review helpful?
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the eagerly-awaited follow up to The God of Small Things, a moving novel that spans decades and goes across the Indian subcontinent to show a cast of interconnected characters and how their lives are shaped by conflict, joy, and circumstance. Depicting the stories of a variety of characters, it does not have a main narrative as much as it puts pieces of different individuals together to form a woven novel showing a modern world and its battles.

The storytelling is expectedly vivid and gives detail to different episodes such as the experiences of a transgender woman, Anjum, who finds community and makes her home in a graveyard, and the complex relationships and life of Tilo, who has been loved by fighters and intelligence officers. These female characters in particular are difficult to forget, with stories that combine family, religious and ideological conflict, and love. Roy’s style suits this storytelling, leading the reader between different narratives easily and making the novel easy to follow and join up the pieces of. From the bustle of Delhi to the countryside of Kashmir, Roy’s descriptions are intricate and show a conflicted and modern world, a world with ancient conflicts in close proximity to branches of Nando’s.

The novel is unlikely to disappoint Roy’s fans who’ve been waiting for her next book. It is a fantastic story full of vivid characters whose struggles are varied and real.
Was this review helpful?
Arundhati Roy’s second novel has been long awaited, coming 20 years after her first. This highly anticipated book will have garnered high expectations from fans, and for me it didn’t disappoint.

This novel is expansive, exploring geographical issues surrounding Kashmir, the religious tensions in the region, ideas of revolution, gender identity, and identity politics in general – all issues which couldn’t be more relevant or important in 2017.

Anjum is a ‘hijra’ a term used to describe transgender women in South Asia. The novel depicts her life and struggle, and where her life intersects with others who are outcast, alone or in need of a home.

Anjum bridges the gap between Muslims and Hindus, between old and young, men and women, Indian and Kashmiri, through Jannat’s Guest House, which she gradually builds from a tin shack in a Delhi graveyard. The novel seems to be haphazard, jumping in narrative voice and focalisation. However, eventually these strands do pull together to meet, making the novel complete, whole and rewarding.

Roy’s prose is utterly exquisite, and the presence of India behind the novel isn’t just a ‘character’ in the way we sometimes metaphorically speak of the depictions of countries and cities in books. Roy very literally makes Delhi real, living and breathing; a ‘thousand year old sorceress, dozing but not asleep, even at this hour.’ Passages such as this one are the kind of literature that takes your breath away, which you reread over and over.

Despite being 20 years in the making, it feels as though the novel lives in the here and now. It preaches tolerance in the light of religious and transgender persecution, something which has never been more relevant with the rise of extremist politics in the last year. It presents an India in the age of video and selfies – with the videos on phones that characters obsess over mirroring an age obsessed with live streaming and on the go access.

For me the only fault lay in that the multiple narratives and wide-ranging nature made the book feel less polished than it could have and a bit like hard-work, to keep track and keep up with all the different strands of the story. But even this didn’t ruin such a beautiful novel, which not only evoked a sense of India, but managed to balance the death, suffering and misery, that features all of the way through, with kindness, tolerance and hope.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness couldn’t have arrived on our shelves at a better time and I hope Roy’s novel inspires some of the sentiments that she achieves in her novel.

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own.
Was this review helpful?
This is a novel that captures the life that Arundhati Roy has lived and the issues that have consumed her since the publication of her groundbreaking The God of Small Things. It is a story about our contemporary world, of India, and Pakistan, delivered through the microcosm of individuals living through the never ending and harrowing conflict in Kashmir, and the fringe communities of outsiders in Delhi. It begins with the observation of vultures being eliminated through poison, a metaphor for the way Indian society has been poisoned by a history of corrupt and venal politicians, religious hatreds, and the overflowing rivers of blood and death denied justice. It touches on the issues of caste, divisions based on country, gender and religion, grief, loss, and love. It is a sprawling tale which lacks the steering hand of a plot, so might not suit those looking for a more defined and structured read. I found it a riveting read, infused with humour amidst the horror, and beautifully written with vibrant imagery, underpinned with artistic, lyrical prose.

In Delhi, a mother examines her new born boy, Aftab, only to find the disturbing anatomical female parts. The lonely Aftab grows up to haunt the Hijras, at the transgender centre, convinced that it is more home than his parental home or the rest of society where he cannot be himself. He is taken in and becomes the wildly popular Anjum, who takes in and raises a child, Zainab. We then get to know Tilo, in Kashmir, part of the youth brigades and her friends, a highly placed disenchanted intelligence officer, a journalist and Musa, an activist in the struggle. We see a region mired in infinite death without end. When asked to help Musa, Garson Hobard does so. Trauma causes Anjum to move to a family graveyard and build a home on top of it. It comes to be known as The Jannet Guesthouse, a sanctuary for outsiders and the misfits where no-one is turned away. It is a swirling hotbed for stories as a community springs up, supporting each other and bringing up a baby without the need for blood ties or religious divisions. This veritable Ministry for the Utmost Happiness, built on a graveyard, inhabited by minorities and outsiders, is the symbol for hope, peace and compassion amidst war torn Kashmir and for India. 

For those who hold opposing political viewpoints to the author, they are unlikely to be enamoured by this book. For me, it has some deep flaws such as the vast array of characters that it is difficult to do justice to. However, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. I found it a heartbreaking read when it comes to looking at the history and the current state of India, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future. Amidst the carnage, Roy paints a picture of hope and love through her eccentrics and misfits for whom India offers no home. Who would stand in the way of this literary vision? A stunning and brilliant read that I recommend highly. Thanks to Penguin for an ARC.
Was this review helpful?
After 20 years, Arundhati Roy has returned with a stunning novel looking at contemporary Indian society through the eyes of a Hijra, an 'untouchable' called Saddam Hussein and various colourful characters on the periphery living in an old Delhi graveyard. The language and descriptions are decadent, but the political and controversial social aspect is truly groundbreaking, especially the content covering Kashmir. It's a pleasurable, satirical, and mildly dark read.
Was this review helpful?
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the first book I've read by Arundhati Roy and it's fair to say that I found it challenging and occasionally bewildering as various threads and themes intertwine. It's vibrant, colourful and every page is packed with incident and rich in detail. In the first instance, I took it at face value and was dawn not a different world. A second reading made more sense of the the numerous underlying themes.

The first section features Anjab, assigned as male at birth but who identifies ultimately as female. She leaves a Muslim home to live with other transgender individuals. Her life is filled with dramas, great and small. There's real colour and vibrancy within this community and Anjab's journey to acceptance makes compelling reading. She adopts a child, Zainab and later becomes embroiled in riots where her friend is killed and she's imprisoned. The complex story takes most of the first half of the book before switching to something completely different. There's a new tale involving three university friends and a shared love, a lady called Tila. The narrative is challenging and often seems fragmented, with disparate threads scattered throughout the conventional narrative in the form of diary entries, poems and lists. The reader needs to persevere; sometimes the text seems almost surreal, but there is an order which is eventually brough together.

People, places, ideas burst forth from every page. At first, this can seem like a bit of a muddle and it's almost too clever, but the novel explores important themes in a particular and unique way.  Struggles for respect, recognition and love, are racked up to consider political oppression, gender and equality issues, global ignorance, injustices, both local and global, including Bhopal.

It's a book which is difficult to summarise. I enjoyed the enveloping sense of the first part and was disconcerted by a total change in the middle. But ultimately, and with a slower second reading, it all came together. Many are the real voices of real people and they're commanding. I felt their pleasure, pain and anguish and on balance, this us a really rewarding read for anyone prepared to invest just a little effort. It's astonishing.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy and I enjoyed it so much, I've also bought the book.
Was this review helpful?
A very unexpected book. I found it very intrigue - not sure if I liked it, but it certainly drew me into it.  I think this is a book that once read, it pops back into your mind over time as you digest it.  It certainly challenged me - that is a good thing - books should do that otherwise we keep reading the same thing over and over only the people and places change. Thank you for the journey.
Was this review helpful?
How does a lament sound? Like a distorted sonorous wave? Hitting the crest with a shrill cry and falling to quietude with mangled whimpers? Or like a prolonged stream of soiled garble, comprehensible only to its beholder?

I don't know on which note of the spectrum this book might fit in, but I do know that this book is a lament - lament on the daily struggles for (dignified) survival borne by the scarred populace of war-torn Kashmir, which unfortunately I can't talk of in past tense, and the marginalized of the society (taking the transgender as the pivotal link).

The book, from where I see, is about two characters - A transgender, Anjum and a riot victim, Tilottama. Anjum, born Aftab in Old Delhi but discarded by her family for socially- unacceptable biological makeup, is adopted by a whore-house. She lives a good part of her life here before shifting her residence to a graveyard, courtesy a grave altercation related to adoption and rearing of a girl child. Tilottama, on the other hand, begins as a firebrand member of the youth brigade in a posh South Delhi locality but eventually drifts, amid three of her friends and her own dichotomies, to Kashmir and the city's deep, unknown, frequently fatal, alleys. How life, with her own surprises and shocks, brings the two together rounds up the story.

This book, only second from Roy's stable in the last twenty years, retains the metaphorical music that she used to fair rapture in her first book. The descriptions, spring to life with her subtle touch, and she, almost, looks to have done that effortlessly.

"But regardless of what admonition and punishment awaited him, Aftab would return to his post stubbornly, day after day. It was the only place in his world where he felt the air made way for him. When he arrived, it seemed to shift, to slide over, like a school friend making room for him on a classroom bench."

Roy's characteristic insight into her world's props and their subtle breaths is amply visible. She weaves intricate patterns, just like the stunning Kashmiri carpets she refers to couple of times, around her characters and one gets to see a motley crew doing their part well. The three friends, all of them men, who walk in and out of Tilo's life, represent the various facets of the societal fabric Roy wishes to highlight - Biplab is a senior officer in Intelligence Bureau, Naga is an incendiary journalist and Musa, an activist or terrorist (depending on the way you would like to see).

"She sensed that in some strange tangential way, he needed her shade as much as she needed his. And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty."

But she gets carried away. She touches upon issues of untouchability and gender divide, fanaticism and terrorism, but they emerge only as matter-of-factly. There are long stretches of pages which are dedicated to the haunting memories of Tilottama, which, at first grab our hearts and hold them in their throes, but soon, they become a necessary vent which loses both on emotional as well as novelty quotient. Anjum, in particular, is crafted with a lot of fragility and I would have loved to read a little more about her but Roy had another strong motive to accommodate. Those who are familiar with her political stances, which she has diligently championed across the various articles, non-fiction works and speeches she has put forward, would detect that a lot in this book comes shrouded in her disdain towards the state machinery and its administrators. Place as she might her contempt amid very many chapters, it comes straight out, and with a vengeance. The military establishments, too, come under attack and she holds very few guns back in lambasting their integrity. While she visibly tones down in the second half through the long monologues emanating from Biplab's hours of prophecy, she doesn't quite miss the diatribe train to dispatch her venom. Perhaps, that's why, even for someone fairly apolitical as I, the work didn't pass by without glaring its political face at close proximity to me.

Those viewing the work from a political prism will mostly react in an emphatic manner - whether in support or opposition will depend on their political inclinations. But those looking from an emotional prism will also not be disappointed - she amalgamates the calm and the turbulent of her world with experienced rendition.

"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. In battle , Musa told Tilo, enemies can't break your spirit, only friends can."

The book teeters over its bumpy rides with seething heart and clamped teeth, and comes to a standstill in the culminating chapters where a certain ray of hope and perpetuity leaps into the air. The quietness of the shikara stands in stark contrast to the rippling graveyard that is celebrating a wedding, and one doesn't still know where the lament erupted from and where it died down. Or if it is still wailing.
Was this review helpful?
A journey, dizzying and complex, full of images and fascinating characters. I've not read The God of Small Things so wasn't sure what to expect. It's dense, and at times confusing, but so broad in scope and concerning a fascinating character. I really liked Anjum and her way of dealing with the world.
Was this review helpful?
I was waiting for this since the time it was announced. Arundhati Roy is the woman who has inspired my generation. This book lives upto my expectation of the author! Thank you so much for the copy!
Was this review helpful?
Vast and sprawling, this is a difficult, labyrinthine read of stories within stories. There are moments of brilliance, of a kind of breathless hush of emotion between people, countered by long sections of boredom. Parts of the story speak to us today with their concerns for the politics of violence and the rhetoric of nationalism, others feel akin to fairy tales. Roy is uncompromising in her references and untranslated quotations which can make this difficult for her readers depending on their own cultural background. For me, I preferred the more focused and intimate The God of Small Things where the lush language and extravagant storytelling are reined in by the book's structure. All the same, a must-read of 2017.

To be posted after May 28
Was this review helpful?
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 passed are:

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 them...still number 2 was the final nail
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!
Was this review helpful?
I so expected to love this book.  I loved “God of Small Things” and several of my all-time favourite books are by Indian authors.  So after approaching it full of anticipation and expectations, it pains me to say that I found it almost unreadable.  Which is feel sure is more about me and my failure as a literary reader.  But I did not “get” it.  

The book is about a disjointed trio on the margins of society, people who have no people, who come together and make a new home in a Delhi graveyard. Anjum is a hermaphrodite who considers herself a “counterfeit woman” and who longs to be a mother.  Saddam Hussein hero-worships the dictator Saddam Hussein and has renamed himself in his honour.  And Tilo’s great love is a Kashmiri terrorist.  

It’s an extremely disjointed novel, more like a collection of barely related stories that gradually weave themselves together and allow you to spot the common threads.  Along the way we are introduced to dozens of characters and for almost every one we will be given their back story, whether it is of relevance or not.

Essentially this is a book without a plot and if you realise that going in, you’ll probably struggle less with it than I did.  The writing is lovely: scenes are described in such a way that you’re there, you see what the characters are seeing.  Even characters who make only a brief appearance are brought vividly to life.  The instability in Kashmir and its effect on the people who live there is chillingly portrayed – when an ear infection means you could get shot because you can’t hear the instructions from the checkpoints.

I finished it and I feel a sense of accomplishment for doing so, but would I recommend it?  No not really.
Was this review helpful?
Thank you Net Galley. A wonderful book by Arundhati Roy.  Worth the twenty year wait.  I enjoyed this book very much.  The characters with their fluidity of gender, religion and race/ethnicity, the conundrums of social success and happiness and the paths to joy. Roy has written a very readable book, Highly recommended. No links outside of Net Galley because of the embargo.
Was this review helpful?