I’m doing something a wee bit unusual today. I’m writing a review for half a book. Specifically, I’m writing a glowing review of the first half of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy.
I can’t write a review of the second half because I did not read it. I did not read it because something weird happened halfway through. All the characters I got quite attached to in the first half of the story suddenly vanished. I don’t know where they went.
I tried reading on in the hope they would show up again. They didn’t.
I tried flicking ahead a hundred pages or so, to see if I had something to look forward to. Still no sign of them.
Worse still, the characters they were replaced with weren’t half as interesting or likeable. So I gave up and moved on to another book.
I presume the fault was mine rather than the book, given The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a Sunday Times and New York Times Bestseller, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Carnegie Medal and the Women’s Fiction Prize, and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
In defence of this book review, the whole book is 464 pages long. So 50% of the book is still 232 pages which, quite frankly, is a pretty good whack of brilliantly written reading material about India.
And if you’ve made it this far in reading my rather rambling post, I suspect you’ll probably enjoy Arundahti Roy’s rather rambling novel about a rather eclectic bunch of people in a seriously ramshackle city.
Late 20th-century India. Hot, dirty, politically volatile, poverty-stricken India. Anjum is born into this hot mess as a Hijra – male, yet also female. Mostly, she feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body. Her family loves her but has no language to understand her ambiguity:
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.
Anjum struggles until she moves out of home and into the local Khwabgah, where Hijras are worshipped:
There was no reason to be ashamed of anything, Ustad Kulsoom Bi told her, because Hijras were chosen people, beloved of the Almighty. The word Hijra, she said, meant a Body in which a Holy Soul lives.
Anjum is happier with her new family, but she longs for a child. But her ambiguous body is incapable of giving her a small human to dote on. The universe, however, is rather more generous. It deposits a howling, abandoned toddler onto the street right next to Anjum. Anjum takes her home and adopts her.
I absolutely adored the language and imagery in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Here’s a small sample of the child, Zainab, with her adoptive mother:
‘Altogether ten,’ she announced soberly, in her new, Tender Buds English, and then refitted her fat, fevered cheek back into its parking slot in Anjum’s neck.
The novel follows a rambling path with occasional sudden diversions as it stops to tell another story. Or a few versions of the same story. Or just some interesting tidbit of history… before meandering back to the main narrative and finding Anjum and her crew again (well, until it gets lost altogether somewhere around the middle – see previous comments).
Being set in turn-of-the-century India, the imagery is not always pleasant. Roy pulls no punches when it comes to describing a public sacrifice on the stinking, seething streets during a festival:
The streets were busy. Goatskins, goat horns, goat skulls, goat brains and goat offal were being collected, separated and stacked. Shit was being extruded from intestines that would then be properly cleaned and boiled down into soap and glue. Cats were making off with delectable booty. Nothing went to waste.
The storytelling style is a detached in a way that means you don’t experience the trauma of actually being there. Somehow, that makes it almost worse because you tend to run over shocking scenes with your mind until you realise what it was you’ve just read and are suddenly taken aback. Sort of like reading the international news on any given day, really.
One particular passage stood out that went something like this: Oh yes, they’re all just sort of hanging out looking up at the sky and isn’t it lovely. And there’s this dog and he’s got all these tubes hanging out of him. Yeah, we found him wandering down the street so we took him home. He’s not very well. We think he escaped from a test lab. Anyways, on with the story…
Meanwhile you’re left thinking HANG ON, WHAAAAAT?
I find most modern Indian literature intrinsically depressing and utterly fascinating. Arundhati Roy’s novel is no exception. It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely worthwhile (and if you manage to get through the second half, do write and tell me – was it good? Is it just me?).
Grab a copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness from your favourite bookshop or online from:
More books like The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
If you like the sound of this book you’ll probably also enjoy:
- A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
- Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
- The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.