I wasn’t all that sure if I should actually pick Arundhati Roy’s latest- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The reasons were plenty. Firstly, despite all the acclaim and the Booker Prize, I hadn’t entirely enjoyed reading her first book – The God of Small Things. Secondly, her so called liberal opinions expressed on many occasions, on all things Indian, just didn’t go down well with me. And lastly, in just over a week since The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been out, there has been a complete mix of reviews bombarding social media. Some really juicy reviews that screamed out that the book was simply not to be missed, whereas there were some who gave it not more than a single star. The online buzz was almost feverish with some ripping her apart, yet others who were ready to soak in all that she said and meant. I decided to give her a second chance, technically this being her second book in twenty years.
It’s a narration that spans across generations, touching human lives from regions up north of the Indian Subcontinent. In a graveyard outside the old city of Delhi, lives Anjum. A hermaphrodite, in Arundhati’s words, or a Hijra as the world knows her, Anjum has desires of her own and longs to be a mother. On the other side of the city, on the side walk of Jantar Mantar, a baby is found. No one knows where she came from. And pushed amidst these two lives, is young Tilo, who has loved and lost. Her love is none another than a terrorist from the State of Kashmir. The book begins as a compelling tale of Anjum- the agony within her heart and the want for a child. Tilo’s much complicated love life, amidst the turmoil in the state of Kashmir. All their lives intertwine and each search for their love, happiness and life.
“When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out.”
If there’s one thing that captivates the reader in this book, surely it is Arundhati’s descriptions. Whether it is the life in old Delhi, or the snowy mountains of the war stricken Kashmir, or simple human emotions, her descriptions in metaphors of sorts, are poignant and brilliant. I felt her writing has this cinematic touch, especially the turmoil in Kashmir, which reminded me of the Bollywood flick Haider for some strange reason. But just as you soak in these descriptions and hope the books moves over to the actual plot, you begin to realize the big disappointment the pages hold within it.
There is no plot!!!!
Events, and issues that plagued the nation in the last 30 odd years – gargantuan descriptions of almost everything, from pollution and poverty, effects of globalization, the time of emergency, the Bhopal gas leak incident, the anti-Sikh riot, Narmada Bachao Andolan, the rise of the RSS, Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, the Modi diktat… the list may well seem endless, or rather, the book turns out to be a journal of an activist rather than a novel! Totally disconnected, it felt like a patch work of many things about India. And amidst all these, you find stuffed, wee little pages on the lives of the characters!
Would I recommend the book? Well, if you are a complete Arundhati Roy fan and love reading every bit of her writing, you would enjoy it, provided you consider it to be a non-fiction. And it may well serve as a sort of refresher course of all that India has been through in the last two decades.
For me, the book was a drag, with unwarranted monologues that I could skip comfortably. I did manage to finish the book, despite all the yawns.