Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - a novel by Arundhati Roy

Posted by mhedwig on August 6, 2017 at 7:20 PM

Audiobook: Not recommended; too many characters with exotic names, and too complex a chronology to absorb from listening

Print book:  Highly recommended. A masterwork that repays close attention

Where to begin to detail my intense reactions to Arundhati Roy’s first novel in the twenty-odd years since her prizewinning THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS? Where to start trying to summarize its complex story?

I’ll begin by saying that I first listened to it as an Audible recording, read by the author. Some listeners have complained that the author’s Indian accent was hard to understand; I didn’t find it so. In fact, I got a kick out of hearing her cultured, even tones delivering the colorful insults of the street people and outcasts who make up some of her most endearing characters -- “Sister f---ing whore” being one of the milder ones.

The audio version was problematic for me for other reasons: the huge cast of exotically-named characters to keep straight (when I read the print version of the book I felt the need to make pencil notations on the flyleaf of who various key people were and the page on which they appeared); the many Hindi or Urdu or Kashmiri words seeded throughout the narrative; the author’s habit of packing into the novel lengthy documents such as one character’s dictionary of all the Kashmiri words for revolution, insurrection, torture, weaponry, of which we get every single entry from A to Z; another character’s lunatic ravings on her deathbed, dictated to her daughter as letters and presented in the story at full length; the manifesto of a mad prophet on an 11-year hunger strike, again, presented at full length. These endless digressions strained my patience; a few excerpts would have sufficed. (These sections seemed only barely more tolerable when I read them in the printed book; the author and her readers would have profited from a strong editorial hand.)

Also, the story’s chronology leaps around and is extremely difficult to keep straight while listening.

But my main reason for immediately ordering the print version was to study and savor the beauty of the language, which flew right past in audio. As I read, my trusty pencil got constant use underlining and asterisking. Now, having read the book twice, I am confirmed in my opinion that it is monumental. Not flawless, but a masterpiece.

Central to the novel is Anjum, born a hermaphrodite but at heart a flamboyant, beautiful woman, who as a young person underwent gender reassignment surgery that left her incapable of sexual pleasure but at least removed the hateful major vestiges of maleness. Living as a hijra, an outcast eunuch, she takes refuge in a cemetery in Delhi, gradually building around the graves a home for herself and then expanding it into an inn for the homeless. The expansion continues when she later opens a funeral home on the premises that takes in the bodies of fellow outcasts who have no one else to mourn and bury them. This establishment, known as “Jannat [Paradise] Guest House and Funeral Home,” embraces people and even animals who have been rejected by society. 

The other major characters in the book met at university in Delhi and became friends whose lives remain intertwined in later life: three men: Naga, Musa, and Biplab, whom everyone forever afterwards calls “Garson Hobart” because of his role in a play they were all cast in while at university  -- and the woman whom all of them love, Tilo, short for Tilottama (which, in one of the languages of Southern India, means Sesame Seed).

In adulthood, Tilo is a restless soul, unable to settle into a career or a home, rebellious against the conventions of femininity, stigmatized because of her illegitimate birth and her dark skin. (Much is made of the fair/dark meritocracy of Indian society, with dark – as is lamentably the case throughout the world – being regarded as inferior.) Her true love, her only place of repose in the world, is Musa, her former friend from university. He is a young man from Kashmir who, though trained as an architect, has become a freedom fighter in his embattled home region of northern India. (Biographical information about the author reveals that one reason for her long absence from the novelistic landscape is that she has been active in the Kashmiri struggle for independence.)

Tilo and Musa's paths diverge for a time in early adulthood, during which time he marries and has a child. Only after terrible tragedy do he and Tilo reunite and begin their love affair. Their love story is beautifully told, distinctive, dramatic and heartrending. I have added it to my list of great literary romances.

They are able to seize only moments together, sometimes years apart. Musa’s stature as a leader of the Kashmiri resistance puts Tilo at great risk by association.  After one night with him on a houseboat in Kashmir, after he has slipped away at dawn, Tilo is seized in a raid by soldiers of the occupying Indian Army and taken to the nearest “interrogation” (a euphemism for torture) center in Srinagar. Only the intervention of “Garson Hobart,” her university friend who is now a senior minister in the Indian government, saves her life. Traumatized by her experiences at the hands of her Indian “interrogators,” Tilo goes back to Delhi and impulsively marries her old schoolmate, Naga, now a journalist. The marriage doesn’t last; rootless once again, Tilo travels back and forth between Delhi and Kashmir, occasionally seeing Musa but never knowing if it will be the last time. In Delhi she rents an apartment from “Garson Hobart” whose ministry career has ended in disgrace because of his alcoholism, and who now owns and manages an apartment building.

The arrival into the novel of a baby is as world-altering an event in Roy’s hands as the coming of Christ in the Christian story. One night at an anti-corruption rally in the same park that houses the graveyard where Jannat Guest House resides, an unknown woman abandons her newborn baby. The hijra, Anjum. and some of her friends from the Guest House spot the child and are preparing to rescue her, when another strange woman manages to take advantage of the chaos of the crowd and make off with the baby.

That woman is Tilo, who has come to the rally and, on seeing the abandoned baby, feels a powerful maternal surge. She names the baby Miss Jebeen the Second, after (spoiler avoidance) a young child of the same name who was killed in political violence.

Utimately some residents of Jannat Guest House, led by young Saddam Hussain (the assumed name of this young “Untouchable” Hindu man has a partly hilarious, partly poignant backstory), manage to follow Tilo’s trail through the streets of Delhi to her apartment. They invite her and Miss Jebeen the Second to come live with them in their graveyard compound, which has been renamed "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness."  Feeling the need for protection and support, Tilo accepts – and by the book’s end it appears that the Utmost Happiness to be found there may console her for the losses of her life, and give her, for the first time, a clear purpose. Anjum, too, the formerly lonely founder and proprietress of Jannat Guest House, finds a new joy in her role as one of the baby’s mothers.

The rest of the enormous, sometimes overstuffed narrative weaves together past and present, joy and heartbreak, rage and consolation, an intimate focus on individual characters contrasted with sweeping social commentary….Roy portrays modern day India in all its corruption and its violent and seemingly unending factionalism; but she leaves the reader with the hope that kindness and generosity will endure in the makeshift communities of the powerless and marginalized, and that a baby's tiny life may even bring redemption.

Categories: Fiction