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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy

Hardcover (6 Jun 2017), 464 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9781524733155
BookBrowse:
Critics:
Readers:
  

A dazzling, richly moving new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The God of Small Things.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent - from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.

It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love - and by hope.

The tale begins with Anjum - who used to be Aftab - unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her - including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo's landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs' Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.

As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy's storytelling gifts.

Excerpt
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut), in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother's arms wrapped in two shawls, said, "It's a boy." Given the circumstances, her error was understandable.

A month into her first pregnancy Jahanara Begum and her husband decided that if their baby was a boy they would name him Aftab. Their first three children were girls. They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum's life.

The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.

Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was. Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash. Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken. Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs. Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child. Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. 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. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.

Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.

Excerpted from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Copyright © 2017 by Arundhati Roy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The novel opens with a vignette describing the mysterious death of vultures—and how "not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds" (page 5). How does this occurrence set the stage and tone for the rest of the novel with regard to the state of India's society and the unrest that the characters experience within themselves and with the outside world? How does that mood transition into the graveyard setting of the first part of the book?
  2. Discuss the complications of Aftab's upbringing and his parents' reactions to their child's gender. What does the family dynamic suggest about the role that biology plays in determining one's true family versus an individual's ability to create or choose one's family?
  3. Anjum is told that a Hijra is "a living creature that is incapable of happiness . . . The riot is inside us. The war is inside us" (page 27). To what extent do you see this manifest in Anjum's character throughout the book, and in what ways does she defy that definition?
  4. What roles do magic and superstition play throughout the novel? Which characters are more inclined to subscribe to unconventional beliefs, and do they seem more comforted or disillusioned by those beliefs in the face of harsh realities?
  5. Discuss the following idea: "What mattered was that [the moment] existed. To be present in history, even as nothing more than a chuckle, was a universe away from being absent from it, from being written out of it altogether" (page 55). How does the formal inventiveness and variation of the novel's narrative—which is told through documents, written and oral histories, and other archival materials passed among characters or left in their absence—attest to this sense of one's relevance in history at any given moment? What are the different characters' motives for leaving an impression of their existence?
  6. How does the variety of perspectives that the documents in the novel afford you as a reader—from Tilo's notebooks to the letter from Miss Jebeen the Second's real mother—different, if not conflicting, portraits of the political conflict going on in Kashmir? Overall, did they allow you to more clearly see one side's argument over another's? What kind of texture did the shifts in narrative form create in your overall reading experience?
  7. What is the intersection between death and life in the novel? Consider the ways in which Anjum's graveyard/funeral parlor prospers and grows throughout the novel, and the notion that "Dying became just another way of living" (page 320).
  8. How does Roy create the atmosphere and emotional tenor of the novel's primary cities/places in India? What sensory details or descriptions stuck with you the most as the backdrop for the characters' somewhat nomadic existence?
  9. Did you find there to be more similarities or differences between places or scenes where protesting and violence occur in contrast to those where there is relative peace and civility? How does the point of view from which a given scene is narrated affect how you see a place?
  10. How is parenthood, and, more specifically, motherhood, explored in the novel? Discuss in particular the mother-child bonds that Anjum, Tilo, and both Miss Jebeens experience.
  11. How is religion a defining feature for characters in the novel and a main source of conflict in the society depicted? How do the differing beliefs and political loyalties affect events that transpire in the novel's different geographical areas of conflict?
  12. What role does gender play in the novel, in terms of how characters are expected and allowed to behave as well as how they respond to certain emotions, events, and treatments? Is gender the primary way a person identifies instead of by religion, political party, ethnicity/country of origin, or even profession?
  13. The Landlord's chapters are the only sections written in the first person. How does that point of view color your understanding of the relationship among him, Tilo, Naga, and Musa, including the knowledge that they met on the set of a play? What makes this web of love so intricate, and how does the war intensify their bonds even as it threatens to shatter them?
  14. Musa is one character whose identity must be repressed in various ways to ensure his safety, and even his most arduous disguises are not always successful. What does his struggle and that of others in similar situations (people who disappear and/or transform into others) suggest about the mutability of one's identity—whether it be by necessity or by organic change? How might you interpret the line "Only the dead are free" in that context (page 361)?
  15. Discuss the lines of poetry that Tilo writes the end of the book, "How / to / tell / a / shattered / story? / By / slowly / becoming / everybody.  /No. / By slowly becoming everything" (page 442). How do the main characters—Tilo, Musa, Naga, and Anjum—embody the idea of telling a story through the assimilation of its many fragments?
  16. By the end of the novel, how did you interpret the meaning of its title?

Suggested Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A dazzling, richly moving new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The God of Small Things.

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If the concept of a call center in Bangalore no longer rings unfamiliar, you can credit the Indian economic policies of the '90s when the country revamped its clanking, socialist-leaning bureaucracy and opened the floodgates of monetary liberalization. It probably goes without saying that the exploding economy did not benefit all Indians equally — the rural poor, and those entrenched by decades of stagnant mobility, were largely deprived a piece of the economic pie. Anjum, a trans woman, the protagonist who galvanizes the first half of Arundhati Roy's sophomore novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is one such unfortunate whom the country's newfound prosperity largely passes over. Anjum is born Aftab, with both male and female parts, until surgery makes her who she wants to be: a woman. She thus joins India's fringe but vibrant community of "Hijras."

Anjum and a band of other misfits — including a low-caste Hindu who attempts reinvention by renaming himself Saddam Hussein — take up residence in a New Delhi graveyard in a small hovel called Khwabgah, which translates to, not without a touch of irony, House of Dreams. And dreams just might be all that this group of unlikely friends has: "Once you have fallen off the edge, you will never stop falling," Anjum points out. "We aren't really real. We don't exist."

Such invisibility has a small set of advantages. Anjum and her fellow residents of Khwabgah are direct witness to a whole list of historical events that have unfolded in India's recent history, a few, quite literally, in their backyard. Now might be as good a time as any to mention that while a large segment of the literary world has been waiting with bated breath for Roy's second novel after the mesmerizing, Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, Roy has been deeply immersed in political and social activism in India. Among many other causes she is devoted to, Roy has been sounding the alarm bells about India's rising right-wing Hindu nationalism, and is a fervent supporter of the cause of Kashmir's independence (see Beyond the Book). While she has written many works of nonfiction that have relayed her views, it was inevitable that her political fervor would make its way into the pages of this novel.

In fact, there are times when Roy's characters come across as little more than convenient canvases on which to peg the political narrative and flashpoints of the last twenty years — whether it be the Gujarat riots of the '90s (see Beyond the Book for The Association of Small Bombs) to the rising strain of Hindu nationalism. Even less obscure events, such as a fast by a Gandhian activist, Anna Hazare, that riveted India's attention in 2011, feature in Ministry.

While Anjum makes for an entertaining protagonist, she occasionally buckles under the weight of her storytelling burdens. It takes Tilo, a pro-independence Kashmir activist from the southern Indian state of Kerala (a woman who sounds much like Roy herself), to really bring back some of the magic from The God of Small Things. Tilo, whose story takes up much of the second half of Ministry, used to travel often to the troubled state mostly because her lover, Musa, was a fervent devotee of the pro-independence cause. She, too, was witness to the unimaginable atrocities that played out daily. "They had been a strange country together for a while, an island republic that had seceded from the rest of the world," Roy writes of the couple. This segment, set in Kashmir, is where Roy really hits her stride. The prose is spellbinding, and the characters and historical events are woven together much more seamlessly.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a welcome addition to Roy's fiction, even if it sometimes staggers under the yoke of its hefty political ambitions. Readers who don't know the subcontinent's history needn't worry, Roy's prose is eloquent enough to paper over unfamiliar territory, even if the novel does sag in the middle as she tries to find her footing and corral the disparate story threads into a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, ardent fans won't be disappointed, although they might grumble that twenty years was much too long of a wait. This exploration of history's everyday machinations might be unruly at times but it's also visceral, passionate and, at the best of times, entirely dazzling. "History would be a revelation of the future as much as it was a study of the past," Roy writes. This could well stand in as a succinct explanation for the story. As recent world events have shown, history has been repeating itself with alarming regularity all over the world. Why should India be any different?

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Ambitious, original, and haunting ... Sweeping, intricate, and sometimes topical, the novel's complexity feels essential to Roy's vision of a bewilderingly beautiful, contradictory, and broken world.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An assured novel borne along by a swiftly moving storyline that addresses the most profound issues with elegant humor.

Booklist
Starred Review. A masterpiece...Roy joins Dickens, Naipaul, García Márquez, and Rushdie in her abiding compassion, storytelling magic, and piquant wit...A tale of suffering, sacrifice and transcendence - an entrancing, imaginative, and wrenching epic.

Write your own review

Rated 1 of 5 of 5 by Ursula Swamy
A highly-overated book - not literature at all
II recently read the novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
I found the book to be immature in its writing, poor prose and the stories within do not cohere. If it is magical realism then her writing needs to be vastly improved. I do not think she understands what fiction actually implies. Her non-fiction is probably better written.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
a moving and powerful read.
“Their wounds were too old and too new, too different, and perhaps too deep, for healing. But for a fleeting moment, they were able to pool them like accumulated gambling debts and share the pain equally, without naming injuries or asking which was whose. For a fleeting moment they were able to repudiate the world they lived in and call forth another one, just as real.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the second novel by Booker Prize winning author, Arundhati Roy. The story begins with Aftab, whose confusion about what he was found relief at the Khwabgah, among other hijra. He became Anjum, and eventually she ran the Jannat Guest House (in its highly unusual location), a refuge for the quirky, the oppressed, the different.

Integral to the tale is S. Tilottama, real and adopted daughter of Maryam Ipe. Tilo’s story, and that of the three men who love her, is told not only by her, but by Dr Azad Bhartiya (fasting Free Indian), Biplab Desgupta (her ex-Intelligence Bureau landlord), and Musa Yeswi (elusive militant). Filling out the quirky cast are a paraven calling himself Saddam Hussain, Zainab the Bandicoot, Naga the journalist, a singing teacher, and an abandoned baby, to name just a few.

How all their lives intersect and how these lives are impacted upon by Government and policy, and in particular, the Kashmiri freedom struggles, is told using vignettes, anecdotes, loosely connected short stories, moral tales, memos, disjointed scraps, accounts that take detours and meander off on tangents. As with Rushdie, Seth and Mistry, this novel has that unmistakeable, essential Indian quality, in characters, in dialogue, in plot.

But here, moreso than in The God of Small Things, the fact that this is a novel by Arundhati Roy the social activist, is very much in evidence (as readers of her non-fiction works will attest) and thus includes illustrations of the many issues against which she rails. Some reviewers describe this novel as “preachy”; the causes are worthy, but readers may feel that is it is only a shade off being exactly that, and perhaps be forgiven for wishing that it was more novel, less moral tale.

Some of Roy’s descriptive prose, as with in The God of Small Things, is staggeringly beautiful, poetic and profound: “They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realised that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Udru, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.”

However, the vague and veiled references to certain personages, events and ideas which are, perhaps, obvious to those familiar with Indian current affairs, will go straight over the heads of other readers, the message will be lost or less than clear. There is humour, heartache, despair and hope, there is much cruelty but also abundant kindness, making it a moving and powerful read.

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The Origins of the Kashmir Dispute

Kashmir MapThe Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan occupies center stage in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and is a conflict that traces its roots back to the Indo-Pak partition (for more about the partition, see Beyond the Book for An Unrestored Woman).

When the British left India in 1947, Kashmir was not an Indian state, but was instead one of hundreds of smaller independent princely states. each with their own rulers, who swore loyalty to the British empire. As the British Raj withdrew, these princely states had to make the complicated decision as to whether to become a part of either India or Pakistan, or become independent countries. Most that were within contemporary India's borders chose to become a sovereign part of the country.

Kashmir, in India's Northwest, proved to be a particular dilemma. Before we go ahead, a quick geography lesson: Kashmir as we refer to it today is really the state of Jammu and Kashmir. While most of Kashmir has a sizeable Hindu population, Jammu, which includes Ladakh, also has a large proportion of Buddhists. Most people, when they refer to Kashmir, are talking about the "valley" where Muslims form the majority. Srinagar, the capital, is in the valley.

At the time of Partition, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu king, Maharaja Hari Singh. Kashmir was a majority Muslim state, which would have made integration with Pakistan (a largely Muslim nation), a logical conclusion, but the king wasn't so sure. Worried about all the waffling, Pakistan decided to play it safe and sent in Muslim tribesmen to cause trouble. As Srinagar was under crisis mode, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's newly created Prime Minister, sent his own emissary to seal the deal with the king. The move worked and the Raja signed an Instrument of Ascension with India.

Pakistan — and Kashmir's Muslim majority which mostly wanted to remain independent — was furious and India and Pakistan fought the first of many wars over Kashmir. Nehru took the case to the UN, which ruled that Pakistan had to withdraw forces, after which India would remove hers, and a free and fair "plebiscite" would determine the fate of Kashmir. Pakistan never complied and, therefore, neither did India. A ceasefire was enforced in 1948 along with a Line of Control (LOC) that grants the majority of Kashmir to India.

Skirmishes and more large-scale fighting have flared up ever since, even as Kashmir was officially included in the Indian Union in the '50s. India's army controls most of the valley with an iron grip. The people of Kashmir themselves have mostly demanded independence from the two countries, their cries drowned out as the subcontinent's superpowers continue to duke it out over God's own country nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

By Poornima Apte

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