Getting started with the 2017 Man Booker Prize: The ironically titled ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

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Having spoken to people about Roy’s new novel, I think I may have been the only reader to have utterly misunderstood the title.  In blissful ignorance I began reading, looking forward to a much needed cheerful novel.  There was nothing I would have welcomed more than a well-written tome on joy, gladness and good-will.  With this in mind, I must confess that the first chapter was a bit disconcerting:

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.

After the enigmatic and mysterious beginning, the story moves back in time to explore the social position and plight of ‘hijra‘, a Hindu word readers are to discover for themselves can mean hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender person.  This fascinating view of an outsider community is then interrupted when the ostensible protagonist gets caught up in a massacre against Hindus, and the subsequent reprisals against Muslims, when on her way to visit a shrine.  Before the reader has time to comprehend the full trauma of the events and their effects on the characters, the plot moves on yet again, into poverty, urbanisation, pollution, political corruption and the conflict in Kashmir.

My advice would be to avoid getting hung on up plot, or on remembering and keeping track of the immense cast of characters.  Not only is the phrase ‘Utmost Happiness’ in the title Orwellian in its ironic implications, the word ‘Ministry’ with its connotations of order and control is equally misleading.  The book is sprawling in the extreme, as new characters, plot-lines and tragedies intrude on each other, running off in all directions and frustrating any desire for coherence or logical progression.

And I suppose that’s the point.  This is a novel about huge regions and massive populations.  Rather than attempt to fit these within a traditional narrative structure, Roy instead invites her readers into the confusion.  Even the writing, including polemics, poetry, lyrical descriptions, mystical fairy-tale elements and a patchwork of documentary-style ‘non-fiction’ is uneven and disorienting.  Personally,  found it an admirable and ambitious, but ultimately overwhelming, reading experience.  It will certainly teach most readers quite a bit about the history, society and politics of the Indian sub-continent, though if you’re after a more straightforward account, I suspect Roy’s non-fiction over the last two decades is a better place to look.  Later on this year, we’ll see if ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ will join ‘The God of Small Things’ on the Man Booker awards list.  For the time being, it remains a challenging, brave and formidable addition to the canon of Great Indian Novels.

I received my copy of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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15 Responses to Getting started with the 2017 Man Booker Prize: The ironically titled ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

  1. heavenali says:

    The title is misleading, though I loved the novel. There were a couple of bits that were a bit more challenging but I loved the characters, the scope and poetry of the novel. It should definitely make the Booker shortlist.

  2. pigeonel15 says:

    Thanks, Shoshi, I think it’s a really good assessment of the novel.

    • Thank you. I’m not as much of a fan as many others, but I do think it’s a very interesting and ambitious book (and so a much more rewarding read than a familiar story that plays it safe).

  3. It sounds wide ranging, the history and spread of the country and how it has changed is an enormous context within which to set a novel, I would need a chronology of events to go with it I suspect. Thanks for your review, it helps manage expectations.

    • Talking to other readers, I think you’d need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the region and time periods to get every reference and historical event. All I can say is that I know more than I did before reading and I at least have an increased respect for the complexity of the history depicted.

      • I do love how fiction introduces us to aspects of the history of different countries that we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, especially given how selective the media is. I remember a few years ago reading Helium by Jaspreet Singh, which was set in 1984 around the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of a political figure, an aspect of Indian’s history I wasn’t aware of. It’s topical in 2017 clearly, given its an anniversary year since partition and how many numerous untold stories there must be about that human tragedy.

      • I completely agree. This was really brought home to me when I read about the Naxalite rebellion in ‘The Lowland’ and then ‘The Emergency’ in ‘A Fine Balance.’ I haven’t read ‘Helium’, but it really sounds like I should add it to my to-be-read pile as I use fiction to learn more about the world.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    thanks for that advice. it does sound like a very ambitious novel

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Shoshi, you might like to listen to this interview at ABC Radio National, which was recorded before the Booker nomination: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/arundhati-roys-first-novel-in-20-years/8708072
    I’ve got the book, but after reading The Parcel, I think I’ll leave it a little while before I read another novel about the hijra…

  6. Thanks for your insightful post! I just finished reading the novel and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s definitely a ponderous read especially to those not familiar with Indian history and politics. I grew up in India and in spite of being familiar with the names and cultural allusions, I thought it was disjointed and ambitious tackling too many themes at once. There were streaks of brilliance and well executed and lyrical sentences but overall I thought it was more like a non-fiction in its approach in spite of being a work of fiction.

  7. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize and Graveyards: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders | Shoshi's Book Blog

  8. vikzwrites says:

    Really interesting review thankyou

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