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.