The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: A review

I loved The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's first novel, and I fully expected to love this one, her second, that was written twenty years after the first. I was disappointed to realize that I didn't.

It was not because the writing was not beautiful. Of course it was beautiful. Roy's prose is poetic and musical. It flows, one sentence leading with the inevitably of rushing water into the next.

It was not because there were no sympathetic characters. Indeed, the pages are filled with so many sympathetic characters that at times it is hard to focus.

Every single one of these sympathetic characters is at the center of a tragic story. There is so much unrelenting tragedy in this book that I began to feel overwhelmed and oppressed by it. And I think my main problem with the book is related to that.

The overarching tragedy here that touches every character's life and becomes the theme of some of them is Kashmir. Bleeding Kashmir. That bit of territory that Pakistan and India have fought over virtually continuously since partition. The appalling atrocities suffered by all sides in the conflict - Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus - pile up unendingly.

Most of the action of Roy's novel takes place after 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and the resulting violence that wracked the country afterward. She tells her story primarily through the lives of two characters.

The first is Anjum, born Aftab. At birth, the child was a true hermaphrodite, with both male and female sex organs. Raised by her family as a boy, she nevertheless always identified as female and when she had the opportunity to leave home, she became a part of a thriving transgender community in Delhi.

The second primary character is Tilo, a former architecture student. In college, she was a part of a group of four friends who continue to be connected in later life. One of them, Musa, was her sometime lover, a Kashmiri freedom fighter. She later marries another of the friends but continues to travel to Kashmir to visit Musa, who is in constant danger and must live his life on the run.  

If the story had maintained the focus on these two lives, I would have found it easier to follow and to empathize with, but the introduction of so many minor characters kept leading me on unwanted detours away from the two heroines of the tale and at times - particularly in the middle of the book - I felt that there was no glue holding it all together and it threatened to fly off into its constituent parts. 

In describing one of her characters who kept notes, diaries, and memos, Roy wrote:
She wrote strange things down. She collected scraps of stories and inexplicable memorabilia that appeared to have no purpose. There seemed to be no pattern or theme to her interest. 
That would almost serve as a description of her book.

The strongest part of the book for me was the ending where the writer did manage to bring her various "scraps of stories" together into a well-orchestrated and even hopeful conclusion. It was an ending worth waiting for.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. I can understand your feelings about the book. It was not quite like any novel I had read before and she broke some "rules" of novel writing. Many critics felt as you did. Somehow she got to me anyway and I was won over, even amazed.

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    1. She is an amazing writer and Kashmir is a dramatic and tragic story, but somehow the story just didn't "stick together" for me, maybe because the emphasis was so diffuse rather than personal.

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  2. Too bad you didn't think this book outstanding. It has been a critics' darling. Sometimes critics' darlings tend to fall flat.

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    Replies
    1. I wouldn't say this one fell flat. It did have its good points and I can understand why many love it. For me, it seemed more like an intellectual exercise than the story of actual people that I could identify with as her first novel certainly was. Thus, my disappointment.

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