Date: May 31, 2018
I'm a huge fan of Arundhati Roy. I was blown away by God of Small Things. The only booker prize winning novel that topped it for me was Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. As with all legendary writers, Arundhati Roy is cursed by her own success. Whatever she does in her life, God of Small Things would be the yardstick to measure the impact of all her literary works. That's a mighty high standard to live up to. I've tried my best to treat "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" as a unique, independent entity. The parallels I draw with God of Small Things are to showcase the style differences rather than over-analyze them.
God of Small Things had a central narrative. There was an impending sense of doom. I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn't know how, when or what. That evoked a primal, visceral fear of the unknown when I read the book. This is not the case with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. When I read other reviews, it felt like people started reading the book half-expecting God of Small Things part 2 and were displeased with the outcome. That's the worst mistake you could do. After all, this is not a trilogy or a series.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has multiple narratives from completely different walks of life. Their paths intersect at some point, but it never has a central narrative. There are main women around whom the story revolves - a flamboyant trans-person (Anjum, a hijra), a dark-skinned outcast girl (Tilo) born out of wedlock to a fair-skinned upper-caste Keralite woman. I was especially fascinated with Tilo's life. A strong, independent woman who refuses to bow down to societal norms and wrongdoings. I found the Musa, Naga, Garson Hobart and Tilo sections to be well-etched out. I could better relate to them. The short stories scattered throughout the book about the atrocities in Kashmir are horrifying to say the least. In India, it's considered a cardinal sin to criticize the armed forces. You are immediately branded as a hate-mongering, vile rhetoric spewing, anti-national. But Roy is a different breed. She's got balls of steel. She's always been an openly vocal critic of the ruling party, BJP. It's an open secret in the book that she's actually talking about Modi. I initially found her opinions to be prejudiced against the BJP. But maybe she does have point. India has been making huge strides economically, but moving backwards socially. It's scary to watch BJP and RSS call out for a Hindu nation, moral police and harass the public and advocate for regressive, patriarchal moral values.
In God of Small Things, nothing was forced. Everything was organic. Roy just set the stage for her characters and let us walk a mile in their shoes. It was wonderfully set up. It evoked emotions I didn't know I had. I couldn't stop thinking about the book for a couple of days after I was done. I knew such events still happened in India. But in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she sometimes overtly tries to tell you how you are supposed to feel. Sometimes it's like those annoying, cringe-worthy background scores in shitty movies which tell you how you're supposed to feel and react. Granted there are a lot of great sequences and flashes of sheer brilliance in this book. But these cringe-worthy moments leave a bad after taste. Actually, it might not be cringe-worthy to non-Indian readers. But to someone like me who is fairly up-to-date with current Indian affairs, it felt like Roy was trying hard to make a political statement. For example, in a small portion of the story when she talks about the lower caste Tamil soldier, she took a real incident, wrapped it in her own book and forcefully makes a not-so-subtle statement about it.
Nevertheless, she does have a point. She deserves to be heard. It's easy to be desensitized to all the wrongdoings in society in a country as big as India. We need an anglicized, intellectual voice like hers to remind us (the privileged few) of the day to day struggles of our fellow Indians. It took me years to realize that everyone has a story to tell. On the surface, they are seemingly ordinary people. But underneath there's a major struggle to keep hopes and dreams alive. They've all had heart breaks, minor successes and possibly an interesting life experience. It's super easy to ignore them all and focus on the select few celebrities who get paid shit tons of money to keep us entertained. After I finished reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder if I met an Anjum, Tilo and Musa in my life and I didn't even realize it then. I know people strikingly similar to Garson Hobart and a Naga, but the silent social revolutionaries, I never got a chance to be a part of their circle.
A good book makes you think, and this one sure did. My rating 3.5/5. Thanks to the stupidity of the rating scale on Goodreads, I have to give it a 4.
P.S: My initial thoughts, 50 pages in:
It doesn't feel honest so far. Almost like trying to pass of her personal prejudices as realistic facts. I could almost feel her hatred for the BJP. I haven't lived in India for close to 3 years now. So who knows, may be she has a point.
The writing is sloppier compared to God of Small Things. There was some intrigue, an unknown feeling, a sense of impending doom, that feeling which keeps you at the edge of your seat. It's kinda lacking here. Sure, she's still got great characters and it's an unbelievably unique perspective. But why do I have this feeling that she's not honest to her art so far. Is it my own prejudices? When I read Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance", I was completely engrossed and sympathetic if not horrified by the plight of its characters. Am I fooling myself by thinking the present day India is much better.