The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book overflowing with life and death, love and loss – a book that is unlike any other and difficult to describe or define.
Set in India, from Delhi to Kashmir, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins as a story of the transgender or ‘hijra’ Anjum, but sprawls into the story of war between Hindus and Muslims, India and Pakistan. Blood is spilt liberally, and reported in a way that is often disconcertingly matter-of-fact. There are deaths of innocent fathers, babies and mothers. The way they are reported is as if the narrator is numb, carrying an underlying despair and grief, but moving onwards to the next massacre or family tragedy.
The next section follows on Tilo, a woman with whom three men fall in love with, and her own brushes with torture and death.
Through the personal stories of Anjum and Tilo, Roy examines the state of India, and the cruelties and tragedies its people have endured as a result of political and religious unrest.
As I count Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as one of my all-time favourite books, I had high expectations of her second work of fiction in 20 years.
And while there was no mistaking the beauty of Roy’s writing and the fascinating world of which she writes in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, this book did not capture me in the way that The God of Small Things did.
For me, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was too full of ideas and events, and I found it difficult to take hold of a singular one at any time, so swiftly did Roy move from one to another.
Although I read of horror, I did not really feel it, or understand it. Perhaps this book requires a more careful and knowledgeable reading, but when I got to the end I did not feel satisfied or moved, and felt nothing like the sense of wonder I had when finishing The God of Small Things. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary and strange – a memorable book, however difficult to grasp.