The whole of India’s storied history of anguish, oppression, religious turmoil, discrimination, brutality, despairing poverty, outrageous materialism and spiritual wealth is on full display in Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Roy’s vision of India is encapsulated in characters embodying varied outcasts, revolutionaries and morally-challenged participants in the raging religious and political battle engulfing Kashmir, the creation of Pakistan, and modern India. But not in any predictable way.
Roy uses ten unique characters as the thread from which is knitted a, sometimes, barely discernible series of connections between them all, from which Roy offers a powerful and distinctly hard, challenging yet deeply love-filled hope for contemporary India.
At the core of this authoritative novel is a graveyard where Anjum, a transsexual, lives, and the community built around her there, from which Roy launches a complex, many layered tale of love, war, loss and a struggle to bond with others and to feel one belongs to some place, to a community.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is essentially a series of ‘other’ world realities in opposition to the real world. What’s so profound about this structure is Roy is able to take readers deep into environs and cultures of Old Delhi, Muslim and Hindu, Kashmir, and surrounds that are quite removed from modernity. All manage to coexist in their drudgery, poverty and isolation, and are blessed only by the formidable humanity in each place’s community.
Roy’s language is a formidable, firm poetic blend of character, place and spirit. As a literary experience, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an extraordinary coalescence of religious parable and social criticism. Roy pulls no punches in a quest to offer uncompromising condemnation of forces oppressing and criminalising sexual, political and religious affiliation throughout Indian history.
Reviewed by David O’Brien
Rating out of 10: 10
Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: June 2017
RRP: $49.99 hardcover, $32.99 trade paperback, $19.99 paperback, $4.99 eBook