Arundhati Roy’s Long Awaited Second Novel: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
The writer of The God of Small Things delivers another masterpiece
Twenty years ago, Arundhati Roy gifted us with her celebrated debut novel, The God of Small Things. Thankfully, her highly anticipated follow-up, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, confirms that many of the best things in life are worth the wait. In fact, this richly complex story, set on the Indian subcontinent, reminds us precisely why Roy won the Booker Prize: She’s an exquisite storyteller who writes beautifully poetic prose. She also has a unique ability to masterfully intertwine brutality and darkness with tenderness and humor.
Summarizing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a daunting task—and not simply because the book boasts more than 400 glorious pages. Rather, its intricate plot takes a winding journey that spans 50 years. The first half of this contemporary novel focuses on Anjum, a hermaphrodite, who was raised as a boy. When Anjum approaches adulthood, she embraces her identity as a woman and seeks peace and acceptance at a nearby boarding house for hijras (a South Asian term for transgender women). Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that hirjas may never attain true happiness; the demons they fight are internal, not external. As one hirja notes, most people battle with “price-rise, children’s school-admissions, husbands’ beatings, wives’ cheatings, Hindu-Muslim riots, Indo-Pak war–outside things that settle down eventually. But for us the price-rise and school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down.”
Eventually, Anjum leaves the boarding house, relocating to a cemetery where she builds makeshift rooms above her relatives’ graves. Here, at The Jannat Guest House, a colorful community of outcasts grows. The one unifying thread, perhaps, is that each player is deeply wounded in some way.
The second half of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness shifts gears, almost entirely. Roy introduces the novel’s other female protagonist, the non-conformist, Tilo, whose romance with a Kashmiri insurgent draws her into the ongoing struggle for Kashmir independence. It is through Tilo, a completely new cast of characters emerges.
Admittedly, keeping track of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ vast array of voices can be a challenge.
And it is curious at times how the two seemingly disparate halves of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness connect. Alas, no need to fear: The characters’ lives do converge. And though it would be impossible to tie up something so epic with a neat little bow, rest assured, the story’s resolution is deeply satisfying.
It isn’t surprising the late-fifty-something Roy has penned a novel with significant social and political undertones. After all, the Delhi-based Indian writer spent much of the past two decades as a writer-activist, fighting against inequalities and injustice she sees in her country. Roy was very careful, however, not to use her novel as a soapbox. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness doesn’t make a political statement. What it does do is speak passionately of human suffering, government corruption and the universal desire to find love. It is also an ambitious novel destined to become Roy’s second literary phenomenon. Trust us, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will be this summer’s must-read “beach book” for smart women everywhere.
Buy the book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Knopf, $28.95)