Twenty years after winning the Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy is back with a new novel. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness weaves together many stories, but at its core is the story of Tilo and her three suitors: Musa, Naga and Biplab and the violent history of Kashmir and India. My feelings about this book oscillated between wild enthusiasm, slight confusion and occasional boredom. Roy’s undisputable skills as a writer kept me going, but I’m not sure I’d call it a flawless comeback.
Anjum, the first character we meet, is born a hermaphrodite, a scandal of unimaginable proportions to her Muslim Indian family. After a stint in a house for Hijras (as hermaphrodites are known), she takes refuge in a Delhi graveyard in the company of other outcasts.
At a different time and place in Delhi, Tilo, Naga, Biplab and Musa are setting up a student school play. They come from wildly different backgrounds and are not an obvious match personality wise, but forge a strong friendship nevertheless. Tilo’s mysterious, impassive attitude, ‘complete absence of a desire to please’ and apparent disregard for her own looks, despite her natural beauty, spellbinds the three men. Musa, the quiet, gentle ‘rock’, Naga the ‘breezy and mercurial’ upper class boy and Biplab ‘the least remarkable of them all’ (by his own admission), all dream of Tilo. After university, they go separate ways, Tilo to work as an architect, Naga becomes a famous journalist, Musa a Kashmiri freedom fighter and Biplab, our narrator, joins the other side, the intelligence service of the Indian Army. India’s history and the Kashmir conflict throws them together again at various points later in life.
I savoured Roy’s vivid character descriptions; Anjum, Musa, Naga and all the others practically jump out of the page at you. Most memorable of all, perhaps is the brutal Indian Army Major Amrik Singh who lives by the motto ‘I am the Government of India’s dick and it’s my job to fuck people’.
Major Amrik Singh was a gambler, a daredevil officer, a deadly interrogator and a cheery cold-blooded killer. He greatly enjoyed his work and was constantly on the lookout for ways to up the entertainment.
The author’s political engagement is well known and I was fascinated by her portrayal of the Kashmir conflict, the roots of extremism, the endless cycle of violence and the hypocrisy of the Indian government. Roy does seem to get a bit carried away, though, and piles on every cause she’s been fighting for. It all becomes a bit confusing not helped by a multitude of different characters. At times it feels like there are several stories in here that would be better off on their own.
Roy’s acerbic wit and play with words is a joy, it’s a shame then that the two stories (and multiple sub-plots) never seem to find a natural connection and when the do converge at the very end it almost feels forced.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is published by Hamish Hamilton, 438 pages.