The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy book review — (Don’t) Keep Calm and Carry On

Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, raises questions about our equanimity in the face of everyday violence

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: June 3, 2017 10:25 am
Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, book review The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the present tense of cow vigilantes and pellet guns, and travels back to the Eighties, when India turned decisively towards riot politics with the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi.

Book:          The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author:       Arundhati Roy
Publisher:  Penguin
Pages:         438
Price:          599

Appropriately for a time when politics has been reduced to the bloody-minded project of othering, Arundhati Roy has chosen to begin her story with India’s original other, the hijra. Aftab is the son of a hakim who flees to a household of transsexuals in Old Delhi called the Khwabgah (literally, place of dreams; practically, bedroom), which is as old as Shahjahanabad. She provides one thread of the narrative, which intertwines with the horror story of Kashmir, told through the lives and deaths of its citizens. Indian-born confused nationalists who wanted to see Arundhati Roy tied to a jeep could now clamour for her to be spot-welded to a Hummer for affirming that in the end, “Kashmir will make India self-destruct”.

ALSO READ | ‘We have digested, held in our bellies so much violence that it is hard to be moral’: Arundhati Roy. Read it here

But their excitement would be redundant, because this is scarcely prophecy. It is already contemporary nationalist history. The unbelievable cruelty and disrespect for life that was once Kashmir’s tragic monopoly has spread to the plains, where gruesome lynchings are now commonplace, and life is uncertain. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the present tense of cow vigilantes and pellet guns, and travels back to the Eighties, when India turned decisively towards riot politics with the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. From there, the story follows a trail of blood through Gujarat 2002 and Maoist insurgencies to the present, in which the state’s monopoly over violence has been outsourced to marauding gangs of thugs. And there are digressions into the Bhopal gas tragedy and other intervening outrages. Roy has not published fiction since The God of Small Things but this does not read like the work of the two intervening decades. Perhaps, fragments were written earlier around “found objects”, but the narrative is rooted in the present. It even includes the recent Srinagar floods and the spam SMSes from Thyrocare which bedevil every cellphone owner.

Indian readers will find themselves on familiar ground. There is the “summer of scams” in the second term of Manmohan Singh, who is cruelly pilloried as the “Trapped Rabbit”. Jantar Mantar sees the rise of Mr Aggarwal, a barely disguised Kejriwal: “a tight-arsed Gandhian accountant”, “a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind” minding a tubby Gandhian mascot who prophesies in a voice “like two balloons being rubbed together”. These lively passages may bring Roy reprieve. Those who would spot-weld her to a Hummer may be inclined to gift her a Jaguar instead, and install her respectfully in the back seat. There’s some present life regression, too: two lovers “secede”, not to a mobile republic but to an island of the mind. A cameo appearance by an Odiya named Golak who says “oozy for woozy” after a drop too many could be an artist friend from her days in the School of Planning and Architecture. The “geriatric army general, all moustache and medals, hired by studios to supply venom and stupidity” — we know him too well. And the landscape against which they stand is vintage 20th century Delhi, the city of Rooh Afza, Brylcreem, amaltas, sexologists in extravagant safas (such as prime ministers now affect) and kites wheeling in a limitless sky.

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy outside The Walled City Lounge and Cafe in Old Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Amidst a horde of familiar faces and stock characters, this masked ball is fun for a while. But it palls when you can anticipate who’s going to enter stage left and stage right, and hey, there they are. It could be soul-eviscerating stuff for readers in Britain, who have only been exposed to images of Kashmiris blinded by pellet guns, and may not have encountered the mountain of paper and film on Kashmir’s uneasy relations with Delhi, produced by journalists, researchers, lawyers and activists over the decades.

But we read the Indian news. We watch Indian TV with the volume turned prudently low. We know of the crime against humanity that Gujarat hosted, and of pretty bungalows in Kashmir that were turned into torture centres. And we know something of the Intelligence Bureau, represented here by a Bengali officer who serves as a reliable sutradhar despite his alcoholism.

Our lives are etched against the surreally colourful backdrop of India’s search for unity and integrity, from Operation Blue Star to Operation Green Hunt and the flights of what Roy terms “saffron parakeets”, who go about disrupting courts and cinema shows, and set up a “parakeet committee of pedagogy”. The real thing is dire enough, and having to endure a fictionalised version of the news, including the usual capsules and explainers, exactly like in a newsmagazine, does become tedious. Besides, this ground has been covered piecemeal in numerous stories by excellent writers in India’s other languages, who are unfortunately less celebrated overseas than Roy.

But this John Pilger version of our reality endears by the presence of children and animals in every section, by the human stories, and the tiny, circumstantial details which give body to reality. Roy is a keen observer of everyday life in her city. She knits together living stories of the fortunate and the dispossed, of oppressors and oppressed. She uses real settings which few of Delhi’s citizens know of, like the old Muslim cemeteries behind the city’s Fleet Street where her leading characters find refuge, for living among the graves “made life less determinate and death less conclusive”.

It must be hard to write in the lyrical mode about a society which celebrates cruelty, but Roy has a stab at it, and draws blood. But the craftsmanship which won her a Booker falters. In the decades since The God of Small Things, which was technically flawless, her fiction seems to have lost out to polemic, and sometimes the story, baffled by its expansive cast and ideological burden, just wanders off in search of itself. The loose ends, and the effort to tie them up, are visible (Why bother? The messiness of reality is its charm), and the dreary housekeeping chore exposes the armature of the story to the reader. There’s a reason why diners in a restaurant aren’t allowed to see the kitchen. It isn’t always edifying to know how things are made.

Roy circles around the poisonous paradox which faces India: how do we keep calm and carry on in a society where arbitrary violence is not only permitted but celebrated? Why do we persistently believe in messiahs who would turn India into a demonic melting pot where swords are forged from ploughshares? And why is there no disquiet about our equanimity? How did we lose the ability to be shocked? Unhappily, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does not provide answers. But, it raises questions which should keep us awake at night.

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  1. N
    Nishant Dhruv Sharma
    Jun 30, 2017 at 7:07 pm
    I see a lot of arbitrary hate comments against 'this vulture lady.' I am sure 9 out of 10 people commenting trash about her, have not read even one book of hers. They are just irrational bigots who have lost the art of thinking to their luuurve for feeling stronger in a mob. They think whatever the news channels run is the ultimate truth. Such people must start reading more from independent sources. For the rest, I would say, read her non-fiction essays. You don't have to agree with everything she says. But read her, then read other people who are writing about oppression of various kinds. That will help. Also that would lend you a better craft over criticizing someone. You don't just ically say that she is a "vulture woman" or a "pakistani stooge". That, makes you seem like a 5th standard failed troll. Criticize her more craftily then. And ironically this is exactly what Ms. Roy also wants, i.e. a dialogue between oppositions not a brick and bats violence.
    1. I
      Jun 5, 2017 at 4:14 pm
      Muslims of India lets unite and rebuild Babri Mosque and rebel against the oppressive state of India. Hindus are kaffirs and we are liable to fight against them and concert them into muslims. Let's unite and reclaim the rightful throne of India by converting Hindus and those who do not convert throw those hindus in the Indian ocean.
      1. P
        Jun 4, 2017 at 7:52 am
        She has an inferiority complex that makes her hate everything in India. Rest of the story she creates is just a pretension. She is among those people who keep reminding others you should be sad you are in misery, even if those who are in misery have wisdom to ignore their situation and be often happy .. These are negative people who create negativity around them.
        1. J
          Jun 4, 2017 at 8:56 am
          pankaj> Ha Ha..... You mean you would like to ignore the exploitation and misery that some of the exploited people in our country have to pay as the cost for our happiness and continue selfishly being happy. There certainly are flaws in her writing that warrant criticism, but most of her critics just hate her because she is wil to call out the flaws and violence of our own country.
        2. S
          Jun 3, 2017 at 8:27 pm
          Who in their right mind would pay any attention to this pro stani, pro separatist, pro Maoist, anti Hindu creature
          1. J
            Jun 3, 2017 at 6:33 pm
            Guha, Roy , hi.. these are commie vultures thriving on negativity of India & especially Hinduism. But alas these are last few of commie DNA in rapidly changing & prospering India. Very soon their oversees fund making them target India would dry up.
            1. P
              Jun 3, 2017 at 5:33 pm
              She is just a rabid anti India anti Hindu Champagne tail activist ! She got her fame and fortune from the Brooker award which is sponsored by the Mann Group - a Capitalist Investment Bank ! She lives in a very expensive & exclusive area of New Delhi - Chanakyapuri - and talks about the plight of tribals & supports Maoist ! She is silent on the Triple Talaq and the rights of Muslim women ! She is silent on the Muslim J & K soldier brutally killed by Kashmiri militants ete..etc.. IE , please do not delete my comments , even I have a right to express my opinion .
              1. K
                krishna Kumar
                Jun 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm
                A highly overrated author has now come out with this sub standard book. Roy comes out as a negative person with hidden minority agenda. She also seems to have covert support. Can she denigrate states like China, Russia and USA, like she does India. Wonder how IE has given such a nice promotion for her unworthy book.
                1. V
                  vivek gupta
                  Jun 3, 2017 at 12:45 pm
                  Crazy lady
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