The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

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I finished Roy’s first book, The God of Small Things on the beach in Spain many years ago. At the end I burst into tears, though I’m not sure why. I could never explain it, never put my finger on exactly what it was that made it so moving.

It’s the same with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It’s like looking at a beautiful tapestry. You can pick out themes and images of serene beauty and harsh cruelty. You know the general gist of the story, and how the writer feels about the world. You feel you are in the hands of a genius. But getting the sense of what it means as a coherent narrative is not easy.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is about a love triangle. But it’s not really a story about the lovers, or about love. It’s a story about India, and sadly a story about England. It’s a story about people.

The writer introduces Anjum, a Hijira. She was born a man, but is defiantly female. She lives with like gendered people amongst the poor and marginalised in a small community on the fringes of the city. She lives on colourful streets enriched by ethnic and religious diversity. But she is an outsider, and her struggle for identity is at the heart of the story. We learn of her mother’s despair as she attempts to make Anjum be a man. We read about how Anjum breaks away and undergoes surgery and hormone treatment, and of how she wants, and finally finds something to love.

This opening section provides the reader with an introduction to India, with its injustices, its caste system and the religious divisions that abound. It’s colourful and vibrant, funny, satirical, sad, tragic and very human.

Later we meet the Landlord. His narrative introduces a new story about three lovers, Naga, Musa and Tilo. These four met at university rehearsing a play, but their lives took them in different directions. The Landlord became an agent of the Indian government involved in managing the Kashmiri uprising. Musa became a renegade and terrorist, and Naga became an ambitious journalist, used by the Landlord to sow misinformation and fake news. These men are fascinated by Tilo, a young architect student, though only the first two become her lovers.

Tilo is a mystery. Her family background is complicated and unhappy. She is ferociously independent, and intelligent. Her first love is Musa, but he is far too involved in terrorism and politics to be a reliable partner. He is fighting against the injustice of the Indian government in Kashmir. The only time we see these lovers together is there, during the rebellion. It’s a meeting the Landlord arranges. These scenes are dramatic, adventurous, romantic, treacherous and exciting. They encapsulate the depth and tragic beauty of the relationship.

Later Tilo settles for Naga, but this can never last. Tilo can never be a conventional woman. It’s all or nothing for her, and she chooses nothing, chooses the crumbling outskirts of the town, and the poor and neglected, chooses to live with the outcasts, and with the Hijiras. In doing so she turns her back on India.

Roy captures the hearts and minds of these characters in vivid detail. She shows us an India riven by ethnic and religious conflict, one that it seems can never be united. We see the cruelty of political oppression and the inevitability of rebellion and violence. We see the hypocrisy of the ruling classes and the way that subjected peoples are driven to more and more extreme and violent choices in the search for liberty.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a condemnation of India, a divided society in which the rich are getting richer. There are conflicts that it seems can never be resolved, merely managed.  Hindus and Moslems impose harsh rules and demand separate existence whilst living side by side, Can they ever be reconciled?

What struck me was how close the development of nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies in India was to the current situation in England, and how irreconcilable the situation appears to be. Roy describes charismatic Hindi leaders sowing discord and division and causing violence and death on the streets. The politicians are corrupt and the poor swept aside to enable new buildings to be erected or simply to clear the streets for visiting dignitaries.

So much of this chimes with the England I know now. For instance the controversy about whether the homeless should be removed from the streets during the wedding of Harry and Meghan. England too has politicians in the major parties who promote themselves by appealing to sub-sections of the community rather than looking for unity. For many of them their own political party,and power, come before the interests of the country. Political parties themselves are torn apart by accusations of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, or by divisions about Europe, so that the business of government and opposition is lost and chaos threatens.

Roy is a consummate writer with an eclectic choice of subject matter and a wide and significant vision.  She makes many varied and interesting cultural allusions which enrich the novel, from Urdu nursery rhymes, to extracts from the songs of Leonard Cohen. She writes about politics with despair and a sense of hopelessness, but again in this novel she writes about children, and about families, revealing the depth and importance of human love, and showing how it can be found in surprising and unconventional people and places.

Roy challenges the powerful and the rich, and the conventional religious and social rules. Her condemnation of religious and political leaders puts her in a clear line of dissent and gives this novel cultural significance. It has a biblical feel. Read the books of Kings and Chronicles.

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