Arundhati Roy portrait from publisher credit Mayank Austen Soofi
Arundhati Roy © Mayank Austen Soofi

Few writers with so small an output have as passionate a following as does Arundhati Roy: her one previous novel, The God of Small Things, winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, was translated into 18 languages and has sold more than 6m copies. Her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, has been awaited for two decades, a period during which the author, eschewing fiction, has been better known as an outspoken political activist in her native India.

Ultimately, Roy’s admirers will not be disappointed. This ambitious new novel, like its predecessor, addresses weighty themes in an intermittently playful narrative voice. Whereas The God of Small Things — the tale of Rahel and Esthappen, a pair of twins, and their family’s tra­gedies in Kerala, southern India — approaches big issues such as caste divisions and molestation through the personal and domestic, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness embarks from the outset with a broader societal perspect­ive.

The issues in play are more multifarious still than in Roy’s first novel — ranging from the challenges of the hijra (male-to-female transgender) communities to the rise of Hindu nationalism, the legacy of the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster of 1984, the struggle for Kashmiri independence, the plight of the adivasis (indigenous tribal peoples), matters of caste discrimination and feminist questions. Roy takes aim at various Indian public figures, notable among them the current prime minister.

Colourful and compelling, this is a novel in which characters embody political concerns rather than one in which those issues arise organically out of a sustained illumination of human nature. Roy is a mistress of the memorable vignette and the arresting detail. For example: “While Rubina was being prepared for her final journey, Anwar Bhai’s little son, dressed in denim dungarees and a prayer cap, paraded up and down, goose-stepping like a Kremlin guard, in order to show off his new (fake) mauve Crocs with flowers on them”; or “I could see he had aged suddenly. He looked gaunt and a little too small for his suit. He had a cigar clenched between his perfect, pearly dentures. Fat veins pushed through the pale skin on his temples . . . Pale rings of cataract had laid siege to his dark irises.”

But Roy is not greatly preoccupied with interiority: her ancestor would be Dickens rather than Tolstoy. The novel teems with abundant incidental detail, and yet seems, for a considerable time, to present many apparently irreconcil­ably divergent strands. It’s a tribute to Roy’s gifts that she is ultimately able to arrange these into a coherent and meaningful whole; but some readerly perseverance is required: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, at more than 400 pages, only begins to draw those threads together in its second half.

Book cover: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

The novel’s first long section tells the story of Anjum, born Aftab, the apparently male child of loving Muslim parents, in fact a hermaphrodite, who comes in adolescence to identify as female and leaves her family to live in the Kwabgah, a residence for the local hijra community. There she builds a new family, including adopting a baby daughter, Zainab; and lives until the age of 46. After being caught in the Gujarat riots of 2002 while on a trip (a pogrom that occurred when the current prime minister was chief minister of the state), where she sees her travel companion murdered and is herself brutally treated and imprisoned, Anjum decides to leave the safety of her hijra enclave and return to the duniya, or wider world. She moves into the cemetery where her relatives are buried, and there creates a welcoming hostel for the dispossessed, the Jannat Guest House. With the help of a tenant who calls himself Saddam Hussain, she also creates a funeral parlour. This narrative, the length of a novella, is then largely abandoned until late in the book.

At the novel’s heart are three male friends from university in the mid-1980s, and the woman they all loved and continue to love. She, S Tilottama, known as Tilo, remains wilfully mysterious, but there is no question which of the three she loves in return: Musa Yeswi, a Kashmiri freedom fighter, aka Commander Gulrez. Nonetheless, she marries another of the three, Naga Hariharan, a leftwing journalist from a diplomatic family; and much of their history is explained to the reader by the third, Biplab Dasgupta, nicknamed by Tilo “Garson Hobart” (the name of a character in a play they rehearsed at university), who becomes a senior officer in the Indian Intelligence Bureau. After college, their paths cross again first, and painfully, in the mid-1990s during the Kashmir insurgency, when Commander Gulrez is apparently assassinated; and again in the near-present, when Tilo, having left her husband Naga, rents a property from Dasgupta.

The varying and partial versions of their shared experiences come together like puzzle pieces to create a tragic story. The telling involves an unusual combination of epic and classical echoes (hints of the Ramayana or Tristan and Isolde); of unexpected detail, sometimes whimsically expressed in a near-private language that recalls The God of Small Things (“The baby was Miss Jebeen returned. Returned, that is, not to her . . . but to the world . . . There was hope yet, for the Evil Weevil World. True, the Happy Meadow had fallen. But Miss Jebeen was come.”); of an authorial freedom that allows diary entries, snippets of poetry, depositions, letters, texts and lists alongside more traditional narrative elements; and finally, unforgettably interspersed throughout, of an unflinching realism, as Roy describes mob violence and police torture. She portrays Srinagar’s Shiraz Cinema, transformed during the insurgency into “the Joint Interrogation Centre, the JIC”, thus:

“What had once been the cinema snack bar now functioned as a reception-cum-registration counter for torturers and torturees. It continued to advertise things it no longer stocked — Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut chocolate and several flavours of Kwality ice cream . . . Faded posters of old films . . . from the time before films were banned . . . were still up on the wall, some of them spattered with red betel juice. Rows of young men, bound and handcuffed, squatted on the floor like chickens, some so badly beaten that they had keeled over, barely alive, still in squatting position, their wrists secured to their ankles . . . The faint sounds that came through the grand wooden doors leading to the auditorium could have been the muted soundtrack of a violent film.”

Roy’s second novel proves as remarkable as her first. Its ambitions are rather different — grander still — and its formal strangeness risky and considerable. You will not finish this novel with a profound psychological understanding of its characters; but through their archetypal interactions, juxtaposed with Roy’s glorious social details, you will have been granted a powerful sense of their world, of the complexity, energy and diversity of contemporary India, in which darkness and exuberant vitality are inextricably intertwined.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton £18.99/Knopf $28.95, 464 pages

Claire Messud’s new novel ‘The Burning Girl’ is published by Fleet in September

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