BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a well-crafted and engaging novel, but it’s not about the utmost of happiness. That may be apparent to most readers by the juxtaposition of bureaucracy and happiness, which seems to fit together like “the cross-fit box of pleasure” or “the playground of misery.” Perhaps, a line from one of the characters in the first one-third of the book offers insight into the book’s true perspective on happiness. That first bit of the book revolves around the life of a hijra (i.e. intersex and transgender people — in her case hermaphroditic.) At any rate, one of the other hijra tells the main character that the reason that god invented hijra is to see what happens with people who can only be miserable [I’m paraphrasing.] Ostensibly, this character means that people who have no choice but to live and create sub-communities at the periphery of society, and who never feel completely at home in their skins can’t be truly happy.

While the first one-third of the book features this hijra, Anjum, the latter two-thirds explores a quartet of characters who were friends in college. At the center of this group is Tilo, a female who is the object of the affection of the other three — all men. One of the others is a diplomat who becomes a raging alcoholic. The reader is led to believe the alcoholism is more because of the stress of what he’s exposed to on the job than because of an addictive personality. He is also Tilo’s landlord for a time. One is a well-known reporter and the son of a high-ranking diplomat. He will be married to Tilo for a time. The last, Musa, is an architect who ends up becoming an insurgent in Kashmir. While Tilo holds all three men in warm regard, it’s only the latter that she truly loves. Most of the story revolves around events that happen in Kashmir when Tilo goes to see Musa during a particularly heart-rending time in the modern history of that place.

The book brings these two character arcs, Anjum’s and Tilo’s, together as the result of an abandoned baby that Tilo snatches, presumably in an ill-considered attempt to right the worst of the wrongs she learned about in Kashmir. Anjum, whose desire to be a mother we see from an experience with a child she’d earlier come into the charge of, becomes a partner in Tilo’s venture.

The book is largely about how people go about living after being exposed to the worst life has to offer. Besides Tilo and Musa’s experience of tragedy in Kashmir, Anjum is caught up in riots in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train burning, and we learn that the abandon baby’s story is tied into the Maoist insurgency of the Northeastern states.

This book hooked me. I found it thought-provoking as well as gripping. I would highly recommend it for readers of fiction.

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