Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.
The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.
Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.