Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - Arundhati Roy

I was very excited when I read in The Hindu that Arundhati Roy is coming up with a new novel after more than 20 years. I immediately reserved the book at the local library and all! And this was even though I had not liked her debut novel, The God of Small Things, that went on to win the Man Booker prize that year. Don't get me wrong, it was brilliant and all, but I read it as a teenager, and had found it extremely bleak and depressing!

This book however, was quite different. I really liked it. Did I love it? Not so much. Love, however, sometimes happen over time, so we'll see. I do, however, think that the book is overly political. Ms. Roy, as genius as she is at playing with words, fails to maintain a balance of ideologies, especially in the first part of her novel. This novel addresses most of the problems our country faces today, and Ms Roy conveys her opinions about all of them. It is well-known that she identifies with the left-wing, but her ranting against the right-wing goes on for so long that it feels like propaganda at times. (I am left-leaning myself; but when I read a novel, I want to learn about the characters and their lives, not the author's views on the political climate around the characters.) It is almost as if Ms Roy at times ceases to be a writer and becomes a political panelist or something.

The events of the novel are not in a chronological order. That makes it interesting to switch between timeline and form our view by juxtaposing different pieces.  And the narration is in the voice of many of its characters, which is great to understand their viewpoints. Where Ms. Roy loses the voice is when inserts her own, or the narrator's, voice in the melange. And that voice is very firm - not naive or evolving like most of the characters in the book. So it doesn't really go with the flow.

The way Ms. Roy merges the lives of Hijras (or transgenders) with Kashmiris and then brings in a Naxalite/Maoist character into play is fascinating.
I do think that she shows a little more sympathy than required to the militants and the communists, though. I get that she is privy to police and military brutality due to years of experience of political activism, but she should know that it takes two to tango. (forgive the peppy pun to explain a hopeless, fatal situation)

I know my review has been quite criticizing until now, but I did like the novel a lot! When Ms. Roy isn't rambling, she makes you sigh, or skip a beat every few pages. There were so many times that her simple observations threw me off balance. They made me think, imagine, feel - this is not something many books can easily do. She also has brilliantly used different songs/poems/sonnets/quotes in the book. They are very effective in creating the atmosphere she wished to create.

The last (eponymous) chapter tries to show a ministry of happiness, a paradise, a Jannat, in the most unlikely of places. I think after all the suffering, she wanted the main characters to find a resemblance of peace and joy. That the place is actually illegal adds a perfect ironical element to it.

 This book speaks about some worlds I knew existed, but just about. I will not divulge too many details about the story for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but all in all, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a very special book. It should be read by everyone, and yet, I am sure most of the people reading it will take offense with some or the other aspect of it and thereby dislike it. Still, if you finish reading it, it will stay with you for a long time!