Tour de force may leave you wanting a little lie-down

utmost happinessReview: Beverley Roos-Muller

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

The tiny, Indian-born activist writer Arundhati Roy is now in her mid-50s, so can hardly still be considered an enfant terrible of the literary scene, as she was when she burst onto it in 1997 by bagging the Big One – the Booker, for The God of Small Things.

Yet she certainly has lost nothing of her “go for it” approach: there is nothing “small”  about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first novel in two decades.

On the contrary, this is a big, busy and at times overwhelming book, sprawling across the layers of politics, gender, culture, caste, identity and other crises in India today. It is bold and at times meant to unnerve, which it successfully does. It also demands quite a lot from the reader both in concentration, and in patience.

The back cover offers only this: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Perhaps Roy has taken this too literally, and at times the wonderfully worded novel feels as if it’s been written on steroids. No book can accommodate descriptions of becoming “everything”; it ends up feeling as if she’s overstuffed this story.

This novel covers such a vast swathe of human experience, love and tragedy, life and death, that it is not only difficult to keep track, but also frequently veers off into what seem like side-bars, and even slim threads not essential to the central narrative. The characters often remain removed; whether sinister or sympathetic, we are not quite sure what to make of them.

The first section is perhaps the most readable: we enter the life of Anjun, a person of fluid gender who lives in the twilight world of India’s Hijras, those who are both jeered at, and sometimes feared, for their appearance and attitude – for they have had to learn to be sometimes forceful in order to survive.

It is partly from them that the book’s (ironic) title begins to make sense – hijras are reknowned for “invading” a wedding, wearing brilliantly coloured clothing and acting flamboyantly, in order to extort money to “go away” – milking the happiness of the bridal party in order to source the cash to survive.

Anjun is a difficult yet sympathetic figure, full of nurturing and yearning, longing to have that very thing he/she never will – a child. It will be her living haven in a cemetery that resolves the full circle of this boisterous book, which at times seems to split its seams as Roy gallops off into other, complex and lengthy sections, including the powerful love between a trio of friends, and the tragi-comedy and catastrophe of Kashmiri politics.

As an act of writing, it is a tour de force. But it could have – and should have – been pared down to allow the strong story line more clarity. Some literary scholars have liked it, and I am not sorry to have read it. But as for the aftermath – I think I’m going to need a little lie-down.

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