2017-11-30 / Opinions

Book Review

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
By ARUNDHATI ROY
Reviewed by PEGGY BARNETT

Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things. Since then, she has been writing mostly non-fiction about India and people’s movements there. She has brought those concerns to this novel. Here there are two main stories.

The first character is Anjum. “She lived in the graveyard like a tree.” As you might suppose, she takes a little getting used to. Roy takes us back to her birth, to parents who had eagerly awaited the birth of a son. At first, her mother rejoiced until she realized that her new baby was part female.

Anjum grew up confused about her identity. “One spring morning Aftab [Anjum’s name when she was a boy] saw a tall, slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick, gold high heels, and a shiny green satin salwar kameez,” and followed her. She was a hijra who lived with others in the Khwabgah. Aftab moved in and soon decided to embrace her female identity.

Her father disowned her, but her mother sent meals to her every day. Anjum was happy there. She became important in that community and eventually adopted an orphan baby. That baby was not the only lost child in this story. The second main character is Tilottama whose mother abandons her as an infant, but then returns and adopts her.

If you’re not confused yet, perhaps this reporter is leaving out too much. Many characters and situations enter the account, and the two beautiful women at the center do not meet until close to the end. Arundhati Roy cares deeply about India and its problems. She introduces many of those issues into the lives of her characters – the Bhopal toxic gas disaster of 1984, the Gujarat riots of 2002, the struggle in and for Kashmir, countless social, cultural, and political problems. Because she is a skillful writer, the issues do not completely overwhelm the story, but to those of us who are not entirely familiar with Indian history, sometimes it is slow going.

Nevertheless, we are absorbed in the beauty of India and the exotic lives pictured here. Quite a few pages in, we learn why and how Amjun comes to live (and very successfully) in the graveyard. Later when Tilo comes to her guest house there (yes, a guest house built right over a grave), we can hope for a happy ending for some of these intriguing people.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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