The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Rating: 4.5 stars
Confession: I have not read The God of Small Things. I know, I know, it’s a classic and I really should read it. It’s been on my list for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to it. So when I had the chance to add this novel to my BOTM box, I didn’t know what to expect but thought that this must be an author worth reading. That turned out to be an understatement.
First, an incredible quote that really hit me:
“And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a slow read for me, but that was mainly so I could savor the incredibly vivid descriptions of the characters and their lives. All of the main characters were well developed (some of the secondary characters like the landlord were a bit one dimensional, though).
The book starts with Anjum, a hijra who lives in a graveyard. Though she grew up as a boy in a Muslim family, she realized her true gender as a teenager and went to live in a Khwabgah full of other hijras. I didn’t know anything about hijras before reading this book, but they have been recognized as a third gender in India for hundreds of years, including a mention in the Ramayana. The hijras of the Khwabgah welcome Anjum as family (which means they also argue like a family at times).
The hijras of the Khwabgah were amazing and compassionate characters that Anjum can see living with for the rest of her life. However, a violent anti-Muslim protest permanently scars a middle-aged Anjum, leading her to eventually move to a graveyard and establish her own guesthouse for lost individuals like herself. Roy’s description of Anjum’s grief and guilt is heartbreaking, but you cheer for her as she pulls herself out of the haze to take care of others.
The story then switches to Tilo, an architect and designer with a revolutionary feminist mother who was never brave enough to claim her as her own (she gave Tilo up for adoption and then received praise for adopting her as a single woman). Tilo falls in love with a Kashmiri militant and becomes involved with his cause. Unfortunately she is captured during a strike on his houseboat and roughly interrogated before her college friend, a high ranking intelligence officer, has her released. The interrogation and her firsthand experience of the violence from both sides never leaves her, and she eventually crosses paths with Anjum at her graveyard guesthouse.
Roy does a great job of describing the incredibly complex and contradicting nature of modern extremism, religion, and nationalism through Tilo and Anjum’s insignificant yet full lives. It can be disjointed and wandering at times, but so are the lives she is chronicling.
I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a sweeping novel about modern India, intriguing and unusual characters, or a slow read to savor.