The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book which can require one to review it keeping aside their political views and read through the story as it’s told even though the book is fired up with Roy’s own politics.
The book talks of everyone who’d see themselves to be ‘unconsoled’. Every character in this book seems to be an amalgamation of unconsoled beings (particularly in India) – queer, Muslim and orphaned.
One could argue that this novel of detailed but non-sequential timelines of each character would work just as well as a book of short stories. The story has two main character arcs – one of Anjum, the hijra (more on this later) and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist – who in my opinion seemed to resemble Roy herself.
Now, let’s talk about Anjum, formerly known as Aftab, who’s also been referred to as a Hijra in this book. The reference is commonly known by society here in India. But there’s a common generalization and misconception that the term applies only to transgender people. The identities which fall under the umbrella of the word Hijra encompass transgender, intersex, eunuch or hermaphrodites. In this book, the narrative is very clear with the identity of Anjum, who is an intersex and prefers to identify herself as a woman. She goes through a rough patch of self-discovery and eventually builds herself a home in a graveyard.
Tilo, the main character of the book’s second arc, is shown to be a strong, fearless and often mysterious woman. Her journey to meet an old friend and lover Musa leads her to travel through Kashmir as it is and to understand those who fight the army and the government that is ‘taking care’ of them.
Roy’s narrative takes one from Kerala to Kashmir, covering the major events in the recent history of the country, from the Bhopal Gas tragedy to the Gujarat riots and even to the Lokpal Bill protests. It even captures the fight of the tribes in central India to keep their homes. She included multiple couplet’s and even a few songs in the book which I had a great time reading and interpreting.
Despite the chasm between the character arcs, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a patchwork of multiple narratives of Anjum, Tilo, Saddam, Musa, Miss Zebeens, Udaya and many more. However, the way these two main arcs were seemingly forced to converge towards the end was disappointing. It was perhaps harder to overlook having read Murakami, an author that sets a high benchmark for storyline integration.
The ending left many questions unanswered and I am not one to enjoy open endings. Though the questions left to ponder over the course of the book may seem to be profound to some: What is duniya? What is azadi? Where do old birds go to die? And mainly what is the ministry of happiness? The book is mainly calling out to its readers to open their eyes and see more than what’s just in front of them. To see all that lies beyond what the mass media feeds them.
I’ll rate the book 3.5 bookmarks out of 5. The book may be listed as fiction but it doesn’t feel like it. Given the author’s own reputation, these stories might as well be based on stories that Roy encountered in the real world but the fiction tag simply allowed her some creative liberties to direct the narrative.