The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMOUH) -review by Manisha Subramanian
(no worries- no “spoilers” included)
Full disclosure– I am a jabra fan of A. Roy. Whether I agree with her political views or not, I love her incandescent writing. I’m awed by her fearless activism, her doggedness over lost causes, her fierce moral and physical courage. I’m impressed by her facility to dive headlong into the darkest reaches of our society; by how she doesn’t just open our eyes to our country’s vast and persisting injustices, but grabs us by the collar and pushes our noses into the unthinkable horrors the powerful inflict so casually on the powerless. By how she then dares us to return unruffled to our alfa-alfa-sprouts-for-lunch, lavender-scented-candles-in-the-bathroom, Crate and Barrel lives. I am enthralled by her whimsical writing style, her unashamedly autobiographical character portrayals, and the sudden and unnerving, but ooh-this-makes-total-sense flights into magic realism. I am bemused by her knowledge and uninhibited use of shuddh hindi gaalis ( read TMOUH for the street lingo, if nothing else!). I admire her totally-madcap-but-it-works sartorial style (Only she can carry off a bowler hat with a sari with such elan), and of course, I love the wild curls (note the full-on Wicca-goddess tousle in her profile picture on the jacket of TMOUH). But most of all, I relate to her writing because she speaks in “our” idiom with all our verbal mannerisms, twitches, tics, and slang; she speaks with the voice of our generation, but with the idealism still burning bright.
(Did I mention that I am a fan of A. Roy?)
The book, now-The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; the book for which we waited for almost twenty years. Twenty years, and our hearts have barely healed after she’d ripped them out for little Rahel and Estha in The God of Small Things (TGOST)…
TGOST drew us into the saga of a single family; the story unfolded through the point of view of the children, and the narrative swirled back and forth around a terrible incident which shattered their young lives.
TMOUH on the other hand paints a broader canvas; the book covers certain dark events in our country’s recent history and rings clangorous bells portending further darkness to come. The tale is told through the lives of several characters who sear themselves into our sensibility and stay with us. And herein lies the problem- the characters are beautifully etched and their back-stories carefully developed, but there are just too many of them; multiple protagonists with multiple storylines and parallel sub-plots – all demanding our emotional investment. The narrative tries to pull in all the causes Arundhati has supported or been involved with in the last twenty years since TGOST; so the book tries to follow distinct and separate motifs ranging from the Kashmir insurgency, the Naxalite rebellion in Bastar, the Gujarat massacres, to the soul-destroying rise in consumerism, and the mindless depredation of the environment. In keeping with A’s consistent championship of the marginalized and dispossessed, all these themes are interwoven into the main narrative which intriguingly has a transgender woman at the center. There is an attempt at a point to bring in all these separate threads together, and this is where them the book stumbles somewhat- the device used to mesh the sub-plots seems too contrived and artificial. Also, the different characters who pop in and out of the story are so compellingly wrought that you want to know more about them, but it feels as if their stories have been left suspended in a trail of ellipses….
All in all, I loved the book, but I want- no, I predict a sequel featuring Miss Jabeen the Second!
Yeh dil maange more…