Author Arundhati Roy © Mayank Austen Soofi 2017

2017 Man Booker Review: Ministry of Utmost Happiness

13th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

Twenty years after Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize with her first novel, ‘The God of Small Things’, she’s back on the shortlist with only her second. In the intervening two decades she has devoted her time predominantly to political activism and writing non-fiction, mainly on social issues, and has developed a fearsome reputation for her critiques of globalisation, industrialisation and India’s nuclear policies.

As a result I begin reading ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ with some trepidation, apprehensive that Roy’s dogma and principles might overwhelm her narrative intentions. I’m also, as it happens, a fully-paid-up member of the small but committed can’t-abide-‘The-God-of-Small-Things’ club. I’d like ‘The Ministry’ to suggest that my response to the earlier work was misjudged…

…but my fears prove well-founded. Yes, of course, there’s some clever writing, some impassioned denunciation of some genuinely appalling incidents in recent Indian/Kashmiri history (Roy is also an outspoken supporter of Kashmiri independence), and a rich cast of fantastical characters – from a community of ‘hijras’ (a Hindu word that translates as hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender) to a group of freedom fighters; from the deputy head of an Intelligence Bureau to a security guard who renames himself Saddam Hussein after his hero; from a blind imam to a trained architect – but these things do not a novel make. This is a huge, sprawling mass of a book, which takes us from Delhi to Kashmir and back again, yoking together complicated individual stories and multiple points of view. It speaks of outcasts and martyrs, of heroism and violence, of parental and romantic love, but its labyrinthine threads never quite tie up. It’s like a large patchwork quilt, threadbare in parts and with whole sections of the pattern missing or stained.

In fact, if I were to limit my review to one sentence it would be this: Reading ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ is hard work. It rambles. At times it’s exhilarating, but frequently it feels indiscriminate; it needs the firm hand of an editor upon it. It’s a powerful read but, sadly, not a particularly gratifying one – although, oddly, skimming sections again as I write this piece, I find myself enjoying it all a lot more second time around. I might even read it again.

There’s a lovely, italicised passage at the very start – beginning ‘At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke…’ – which describes how and why the ‘old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years’ have been wiped out. It’s a warning about being careful not to lose what we have, to watch over what we value, and it’s a superb piece of writing. If the rest of the book had been as beautifully and lovingly crafted it would have been so much the better.

Find Your Local