Arundhati Roy’s second novel “Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is not happy at all. A story that begins and ends in a graveyard can hardly be happy! Did not understand why she chose this title. In twenty years since she wrote her first novel “The God of Small Things”, she has definitely seen a lot of the world. The book, coming out of her real life experiences it appears, seemed wrapped in sadness and hope at the same time. Perhaps the reason why she named it “…Happiness”, somewhere between sadness and hope!!
I enjoyed her first novel tremendously and was looking out for the next. She broke all barriers of the Queen’s English and the format of the novel to weave a language and style of her own. Excellent English mixed with limericks in Malayalam, a language I understand. In her new novel I expected to see a new style and of course enjoy the language and her own unique style. She did not disappoint on that score. One small limerick only in “…Happiness” in Malayalam, “An Ode to the Army”!
“Dum Dum Patalam
Saarinde veetil Kalyanam
Aana pindam choru
Atta vardhdu upperi
“The God…” was definitely written with a sense of humour. My father and daughter loved the expression “Dum Dum” used at intervals as satire or to mark ridiculous situations. They used it as a code in the letters they wrote to each other and laughed their heads off each time they read it. “…Happiness” is quite bereft of humour and is a somewhat dark vision of life around as seen by the author and recorded by the narrator. Twenty years of travel experience and the changing landscape of the country is clearly reflected in the novel.
It is very difficult for an author to live up to the lofty expectations after a tremendously popular first novel, particularly a Booker Prize winner. Most reviews I read of “…Happiness”, particularly by non-Indians were extremely critical. Perhaps my expectations were low. I bought the novel on Kindle where the price dropped dramatically over the period of ten days since the release of the novel and while I tried to decide whether I needed a printed copy or not! As we acquired a new Kindle as a gift, the decision was made. On completing the novel I was asked by Kindle to rank the novel. I unhesitatingly gave it 4 out of 5 stars! Very good, I really enjoyed the novel except for some parts.
The first chapter is quite a fascinating read. It tells the story of the trials, tribulations and angst of a family of a transgender and their understanding and coming to terms with it. It was unique as I have never read or heard such an intimate and sympathetic account of the lives of this closed community. But the second chapter was a huge disappointment. It appeared that the narrative was beginning to slide and I understood what had bothered the foreign reviewers. The story went on a roll floating from one tragedy of the nation to the next all told over a few days of the Anna Hazare fast on the Ramlila grounds in Delhi. She minced no words and caricatured all the current politicians, those in power and those in the opposition alike. Amusing and daring at the same time. But the chapter descended into a rant and one had to fight the urge to skip it.
What makes the book boring in parts is the unnecessary detail and descriptions of places, people and events, almost like a documentary. Obviously Arundhati has been a keen observer of the chaos and confusion around us in the cities, towns and less so in the rural Maoist belt of Central India. But to load all events and detailed observations of mundane everyday sights in one novel makes for tedious reading. Some crisp editing would have improved the joy of the reading experience.
The most fascinating part of the novel is the sad story of Kashmir and its people. “Jannat: Paradise on earth” turned into hell by militancy, cross border terrorism and politics. The story unfolds the brief moments of love stolen by Tilo and Musa as each follows his/her true mission in life. The story is witnessed and narrated by their two old college friends. She weaves the love story with the joy, sorrow, angst, brutality and inhuman behaviour of the people of a ‘cursed’ land. And still it ends with hope and clarity that the people will win the war no matter how. Life underground in the valley of flowers and across the waters and mountains makes a riveting story.
The final chapter, like the second, breaks the flow of the beautiful story of the valley. We are dragged through a story of violence and disrupted lives in the Maoist tracts of Central India. The excuse for this digression is to unravel the mystery of the parentage of Miss Jebeen the Second, the adopted child of this weird family, a community of outcasts from society that has made its home in a graveyard.
Overall, it is a fascinating story. However, one wishes that the two chapters that do not quite seem to blend with the main story were not part of the novel. They would have made wonderful short stories in their own right. I recommend the book to all readers interested in a personal view of the changing and chaotic landscape of our country.