The Ministry of Utmost Disappointment

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years-the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared. Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S.Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.’9780241303979

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was one of my most anticipated novels released this year. I found Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, breathtaking in its beauty, and sweeping in its descriptions. I was expecting much of the same thing with her second novel, published two decades after the first. I wanted to be startled, to be amazed. My interest was piqued even further when I read the novel’s blurb for the first time.

Sadly, I was left feeling rather disappointed. Roy undoubtedly discusses a plethora of important and relevant issues within The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, from gender and the effects of living as a transgender person, to politics and terrorism, but it felt to me as though she was perhaps trying to do too much. Rather than seamlessly tie together, as the themes do in her debut novel, they are often a little disjointed, and create an almost chaotic jumbled effect in one or two places.

The writing, too, did not live up to my expectations. I found it a little lacklustre on the whole; yes, there are some stunning descriptions, but the prose did not dazzle me. The omniscient narrative gave a detached feel to the whole, making me feel less invested in the individuals and their plights. The characters too posed a problem for this reader. I admire the sheer scale of how many persons Roy crafted here, from all walks of life, and with different problems occupying them within the wider scale of Indian society. However, I would go as far to say that some of them never really came to life, and were not as well-developed as they perhaps could, or should, have been. Several of them seemed to lurk in the shadows of the novel, and despite the time devoted to them, remained secondary.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an ambitious novel, but I cannot help but think that it has attempted to achieve too much. It is not at all straightforward, and I can imagine even the most patient reader getting a little frustrated at junctures. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness sadly failed to grip me.

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