I shall be honest, I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to be a slow read. It was only after I had reached its second half that it gathered momentum for me. I think my problem was that I could not figure out whether I was reading magic realism, satire or if the author was simply mocking a credulous reader. However, my perseverance was rewarded because towards the end I could only conclude that Arundhati Roy has accomplished a breath-taking collage of characters, places and events that presents itself like some great wild impressionist painting in Van Gough-like bold brush strokes. Also, much to my shame, I know little about India and recall certain pivotal events as such as the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal as vague and far away.
The novel begins with the story of Anjum, welcomed into the world as Aftab, a boy who later, by way of some very rough surgery, transgenders to a woman. Anjum is born into a Muslim family living in the centre of largely Hindu Delhi. By chance he finds his way to a hyjra colony, hyjra being the collective term for transgender individuals of every kind. Here Anjum finds the support she needs to make her way in the world as a transgender woman. However, Anjum very nearly loses her life during a doomed political demonstration. In shock and depressed she creates her own sheltering retreat in an abandoned cemetery in the heart of Dehili. Here in a haphazard way she attracts a sort of community for marginalized individuals, those of lower caste or those who are ostracized because of their work such as the garbage collectors and the grave diggers.
The second half of the story introduces a young woman called Tilo who is enrolled in an architectural school and who is loved by three men, fellow students also studying architecture. Tilo pursues a doomed relationship with one of these students, Musa. The story then moves into the troubled area of Kashmir, a place of stunning geographic beauty torn apart by the India/ Pakistan struggle over borders on the one hand and an indigenous independence movement on the other.
Without giving away anything to spoil the story I will just say there is a satisfactory coming together of all the bits and pieces towards the end. However, the overall tone of the novel is one of a frantic undecipherable sort of world with insurmountable problems and unresolvable conflict. This would be depressing except the novel’s message is one of redemption rising out of human compassion. The word ‘Ministry’ in the title at first reading implies the idea of a political entity but as I read into the book it occurred to me that it could also be thought of as a synonym for healing as this is a story of how people from widely different backgrounds come together to form a family without being blood relations. Such a union is formed out of compassion. The Ministry of Utmost Kindnessgathers together the broken and sick in spirit and administers to their wounds. In this respect I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain where there is a similar pattern of ill and suffering souls coming together and creating a sort of sheltering family.
The reader needs patience to allow this book to unfold and enough curiosity to go down the tendrilled backroads and byways it explores. The artistry achieved is the way in which the author brings together so many events and characters: the important ones, the secondary ones and the ones who are mere decoration and with this raw material creates a unified story. The effect is quite stunning!