Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy focuses on Tilo and Anjum. The two are the primary characters in the book. Tilo is a trained architect involved in part of a political movement while Anjum, a transgender woman, tries to place herself in her society. The story is set primarily in India, and the author reveals the intricacies of the political upheavals that have taken place in the region. She mainly focuses on the political tensions in Kashmir and also looks at those who lived in Delhi.
The author narrates the events that took place in the region through various characters. For instance, she introduces Musa, Tilo's on-and-off-again lover, who is a freedom fighter. The book shows the violence and death that comes with such a political uprising. Because of this environment, Anjum, who is also Zainab’s guardian, constructs a house in the family graveyard away from all the noise. The location is later called The Jannet Guesthouse. It becomes a refuge for misfits.
The house that Anjum builds slowly transforms into a community as more people start coming for solace. The people at the guesthouse raise Zainab together. The author calls this place the Ministry of Utmost Happiness because of the comfort that the misfits of society discover in their newfound sanctuary.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1903
Author: Arundhati Roy (b. 1961)
Publisher: Knopf (New York). 464 pp.
Type of work: Novel
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness examines India’s changing sociopolitical landscape during the second half of the twentieth century. It is award-wining Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s second novel.
Anjum, a Muslim transgender woman who makes a home for herself in a Delhi graveyard
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessCourtesy of Knopf
Arundhati RoyCourtesy of Mayank Austen Soofi
Saddam, a jack-of-all-trades who comes to live in her guesthouse
Tilo, an architecture student turned activist with many admirers
Naga, Tilo’s husband
Biplab, Tilo’s friend who works for the Indian government and later becomes her landlord
Musa, a Kashmiri freedom fighter on the run and Tilo’s occasional lover
In 1997, Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things. An exploration of Indian society as well as the complexity of human desire, The God of Small Things became the most internationally popular book ever written by a non-expatriate Indian. In addition to selling more than six million copies, it was translated into more than forty languages. Despite her newfound literary celebrity, Roy spent the years that followed working as a political and environmental activist. She focused her writing efforts on nonfiction essays and books about the negative effects of India’s modernization and how the government was allowing the nation’s farmers, its poorest citizens, and its natural life to suffer for the sake of new industry.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the follow-up to The God of Small Things that Roy’s fans have been waiting twenty years to read. Long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, it is a unique work that combines both the author’s talent for fiction as well as her passion for political activism. These two forces are brought together through the novel’s primary protagonists, Anjum, a Muslim transgender woman living in Delhi, and Tilo, a former architecture student who becomes involved in the Kashmiri separatist movement. Spanning several decades, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness provides a firsthand look at the changing sociopolitical landscape of India and the forces driving such change.
In many ways, the character of Anjum serves as a metaphor for modern India. Anjum is a Hijra, a Hindi-Urdu group name for transgender and intersex people. Born with intersex genitalia, Anjum realized early on that she identified as female despite her parents raising her as a boy named Aftab. Roy utilizes the feeling of chaos within the body of young Anjum to draw a parallel to the feeling of chaos that exists across the different communities that comprise India. While Anjum knows she is female, her adolescent body argues otherwise. At the age of fourteen, her voice deepens and she begins to grow tall and muscular. Meanwhile across the country, Hindus and Muslims are fighting about the identity of India. Anjum bears witness to the depth of this societal conflict when traveling one day to Gujarat. She gets caught in a riot where thousands of Hindu pilgrims are massacred. The response was to target its Muslim citizens, retaliating especially against Muslim women and children. The event proves to be so traumatic that she moves into a Delhi graveyard and for years is despondent. Over time, she builds a little house for herself there, which she calls Jannat, meaning “paradise,” and starts renting out rooms. By welcoming people in need to Jannat and accepting them without judgment, Anjum creates the titular ministry of utmost happiness. Ultimately, it is a vividly wrought setting that at once feels immensely realistic and ripped from a fairy tale.
In many ways, the character of Tilo appears to be modeled after Roy herself. Like the author, the character is a former architecture student with a Christian parent and a Hindu parent. Furthermore, Tilo is an activist. Roy initially introduces Tilo to the narrative from the perspective of a man named Biplab. He is one of three men whom Tilo befriends while studying architecture, each of whom have feelings for her. Of the three men, Tilo marries Naga even though she does not seem to be in love with him. Her love is reserved for Musa, the third and most complex of these men. Much of Tilo’s story line revolves around her decision to travel to Kashmir to visit Musa, who is working in the Muslim separatist movement. Here, Tilo acts as a stand-in for readers; while she initially has her reservations about Musa’s involvement in an extremist group, this doubt quickly fades after she witnesses the terror that the Indian government inflicts on the Kashmiri people. It affects her so much that she joins the cause. After enduring numerous disturbing scenes of violence against the Kashmiris, which Roy depicts with brutal honesty, readers are also likely to support Musa.
Roy’s writing often has an undercurrent of magic realism. Her prose is rich with striking imagery. What makes Roy an especially interesting writer, however, is the fact that her vivid, poetic style is most often employed to describe ugliness. Whether it is pollution, poverty, or violence, the author spares no detail and uses the kind of language and literary tools most others would reserve for life’s most beautiful moments. The way she describes dogs searching for severed limbs to eat in a hospital, for example, is haunting and impossible to forget. Roy’s writing is also succinct and straightforward. By matter-of-factly recounting scenes where people are being beaten to death, she effectively demonstrates how often such events take place. This style creates a disturbing, resonant effect, which in turn enables Roy to bring international attention to serious issues that continue to persist.
To read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is to be transported to India. Every page of the novel is packed with contextual detail, and the result is a highly immersive experience. As her characters move through their story lines, Roy ensures that readers of all backgrounds understand the significance of everything they say and do. To this end, she describes the different dishes they cook and eat, the kinds of birds that sit in the trees above them, and whether a rain shower is a “minor” or “major” like a typhoon. Often, she will include Hindi or Urdu lines of dialogue with translations below. Arguably one of the most interesting ways that Roy enables readers to better understand India is the way that important historical events are integral parts of her characters’ lives. The violence that Tilo experiences in Kashmir is based on experiences that Roy or her friends witnessed firsthand. The Hindu massacre that Anjum gets caught in before moving to the graveyard is based on the real-life 2002 Gujarat riots that largely targeted Muslim women. Roy also describes many of her characters’ memories of where they were during the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 and its aftermath. Whether Roy focuses on these historical anecdotes as important plot points or shares them casually in passing, they enrichen the narrative and provide a fuller picture of the complex forces that have shaped her nation.
Roy renders the characters who populate The Ministry of Utmost Happiness not only by revealing how they look, but also by ensuring that readers understand the characters’ familiar backgrounds. It quickly becomes clear that in India, religion, class, and region determine not only how someone is treated but the way in which they see the world and subsequently act. For example, when describing Mrs. Gupta, the Hindu wife of one of Anjum’s clients, Roy focuses on the fact that she is a Gopi, or female worshipper of Lord Krishna, who believes that she is living through the seventh and last cycle of rebirth. Because she believes that she will not have to pay for her sins in the next life, Mrs. Gupta is a free spirit willing to engage in less conventionally accepted activities. Roy’s decision to add such nuanced, culturally specific details about her characters enhances their realness.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a compelling read that belongs in the canon with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1980), another book that balances history with magical realism. Roy succeeds in blending historical events with her proclivity for whimsy and dramatic irony to create a beautiful, heartbreaking narrative. Despite, or perhaps because of, their myriad backgrounds, the characters are all relatable and enjoyable to spend time with. More than anything, however, what makes The Ministry of Utmost Happiness such a significant book is its desire to draw attention to pervasive issues that continue to affect many poor, disenfranchised Indian citizens. The way in which Roy depicts these issues with extraordinary, haunting details infuses the narrative with a feeling of urgency.
Still, the novel is not without its criticisms. In her review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praises the underlying intent of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness but argues that it has too many moving parts, describing it as an “ambitious but highly discursive novel that eventually builds to a moving conclusion but bogs down, badly, in the middle and is sometimes so lacking in centripetal force that it threatens to fly apart into pieces.” It is true that, at times, the novel is overwhelmed by the number of story lines, characters, and perspective shifts. As such, it does not follow the classic structure of a traditional drama, which in turn dilutes the feelings of suspense. However, as a nontraditional work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness arguably succeeds thanks to its experimental storytelling style as well as its appropriate conclusion.
Other critics have complained about the amount of violence throughout the novel. Writing for the New Yorker, Joan Acocella argues that the number of disturbing scenes are overwhelming and make the entire novel feel imbalanced in its cynicism. She writes, “You feel the need for some large-scale salvation, some great cleansing, which, when it comes, of course can’t really do the job.” While it cannot be denied that much of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a look at the ugliness of humanity, Roy never waivers in her portrayal of these real, violent events or her commitment to make the rest of the world accountable for them. And while the novel lacks a traditional happy ending, it does provide a glimmer of hope, which feels appropriate to the story. Ultimately, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the story that Roy has been waiting twenty years to tell.
- Acocella, Joan. “Civil Wars.” Review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy. The New Yorker, 5 June 2017, pp. 98–101. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=123247288&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Arundhati Roy’s Long-Awaited Novel Is an Ambitious Look at Turmoil in India.” Review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy. The New York Times, 5 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/05/books/review-arundhati-roy-ministry-of-utmost-happiness.html. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
- Review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Apr. 2017, pp. 23–24. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=122748641&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
- Walter, Natasha. “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy Review—A Bright Mosaic.” Review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy. The Guardian, 2 June 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/02/ministry-utmost-happiness-arundhati-roy-review. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.