The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”

— Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

    20 years after the release of the classic Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy releases her second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Although I have yet to read the former—I do plan on doing so in the near future—my first experience of Roy’s writing wasn’t exactly a very compelling one. Tackling the social climate and various taboo subjects in India and its proximity, Arundhati Roy brings readers the story of multiple different characters who will all have their lives connect together at an unlikely juncture. Focusing greatly on these characters and the unbelievable misery that clouds their lives, Arundhati Roy does the impossible and presents us with the relativity of happiness and the rarity of normality. She does so by embracing the Indian culture in all its forms and shows us in different forms the problems that people are submerged in for countless years.

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    The story kicks off with the introduction of a new-born baby. It’s as the mother discovers that her son has both male and female private parts that you quickly understand how each culture perceives anomalies in different ways. A person’s economic status alone can shape a lot of their beliefs and bring them to appreciate or fear things that others swimming in green bills will feel differently about. Having a hermaphrodite as your first main character is only the beginning of so many more characters with mind-blowing and devastating stories. While most of the book is told in third person, there are stories within stories, through letters for example, that propels us into the life of other individuals in order to live and feel their existence first-hand. Unfortunately, I felt way too overwhelmed by the number of characters introduced and never really managed to connect with anyone. I did however come to see the insanity that dwells in their society and the horrendous things that happen on a daily basis that is considered normal for them. Arundhati Roy’s story serves as a revelation for the ignorant and a call for change in a place where the lives of individuals are defined by their caste, gender or religion.

    This is definitely not a book you’ll pick up thinking it’ll have a linear plot structure. Far from it. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will seem to be all over the place and teleport you into the life of countless characters in order to visit their lives and what defines them. While exploring their lives, you’ll be brought to analyze the society as a whole and all the fragments that constitute it. It is complex and confusing at the same time. Going into this novel blind, without any prior knowledge of Indian culture and geographic details, will make this a heavy and rocky ride. Arundhati Roy also infuses her book with foreign language, usually followed by a translation. Urdu? Hindi? Punjabi? Throughout the book you’ll be confronted with bits and pieces of poems or expressions that reinforces the books identity. Most of the time I had no clue which language it was and never remembered what I read (even if it was later translated). It also didn’t help that there was a lot, I mean A LOT, of name dropping in this book. Not only is there a lot of characters, some of them also find themselves changing their names too. At times I tried hard to remember new names that are introduced only to never see them again later. You might now see why it was just that hard for me to stay invested and connected to the story. This book simply needs your 200% undivided attention and a lot of side-notes in order to fully complement it, if you ask me.

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    While I had difficulty connecting with the characters, following the complex and incredibly chaotic plot as well as consistently enjoying the writing style, I can definitely see the colossal project that Arundhati Roy took upon herself in order to write this literary fiction. This is definitely a me rather than you thing. Do not let my review (or the one to come) steer you away from revisiting (or visiting for the first time) what Arundhati Roy brings to the table. Through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy challenges people who share different views and political opinions. She brings forth a courageous and extraordinary tale that weaves together multiple characters with different stories as they go looking for safety, purpose and happiness. The storytelling sheds light on the horrible state in which a lot of individuals still live in today in the Indian subcontinent. Even if this literary fiction was not my cup of tea and never felt like an accessible and truly captivating story for someone who doesn’t have the background to understand the subtleties of the horrors or the political landscape out in India, this work might certainly please readers who live and breathe the culture and its social, religious and political context.


THANK YOU TO PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE FOR SENDING US AN ADVANCE COPY FOR REVIEW!

Are you interested in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?
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MY OVERALL RATING: ★★☆☆☆/

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27 thoughts on “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

  1. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    I’m so intrigued by the title and that a baby hermaphrodite opens the book… I know from reading Kim that India is a hotbed of cultures and politics and religions and there are offshoots, etc. In Kim it’s hard to keep track and ones I’ve gotten to read it act like I’m insane. In reality it was easy to follow as there are about 4 characters that we focus on… as for the Ministry of Utmost Happiness I can’t imagine using the background of India for a book about a ton of different characters. Seems like she got too involved with her project and couldn’t shed what wasn’t working. (No offense meant just my background as a writer speaking for a moment!) You are a supreme reviewer! I was totally sucked in… if I hadn’t already experienced India through Kim I would be seriously tempted! 😈

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I have heard of Kim till now! I did know about the author though, and his biggest accomplishment (Jungle Book). It definitely sounds fascinating and would definitely give it a shot. Would Kim be your biggest recommendation from that author? Besides Jungle Book of course hahahha

      Honestly, Ministry of Utmost Happiness might actually have four MAIN characters too, but it’s just too easy to get lost with so many secondary characters who’s names aren’t easy to remember. I just know that less would’ve been much better for me, but then again, the author still does a nice job in making the reader explore various lives and see the highs and lows from so many different angles. It’s just that you have to expect the story to jump from place to another and never really follow a “plotline”.

      Thank you so much for your kind words Dani!!! I really appreciate it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. readershightea says:

    Hello, Lashaan,

    While reading your review I remembered about another book that has a hermaphrodite as main character: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides (I talked a bit about it in this blogpost https://goo.gl/U4ByS1). However, the books seem to be quite different, presenting different cultures and perspectives.

    Thanks a lot for the review, it sparked interest in reading it, mostly because of the insights in the Indian culture.

    Have a nice day!
    Georgiana

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Thank you so much for reading Georgina. A hermaphrodite character is definitely something rare. I believe I have heard of Jeffery Eugenides before but never really looked into his books. I’ll definitely check out your post though. It might be the push I didn’t know I needed to add Middlesex to my TBR. 😀

      Hope you enjoy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more than I did when you get the opportunity to check it out!

      Like

  3. LizScanlon says:

    Oh wow… this sounds like a mind bending book… but I guess India can be in so many ways a mind bending country… I’ve recently seen so many documentaries about India, I am not surprised this book is as complex as the country itself… it sounds like they mirror each other in some ways.
    Great review, Lashaan… I don’t think I would have been able to put my thoughts together for a review… and it certainly sounds like a difficult read, one which I would more than like not finish… subject matter is interesting though! I must check out more reviews and info on this one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Oh, I promise you that this will make sure to show you India’s complexity and all the issues that it has fought for so many years. The book takes places during almost a whole century and the characters will go through some of the big events that touched India and its surrounding (i.e. Gandhi and his pacifism, Saddam Hussein, etc.).

      I definitely appreciate your honesty, cause.. if I was in your shoes, I would’ve said the exact same thing regarding this book hahahah I’m surprised I even managed to reach the end too! However, if India, its history as well as its political and social context interests you, this would be a very interesting read. It’ll probably make you want to do more research on the subjects too.

      Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words Liz! I 100% appreciate it. 😀

      Like

  4. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    Great review for this book Lashaan. It sounds like it could be an incredible story, I’ve never read a book with a hermaphrodite character in it before, it’s just a shame that wasn’t the case for you. I have problems sometimes with characters in books, if there are too many and they’re not developed enough I cant connect with them either and it ruins my enjoyment of the story a little as well. Still great review Lashaan, I hope you enjoy Arundhati Roy’s first novel more than you did this one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Thank you so much Beth! 🙂 A hermaphrodite character to kick things off in this book was definitely unique as far as characters go and what I’ve read in the past. I don’t really thing that the characters were under-developed throughout the book as the author really goes to the core of the problem with each of them and makes them all very humane and unbelievable at the same time. I just found myself feeling like they were too many, and that they were presented in such a confusing and random way too. I do hope The God of Small Things will be a far better book for me. I still fear that connecting with the characters might remain an issue.. To be determined hahah Thank you again for reading Beth!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

        That’s all right, and yeah I’ve never seen a books with a hermaphrodite character myself so I can imagine that was a unique beginning. Oh well at least they were ell developed in that case, and I’ll hope The God of Small Things is a better read for you but I guess you won’t know until you pick it up. That’s all right! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  5. AvalinahsBooks says:

    I tried liking The God Of Small Things, but just couldn’t. I finished it, but throughout the entire book I just couldn’t connect with any character or what was going on. Maybe I just couldn’t relate. I still feel bad about that since everyone seems to love that book 😀 #bookguilt

    But I suppose that part of what makes it so inaccessible is that like you say… Roy shows India’s unflattering side, and we just come off with a nasty feeling. And since I have no other connection with India, and all those things are so hard to understand.. It’s even harder to relate. But this sounds as quite an interesting premise. Hey, have you read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? I loved that one.

    So I can see how I’d probably feel the same about this book. I like how you point out that you need like 200% involvement, that’s part of how I felt about The God Of Small Things as well. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Someone who’s ready The God of Small Things!!! I totally understand the issues you had with it though. I fear I might have the same issue after what I just saw with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. There’s something that just makes it impossible to connect with the characters even if they author does a great job in developing them.

      While I’m Indian… I’m born in Canada and well.. I could almost just as easily relate to your inability to understand all the subtleties of India’s culture (I never tried to inform myself on my own roots hahha). Roy Arundhati really goes hardcore in presenting India and all its facets.

      I’ve heard about Middlesex, thanks to someone who commented earlier in fact. I looked it up and it sounds VERY promising. Would you HIGHLY recommend it?

      I think I’m going to crack open The God of Small Things with a 300% mindset just to be sure that I don’t fool myself into thinking that I’m about to read easily accessible and written without any level of abstraction. 😀

      Thank you so much for reading my review though! I really appreciate it.

      P.S. I’ve actually seen you around on Goodreads (other friends who “like” your reviews and all). Pretty cool to see you drop by here! 😛

      Like

      • AvalinahsBooks says:

        Oh yeah, I’ve read it 🙂 but haven’t so many people read it? 🙂

        Yeah, there’s this… coldness and distance in the writing. Something repulsive, maybe. I wonder if the author actually wanted it to be like that? It might be.

        And I know someone who is Indian (born in India as well) and loved the book. Maybe it’s different if you’re local? If you don’t know her blog, you should visit – The Book Satchel. It’s a great blog.

        Middlesex was a GREAT book. So hefty, but so strong. I think you would love it, most people I know did 🙂

        Ha, you’ve seen me around on Goodreads! 😀 Wow. What ARE the odds? I mean… Goodreads is vast! It’s huge! Almost like the world 😀 I am impressed. Well, don’t hesitate to add me, if you want, and visit my blog too 🙂

        Also, brave of you to still want to read The God Of Small Things after this one 😀 I think I’m good – I don’t think I’ll ever want to read anything else by Roy 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Whew sounds like heavy stuff. And all that teleporting all over the place and requiring intimate knowledge of the setting… probably not for me. I feel like it would be too ambitious for me to read it 😉 That said, I have had God of Small things on my kindle for ages, I should probably just take the plunge and read that first, and if I get blown away by that maybe I’ll pick this up one day (I never like to rule anything out completely 😉 ) Awesome review!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Ohhh, heavy would be an understatement! 😛 There’s really a lot of content and references poured into this cup. Had I known, I would’ve probably stayed away from it as well. I’m not surprised to hear you’ve got The God of Small Things though. It’s one of those books that gained fame really fast and is still known as a classic piece out there. I have the feeling the writing might not be that different from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness though… Hopefully I’ll end it more than I did this, and wish you good luck with The God of Small Things if you ever read it before I do hahah 😛 Thank you so much for reading though!! I appreciate that! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Ahh wow that sounds intense!! Yes definitely- and so many people have recommended it to me over the years that it’s become one of those “I have to read it” books. (which means I’ll probably take ages to get to it) Hehe we should race and see who can get to it first 😉 You’re welcome!! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Inge | The Belgian Reviewer says:

    I feel like this author wanted to say too much (through too many people) and cram a little too much into this book perhaps but the concept was good.. boy you always take on such diverse, deep and original books! You delivered a great review of this complex book !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      I agree. I definitely felt like the structure could’ve been different and much more appealing than the way it was delivered. This would be a pretty heavy book to read for anyone who’s never listened to India-related news and who’s never really looked into their history and current status. Ahahaahh thank you so much Inge. I do like to read challenging books, especially classics, as well as diversify the genres I dive into just so I don’t end up developing an acute ability to predict things hahah 😛 Thank you so much for reading as well!! I appreciate your insights on my review/this book!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

    This sounds like such an interesting, cultural experience! Unfortunately, as great as a book can be, it won’t be for everyone.
    I can admit when something is incredible and genius, but still realize it’s not for me, specifically. I will recommend it to other people that I know will probably be able to appreciate it more and recognize its true value. Even if I can’t.
    It’s alright to come across books like this, sometimes 🙂 I wasn’t acquainted with the author and while I believe this will definitely not be for me, I’ll keep it in mind for someone else.
    Amazing review, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

      Cultural experience sounds pretty accurate! There’s a lot of things going on throughout the book and a lot of it relies on the ability of readers to contrast the lives of these characters to their own and to understand all that they go through. It’s not an easy read and will be a hard sell for anyone who’s not remotely interested in diving into this kind of literary fiction. Thank you so much for dropping by Sophie! I appreciate your honesty and the time you took to read my thoughts. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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