“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.
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.
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!
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MY OVERALL RATING: ★★☆☆☆/