The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

I am cross-posting my review of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel. This review originally appeared on The South Asian Idea in June 2017.

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

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I am Pakistani-American. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

8 thoughts on “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India”

  1. Roy takes herself too seriously. She ought to lighten up a bit. When an author’s political views (whatever their validity) seep so much into their fiction, it makes them predictable and boring.

    1. I think it is only natural that some of a writer’s political views effect their fiction. However, as I noted in my review, in this particular novel, Roy was trying to do too much. She threw in transgenders, Kashmir, Dalits, Maoists–basically everything she has been thinking about for 20 years. She could have written a perfectly good novel centered just around Kashmir.

      “The God of Small Things” was also intensely political, but since it was the story of one family, it worked better as a novel.

      1. Except she knows fuck all about Kashmir or Maoists or the Narmada dam …

        As the veteran Indian journalist P. Sainath says, she’s a one-trick pony with an inflated ego. And P. Sainath is no right winger by a long shot. Pretty much everyone in the intellectual Left circles in India hates Roy for her cause-hopping.

        1. Please refrain from using four letter words on my threads, thanks. Some of the other contributors may be OK with it (it’s up to them). I find it derails conversation.

          Roy has been deeply engaged with the Kashmir cause as well as with the Maoists. She wrote an entire book called “Walking with the Comrades”. You may not like what she says (as is your right) but to claim she doesn’t know what she’s talking about is foolish.

          Here is an essay which basically states my position on Ms. Roy (I didn’t write it)

          1. “Walking with the Comrades” is a piece of garbage (that’s a 7 letter word). If you must read about Maoists, please try: “Hello, Bastar”.

            I am a big believer in expertise based on deacdes of training, as opposed to casual dilettantism. As any public intellectual worth his/her salt in India would tell you, Roy has very low cred.

            And the funniest part is she sympathizes with Maoists and Kashmiri separatists at the same time. If Maoists do indeed come to power in India, what they’d do to separatists (of any kind) would make the exploits of Chinese Maoists in Tibet look like a garden party 😉

          2. We can agree to disagree about Ms. Roy. I admire her writing and do not necessarily agree with all her politics. Literature is my primary interest and I noted in the review that as a piece of fiction, I was disappointed by this latest work.

            As for “expertise”, I must note that you have not won the Booker Prize (unless you’ve been hiding it cleverly from the world).

            Ultimately, Literature is subjective. I like Roy’s writing. You don’t. And that is all there is to it.

          3. Not talking about her fiction (which is what she got the booker for), but factual writing. I think she should stick to fiction, the more fictional the better.

          4. You can disagree with her facts, but you cannot deny that all her books are extremely well-written. Writing is hard. There used to be a time when I could produce a 3,000 word term paper. I can’t anymore. After 1500 words, I get bored.

            Roy has written lots of books. That must be admired, even if you think her politics are ridiculous. She never claimed to be neutral and is not a scholar but an activist. Activists definitely have points of view as they want to affect change in the world. I am one of those who would rather describe the world from the comfort of a university campus.

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