Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Originally Written for 500 Years of Globalization at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Yasser Munif

Twenty years after her well-received fiction debut, Arudhati Roy has returned with a new novel (novel-esque book): “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Creating additions to real history, humanizing characters that could exist, setting scenes that Roy herself has experienced, and commenting on real-world politics, the work walks the line of fiction and non-fiction, meandering itself from one side of the line to the other, depending on how it suits the author. 

The plot of the novel largely follows two women: Anjum, a hijra—an intersex woman—who lives in a graveyard; and Tilottama “Tilo,” an architect who is navigating her own place in conjunction with three men who love her. There are many (too many) more characters than these two, and though all of them receive special attention by Roy—purposefully humanized and characterized with individual traits—Anjum and Tilo are decidedly our main characters. We begin with Anjum, seemingly present day, laying in her graveyard compound home, discussing morality with a friend. From there, we travel to her childhood, detailing the way she was raised as a male (named Atfab), eventually moves to a living space and community for other hijras—both intersex or transgender women—where she changes her name and lives out life as a woman. In semi-chronological order, disrupted by some flashback or foreshadowing accounts of details readers do not yet understand, we then watch Anjum raise an adopted daughter, get kidnapped and tortured, move to and create her living community—The Jannat Guest House—hold space at a protest for India’s Second Freedom Struggle, and meet an unknown baby. 

From there, we move in and out of Tilo’s narrative. We’re first introduced to her through the first person narrative of a man, Biplap Dasgupta, who we eventually learn is Tilo’s landlord, and is one of three men—the others, who she is actually in relationships with, being Nagaraj Hariharan “Naga” and Musa Yeswi—who are in love with her. Over the course of her sections of the book, Biplap describes how the four of them met (on a theater set in college), explains Tilo’s escape from Amrik Singh (a military officer in Kashmir), then details the way and reason she went to find Musa and got into the hands of Singh. From there, he moves on to explain Tilo’s relationship with her mother at the end of her mother’s life, before jumping to a section all about Musa and his family, and then re-explaining the way Tilo found Musa and was taken by Singh. This section ends on a scene of Tilo aborting Musa’s baby, and returning to her new marriage to Naga. Finally, Tilo moves to Anjum’s The Jannat House with the unexplained baby from the end of Anjum’s section. It’s never explained how Tilo takes custody of the baby, but she’s named after Musa’s daughter from his marriage before Tilo; and it is eventually explained, via post-mortem letter, who the baby’s biological parents are.

To conclude the book, we return to Biplap’s odd and out-of-place first person narrative: we discover that he has been looking through Tilo’s apartment after she has moved to The Jannat Guest House. In reflection on the book we have encountered so far, we seem to be told that Biplap has been telling the story the whole time, and it’s circular descriptions are based on how and when he himself learns about the information. However, there are flaws in this throughout the narrative. Most of it, in fact, is really detailed through a third person omniscient point of view—the narrator knows everything about all the characters. We get details of what all of the various side characters are thinking, from Anjum’s mother to a kitten who is thrown into a lake. We know things that wouldn’t possibly (or logically) be written down, only experienced by the characters themselves. And, it’s implied that he’s learning all of this from Tilo’s files, which she’s collected before she’s met Anjum, and yet we begin with an entire section on Anjum’s life that is never accounted for in this narrative structure. In this, as well as in Roy’s overzealous and overdefined character list, her repeated or completely unnecessary storylines, and her sometimes-unwillingness to make a point, the beauty of this novel is lost. While there is some beautiful storytelling in Roy’s characterization of underprivileged people that (if it exists at all) is normally only essentialized caricatures, and her purposeful attempt at making readers consider both sides—both critiques of globalization in and of themselves—it’s difficult to pay attention to in all the head-scratching and attempts at figuring out what is actually going on. 

The one somewhat consistent political point she makes throughout the novel is that of showcasing the effects of globalization on a culture. She characterizes this globalized culture throughout the 444 pages: from the ways hijras are influenced by global culture and standards of beauty in the beginning; all the way to the end where the site of a murder has been paved over with a shopping mall and all the family is able to bury is a shirt purchased from it. For the purpose of brevity, however, I’ll be looking at the ways Roy places globalization and politics in contrast with each other at the scene of the protest.

 Roy contextualizes the protest scene with an overview of the developmental policies that are changing the city of Delhi, where most of this novel is set. Contrasted against glossy descriptions of brand new buildings and catchy chants (“India! India!”), Roy positions the developing slums and the resulting unnatural scarcity in ways which are impossible to ignore her point: “Away from the lights and advertisements, villages were being emptied. Cities too. Millions of people were being moved, but nobody knew where to” (102). Globalization, it seems Roy is saying, goes hand-in-hand with over-production, inequality, and over-consumption: “But the food shops were bursting with food. The bookshops were bursting with books. The shoe shops were bursting with shoes. And people (who counted as people) said to one another, ‘You don’t have to go abroad for shopping anymore. Imported things are available here now’” (103). So too, this mass adoption of the privatized sphere serves Roy well to be contrasted against the communal care and living that happens in both of Anjum’s community life, and the lack thereof Tilo experiences through her various traumas. And though it’s not specifically discussed much in the book, we know from Naomi Klein that this privatization-in-excess is a key pillar of neoliberalism and a massive contributor to climate change. 

Once Roy has set the scene of the protest, we get an even clearer image of the politics of globalization. There are documentary filmmakers who ask Anjum to say a catchphrase in whatever language she has. They don’t listen to her instructions that the words they offer her don’t make sense, and they move onto the next people—commodifying their protest as well, in whatever way possible (like writing out the nonsensical words on a poster, so people in mute protest may also have the privilege to participate). It is not mentioned specifically, but it’s difficult to not imagine them as white people with dreadlocks, serving as the colonialist institution of globalization, spreading ideas that put them in the roles of saviors to the underprivileged people they’re interviewing, all under the guise of helping and giving them their own voice and platform. They exist to offer a palatable version of the issues for the general public, so they may feel good and like they’re participating, when really they’re worsening the problem. 

Next in the lineup of globalization as an antithesis to the power of protest: a toilet which gets a great amount of detail given to it. It’s an outhouse, but you have to pay for it, it has a guard, it has advertising on all outer sides, it’s clean inside. We see, across a few pages, Roy’s commentary on the battle within this intrusion—people end up using the outside of the bathroom just as often as people who are able to afford it actually pay for it. Thus, the advertisements, which didn’t seem fitting to begin with, have now been tarnished by excretions. At once, readers feel somewhat glad that it’s been dirtied, but as soon as you feel okay about it, Roy enters into a narrative about the bathroom guard, explaining how much he needs this work and how his family will suffer if he is fired (which he is). Like she does throughout the book, here, Roy pushes us to question more than the loudest and easiest story, which usually exists because of those like the filmmakers from above—stories created by the colonial empire that are reinforced thereafter by the “West”. 

This section of protest also details a group of mothers who have disappeared family members and have journeyed thousands of miles, only to be harassed and turned away because people didn’t care enough; and a hunger strike that seems to be more for the media attention than it ever was about the actual cause. Both of these seem to highlight the impenetrability globalization has on our culture once it has taken hold—even those of us with the best of intentions cannot stay untethered to its negative effects

Through this section, and throughout the entire book, Roy seems to suggest Globalization—which she also seems to suggest is just neoliberalism and colonialism with a new name—has become a dominating force on our lives, one that will remain a struggle amongst classes for eternity, and one whose resulting problems will eventually be blamed on those who have suffered the most from it. This futility and overarching control is reiterated in a phrase: “Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration)” (330). And in a moment where Tilo is speaking to a doctor about her mother, she says a particularly poignant part on this discussion of blame: “‘So to whom will I be apologizing? To prejudice? Or to history?’” (257). There are still points within this novel that feel incomplete to me, still storylines or characters that I don’t think I needed—faults that only seem to stand out as even more flawed against some of the incredible narration she creates. And yet, maybe that is the point: to show the messiness of history, the inability to ever complete a story about a person, the missed details we forget about, the pieces that are scarred in our minds forever, the uncertain ways we interact with the globalized world around us. Seemingly in line with this raison d’etre, Roy ends on a sardonic-yet-hopeful note: with the baby peeing in the street, and looking in awe at the stars reflected in its puddle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *