I just finished The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s second novel. It comes on the back of her first, God of Small Things, that was written 20 years ago. In the interim she has focused on non-fiction on a range of issues related to tribal rights, judicial over-reach, globalisation etc. She has also been fighting battles on behalf of the underprivileged in India. While doing so she has attracted the hatred of many of those who believe in “development at all costs”. In fact I had almost forgotten that Arundhati Roy was a novelist, and a good one at that, to begin with.
It is with great anticipation that I opened her second novel. In the first few pages I was hooked. The first character, Anjum, grabbed my attention and held it even as her story meandered through the by-lanes of old Delhi jumping back and forth in time. A quarter of the way through the book I began to get stirrings of misgivings, so many characters had been introduced. There were so many story plots jumping around in time and space. I was not able to keep these story lines straight in my head. Mind you, I am a fan of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and the like which too have many characters with their stories unfolding in different places. I was on the verge of giving up and I would have had but for the fact that each of these stories was quite powerful. The narrative, the building of the character was compelling and gripping.
I decided to persist and the end experience was rewarding. Arundhati’s characters took me through a journey across India. From the snowy reaches of Kashmir to the crowds of old Delhi to God’s own country to the forests of Bastar. Once I even got a peak into suburban America. The characters moved around, engaged with others, parted and got together again as the story lines came together. Almost as if they were dancing. As this happened they spoke about communal tensions, caste based oppression, struggle against corruption, rise of the political right, ultra-nationalism separatist struggles, the ruthlessness of the State and the people who wield its power, the choices that life thrust on them. Even amidst these depressing lives, they still created and found their moments of joy and happiness. One would never think that a group of ‘beaten’ people could come together, support one another and find peace. But they do. Arundhati has told their stories well. An activist framing her narrative through stories.
God of Small Things won the Man Booker in 1997. I will not be surprised if Ministry goes on to win accolades too.