The very day I finished reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, the news of the novel not making it to the Booker prize final shortlist arrived.
I was still so hungover by my reading of the book that the news didn’t come as a shock at all. If one book by an author wins a Booker prize and the second one does not, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter is a weaker piece of art. In my opinion, if a reader thoroughly delves into the book, they will realise how defiantly beautiful and unforgettable it is, despite the Booker honour not attached to it.
The long span of years the novel makes its way through – moving to and fro between the past and present, the present and future, and the future and past – justifies why it took Arundhati Roy 20 years to write it.
Years of Roy’s traveling, experiencing the various political struggles in different parts of the country, writing non-fiction essays with all the urgency they required to be written in, reflecting, thinking of starting a novel and then finally finishing it – all of this is quite purely visible in the 438 pages of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”.
The concept of the co-existence of the dead and the living, and the bonhomie between the two, is phenomenally striking. Before this novel happened to me, I always had either a spooky or an adventurous understanding of the place called the graveyard. But this novel quite sensibly reveals the significance of it in the lives of the Kashmiri Muslims who have to frequently visit their very own ‘Mazaar-e-Shohadda‘ (Martyrs’ Graveyard) only to declare the new dead members alive forever, the significance of it to a devastated transgender woman, Anjum – one of the survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots – who makes her home amidst the graves of her loved ones in the old city of Shahjahanabad and names it ‘Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services’.
Jantar Mantar – a heritage site in the capital city of India where there is an observatory of astronomical instruments built by an old King, Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, but which has also become the centre of all kinds of resistance movements where people from different parts of the country arrive to register their unwavering struggles, accompanied by activists, students, artists, writers, poets, sympathisers, empathisers, lunatics, dreamers and so on – is the focal point from where, through the unusual turn of events around a mysteriously beautiful woman, Tilottama, we are driven into the valley of Kashmir and then to the forests of central India.
While ’emergency’ is declared very rarely in any part of the rest of India, Roy satirically points out how ‘normalcy’ is declared from time to time in the Kashmir valley and the central India forests.
The extremely filthy and rigid caste system prevailing in India and present within Hinduism is darkly described in the book. Those parts reminded me of one of the interviews of Arundhati Roy where she said that the full name of an individual is like a bar code at the back of a product.
Animals are as much a part of the book as the human beings are and contribute to the story in their own peculiar ways. This is the author’s way of reminding us, that we, the Homo sapiens, are only a part of the many species existing in this world, and hence keeping us grounded.
I was able to understand the relevance of the title of the book once I had finished reading it. The utmost happiness the title refers to is about how happiness is perceived differently by different people. Evidently it’s not a ‘happy’ novel at all. In fact, it is about how the characters derive happiness by standing unfazed in the face of the stormy tragedies they’re dealing with and hence, making the creators of the tragedies uncomfortable.
What makes the novel even more beautiful is the number of languages it accommodates besides English – Urdu, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telugu, Kashmiri – in the form of poetry, music, conversations and names. This kind of writing broadens the pan Indian canvas of the novel and plays a very relevant role in protecting our nation from the constant efforts being made to transform it into a monolithic state.
Arundhati Roy is undoubtedly and unabashedly above all the Bookers and Nobels.
Kritika Sharad is a former student of Gargi College, University of Delhi.