If you haven’t yet read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, you’ve probably heard of it. It was published to much fanfare; being the first novel author Arundhati Roy had written in 20 years. Her 1997 debut, The God of Small Things, sold more 6,000,000 copies. So was this new book worth the wait?
Here’s what Starfish contributor Ros Seale has to say:
Arundhati Roy is known as a political activist who involves herself in human rights, environmentalism, and cultural diversity.
This has led her to speak out against many issues including American imperialism, India’s nuclear policies, environmental issues, and Kashmiri independence. Not to mention minority groups in India and political problems in Sri Lanka, Israel, Afghanistan, and other countries.
She is the winner of many awards for her writing on many issues such as peace, freedom, justice and cultural diversity.
From a middle class background, she studied architecture and planning in Delhi where she lived with an architect, then married a film maker, and wrote screen plays.
In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness she addresses politics, caste, inequality, honesty, love, religion, paranoia, displacement, violence, corruption, misogamy, democracy, dementia, bureaucracy, civil unrest and protest, pollution, death, and probably a few other small matters I haven’t thought of!
It’s a big read; I had to read it twice and even then didn’t take it all in. I counted the number of words on a randomly picked page – there were 337 – so that’s approximately 147,269 words. A lot for a novel.
Arundhati Roy never lets you forget she is writing about India, by constantly using Indian words which are mostly translated into English, and often uses poetry. She is very political, and up to date with current affairs – she writes: “Today is the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism which rises in our country like the swastika once did in another,” (reflected in the news we currently get from India).
Dedicated to “The Unconsoled”, the beautifully written first page engaged me immediately, taking me straight to Delhi (where I’d stayed in a roof-top apartment on a business trip with my then partner importing home wares into Australia.)
“Each day I watched the vultures circling overhead. It is sad to think that they no longer exist in large numbers.” I checked this and found that they are now an endangered species. The numbers have plummeted from 80 million to several thousand due to the use of diclofenac (aspirin) on cows to increase milk production.
She also mentions Ahmedabad, where I stayed with the Sarabhi family and spent time walking the streets where people were living with their worldly possessions rolled up on the footpaths during the day, washing in the river. I’ve been on the trains and walked through the crowded streets; so unlike any other country I have visited. My partner Janice, who often went to India, used to say that evil came up from the ground where so much violence has occurred.
I love the power of Roy’s description, and her humour. The talking parrot. Kashmir, where the dead will live for ever, and the living are only dead people pretending. The cow who burst from eating too many plastic bags. Tilo, who felt for the first time that her body had enough room to accommodate all its organs.
Dr Bhagar sniffing and tapping the table with his pen, his bright, beady eyes magnified by thick lenses set in gold-framed spectacles. The goat who made it into the Guiness Book of Records for dying of natural causes. The politician who had all the political charisma of a trapped rabbit. The Kashmiri-English Alphabet which describes violence from A to Z. In a way I think she almost describes the complexities of life in India in the same original dazzling manner.
I think Arundhati Roy is a great and passionate writer and I am very happy to have read this amazing book. It has brought back many memories of my visits to this complex country and brought to life characters who add to my knowledge of India.