I was drawn to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by a Guardian Article in 2016 when the publication announced that Arundhati Roy was breaking her 20-year fiction hiatus and publishing a second novel. I was intrigued. I had come across Roy’s work near the beginning of my original reading challenge when I got a kindle sample of The God of Small Things. The story seemed interesting, but it did not hook my attention permanently. Maybe I was just distracted by other stories or my work, but when I heard the announcement, heard the powerful title like “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, I knew I had to read it.
I dived into the book blind, daring myself to be pleasantly surprised. And surprised I was. The opening was beautiful, even if it was a little confusing. As the story opened and the narrative expanded out from the woman in the graveyard, I began to appreciate the complexities of Roy’s tale. She brought diversity and humanity to the generations of people affected by the various Indo-Pak border conflicts and showed how this was compounded by other social, economic and political ills within the region.
I was particularly shocked by the way she humanized India’s hijras – India’s officially recognized third gender. I loved her opening into Anjum’s (formerly Aftab) story: the fear, shame, confusion and longing that shook her and her family and ultimately tore them apart. I do not know much about the hijras nor do I know of the stereotypes surrounding them. I do know that many transgendered and gay people are often stigmatized, and only a few sides of their lives are displayed. Roy seems to try to portray all of these sides, letting us know that hijra life is as complex as anyone.
Nevertheless, I do not really know if I can truly appreciate all the complexities of this book. The political circumstances Roy portrays are foreign to me, mostly because I was not alive when the Indo-Pak wars raged and too young in the late 90s and early 2000s when the topic was raised again following 9/11. Thus, as much as I appreciate Roy’s elaboration and feel for her characters, I still feel a distance between me and the events she tried to capture. Thus, I cannot really judge them properly.
I did not like the audiobook’s reading, however. I appreciate Roy’s writing, but not her reading. Her tone was mostly monotonous and sometimes it was hard to determine which character was talking. Her reading sounded wet, and between paragraphs, she would take these distracting deep breaths that were not cut out from the audio. It made the reading sound as if it was done unprofessionally, which does injustice to the book and the narrator itself.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. I believe that if I was more knowledgeable about the book’s content, I might have enjoyed it a bit more. This is definitely one of the books I will read again once I am more au fait with the India-Pakistan conflicts. The book has forced me to pay attention to the region by pointing out its significance and the diverse stories within that region. I think I have turned my back on the area for too long. It is time for me to pay attention to its history so that I may understand its present.
Cover image courtesy of Penguin Books.