Arundhati Roy is proving to be a most annoying author, to say the least.
For much of this story, her second novel, I frowned. The sense that Roy is actually a bit of a loony hasn’t left me since reading her classic ‘The God of Small Things’. ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ feels like a collection of random thoughts and short stories, perhaps conjured up over many years, sown together to make a larger novel. Indeed, the premise of the book is this sense of throwing together of randomness – except rather than thoughts, it is a collection of oddball people who are, for one reason or another, misfits in Indian life.
There’s also a sense that this novel is really an excuse for a treatise on the situation and history of Kashmir – one where Roy makes her position very clear. I don’t mind that as such – every author has an axe to grind of some sort or they wouldn’t write at all – but at times I felt as though Roy was trying to deceive us as readers. If you want to make a political statement then make it; don’t pretend it’s just a story.
Part of this feeling was because she spends an inordinate amount of time telling us the back story of pretty much everyone in the book – including those who really only play a bit-part in the novel as a whole. There were times were I wondered ‘what the hell am I reading and why am I reading it?’ Several times I wondered if the book was actually a collection of unrelated longer-form short stories. The connections were so vague or actually absent altogether. It felt like there was an ulterior motive for doing this.
And then, somehow, inexplicably, Roy manages to bring coherence and structure to the whole thing. But just before I realised this – perhaps only a chapter or two from the end – I also realised that I now cared about the characters, having all but yawned my way through their development until then. They had crept up on my heart.
I’m making it sound like I was bored by the book but, strangely and equally annoyingly, I wasn’t. I was all set to give this book a pitiful three stars and make the point that it was only getting that much because actually Roy is an exceptionally talented writer. I may not have (thought I) liked the characters or made sense of the novel as it unfolded, but her way of writing is exquisite. Rambling, but exquisite. When, finally, I fell for the characters and novel alike, it was only her skill with words which had brought me there.
And in the end it is this excellence which makes it worth persevering to the end. Just as with ‘The God of Small Things’, Roy makes you fall in love with the characters and the novel as a whole at the end. I was a virgin with that first book – untouched by Roy’s hands – and, like a used lover, I was not so easily seduced this time. Hence, a more cynical me is giving four stars only. However, this is certainly a book that should be read once – but I think it is not quite the same experience as her first book. This one is a good lover, but not the best.
On a more personal note, I did find myself empathising with the kind of people who are the subjects of Roy’s focus. From hijras to revolutionaries to sad, old drunks, these people don’t fit and they are not wanted. Such people are the ones I like best in real life. I am attracted to the rejected, the poor and the downtrodden because there I find the greatest honesty and truest humanity. You cannot say that Arundhati Roy fails to portray these qualities faithfully in her novel. They exude authenticity from every pore. For this, the author is to be truly congratulated.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out over summer – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org