The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Following Arundhati Roy's Booker-prize winning book The God of Small Things, readers waited with anticipation for the launch of her first novel in 20 years - The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. While it may not stay in my thoughts as long as Small Things, it is still a story centered on gripping and enchanting characters, through whose eyes we witness India's recent, violent history, including land reform, the Godhra train burning and Kashmir insurgency.
The narrative opens with Aftab, a child misplaced in his body and, later, displaced, by choice, from his home. He moves into Khwabgah as Anjum, living among other 'hijras', or hermaphrodites, and eventually gets surgery to remove that which biologically resembled a man. Here Anjum flourishes, her striking beauty and height, mixed with her unique speaking voice, gaining her somewhat celebrity status among her peers and worldwide. Despite this, what she desires most of all is to be a mother. She temporarily fulfills this wish when she adopts an orphaned girl, Zainab, from the street. However, when the girl falls ill, she travels outside of town by train with a companion to make an offering on the child's behalf. During her time there, she is caught in the violence between Muslims and Hindus. As a hijra, it is seem as bad luck to kill her, but she instead bears witness to unspeakable violence. When she returns, she is no longer comfortable in her home of so many years, and moves into a nearby cemetery, making a home alongside the dead.
Here begins a parallel narrative, focused on one woman, S. Tilottama, and the three men who love her, Biplab Dasgupta, Nagaraj Hariharan and Musa Yeswi. They met while participating in the same play in university, and each went on to become renowned in some way. Dasgupta becomes an employee of the Intelligence Bureau and rents Tilo a room when she leaves her husband, Hariharan, who himself becomes an esteemed journalist, after many years of marriage - a marriage which is neither ruse nor real. Finally, and captivatingly, there is Yeswi, or Commander Gulrez, who is a Kashmir militant avoiding the grip of Major Amrik Singh, and Tilo's true love. He comes in and out of her life like the tide, and it is in his daughter's name that Tilo goes to such great lengths to care for an abandoned child who falls under her guardianship, Miss Jebeen the Second.
It is in protecting the child that these two stories come together, and both living and dead transform Anjum's cemetery into a place for all - Jannat Guest House for outcasts and friends in modern India. And, while this story centers on these characters, there are so many 'side kicks' throughout, outcasts themselves, that you will come to cherish as you read, including the crafty Saddam Hussain; Dr. Azad Bharatiya, political protester and fast-er; the musical Ustad Hameed Khan; the bellydancing Begum Renata Mumtaj; and the man buried as Commander Gulrez, the loyal pet owner and keeper of Yeswi's and Tilo's getaway houseboat, as kind as they come and never meant to encounter such warfare as that in modern India. Once again, Roy presents a memorable cast of characters, whose realness and feelingness will warm your heart and remind you of the beauty in our feverishly bloodied, emboldened world.