Her first novel since The God of Small Things is both mischievous and outragedby Gillian Beer / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
Twenty years ago Arundhati Roy produced a first novel, The God of Small Things, in which caste and place controlled a tightly-woven and tragic love story whose cadences drew on south Indian speech. That won the Booker Prize and became a great bestseller, selling six million copies worldwide. Since then Roy has been engaged in political activism in her native country, always a thorn in the side of the Indian establishment that once fêted her. She has watched her country’s turn to Hindu nationalism with horror, and it seemed as though the injustices she exposed in her non-fiction might permanently divert her from novels. But it has turned out not to be so. Her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is larger, more complicated, more multilingual, more challenging as a reading experience than The God of Small Things, and no less immersing.
This intricately layered and passionate novel, studded with jokes and with horrors, has room for satire and romance, for rage and politics and for steely understatement. It’s a world where laconic asides destabilise our comfortable assumptions. The entire Indian subcontinent and its conflicted history over the past 70 years (and before that) are drawn into the descriptions. So are individual people in all their variety.
The chronology of the book twists, turns and overlaps, sometimes taking us forward in an aside, sometimes unfurling whole events previously only hinted at so that we now enter close into the passions of people who have previously seemed to be bit-players. The reader must keep her wits about her at all times. Memory and the future grid over each other. Following the track is hard work.
What is gained by this? These ellipses and delays mimic the ways in which in reality we come to know individuals and their life stories over time. They also serve as an analytical tool (often a savagely funny one) to demonstrate how events gain new meanings or are depleted by future happenings. Indeed, the constantly shifting focus of the stories asks: What is an event? Can we divest ourselves of the past? Isn’t it in the grain of the present? Isn’t it the propulsive energy of the present? And why are we in hock to the future?