The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Is it a good book? That's all anyone's wanted to know about Arundhati Roy's highly-anticipated new novel and the reviews so far have offered a fair bit of entertainment to those who keep tabs on such things.
The fact is, everyone loves reading a review that is a takedown. Film, book, music, art — the medium is irrelevant. There's a pleasure we take in seeing someone's work being torn apart, especially when they're famous. It's almost empowering in a terribly petty way and in those moments, criticism becomes a performance sport. Like with Eileen Battersby's review of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in The Irish Times (which came out well before the publisher's embargo date of June 6). It was the first review to come out and Battersby was savage in her criticism. And so it seemed The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is 'bad'.
Then came The New Yorker's review, in which Joan Acocella lavished praise and admiration upon Roy for the very same The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Acocella also snuck in the critic's trick of making comparisons that raise the author in question — not just the Salman Rushdie of Midnight's Children, an umbilical cord was drawn between Roy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And so it seemed that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is 'good'.
So which is it? To me, the book is uneven. It has both spectacular craftsmanship as well as eye-roll-inducing clichés. It's ambitious and flawed, struggling to maintain a balance between all the stories contained in the novel and the issues to which it wants to do justice. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demands patience from the reader and if you give it that, the novel rewards you with fragments of terrible beauty. Moments like the one in which Musa and 'Garson Hobart' meet without Tilo; the story of the kidnapped poet who left behind a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of his poetry; the dead fists out of which mustard flowers bloom; the soldier who is torn apart by those who don't want to remember him. But that doesn't mean you won't be frustrated by Roy the storyteller. There are clichés, descriptions that are sticky with romanticism, and tropes burrowing their way through the novel. This is a book that needed an editor who is as gifted, brave and determined as the author. One as ready to fight the good fight for literature as Roy is for her beliefs. Unfortunately, it didn't get one and so we're left with a book that manages to be both rewarding and unsatisfying.
Yet, for all its jagged bits and potholes, I would ask you to buy and read this book because it is one of the bravest responses that we've seen to the rigidity that threatens India's society today. Perhaps there is a future in which we will be able to see The Ministry of Utmost Happiness as a novel independent of the world that birthed it, but I find myself unable to do that. This novel is a response to what we have around us — an India of shallow clichés, mortifying conservatism, shape-shifting violence and shrinking freedoms. You could argue that the politics of the country are creating a blind spot and as a result context is being prioritised over content as far as this novel is concerned. I'll take that criticism, but how can you ignore the courage that is needed to be anti-establishment today?
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is filled with a determination to find victory, hope and, yes, happiness, despite an overwhelming sense of melancholy. I was looking at its cover and comparing it to the cover of The God of Small Things. When I met Arundhati Roy, she showed me her copy and she looked a little more twinkly when I said there were such clear resonances between the two covers. (They're both designed by David Eldridge.) The flower and its colour, the geometry, the colours and shapes in the back cover — the two covers really do make a set. And yet, in terms of mood, they're polar opposites. The pond of The God of Small Things is, after all, alive and in it, this beautiful, delicate flower blooms. If a cover could be a grammatical tense, this one is present continuous. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, on the other hand, is the past. It has a tombstone, whose geometry is reminiscent of the leaves of The God of Small Things, but is leached of all that vibrant colour. The flower upon it is a fallen one, destined to wither and alive only as a memory.
But enough about what I have to say and what I think. Here's what Arundhati Roy told me about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.