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'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is a sprawling tale in which Kashmir looms large

Arundhati Roy's first novel in two decades returns to the religious divisions polarizing India.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
By Arundhati Roy
Knopf Doubleday
464 pp.

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Arundhati Roy’s first novel, “The God of Small Things,” is one of the few that justifies the oxymoron “instant classic.” The Delhi-based star-crossed romance won the Booker Prize in 1997 and catapulted its author to international fame – and a scrutiny few would be comfortable with. 

Roy, then in her 30s, reportedly donated her prize money to activists protesting the displacement of villagers by dams, eschewed modeling offers, and turned to political writing and activism, including the fate of the India-occupied state of Kashmir.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her first novel in two decades, offers a sprawling tale in which the battle over Kashmir figures largely. It’s a big book in which the rising factionalism between India’s Hindus and Muslims spills over into violence, and sanctuary can only be found among the outcasts and in forgotten spaces like graveyards. 

The novel is almost impossible to sum up, but twin plots cluster around two women: Anjum and Tilo. The first was born a hermaphrodite and left her family – who wanted her to live as a boy – for life as a Hijra in an intersex community. Hijras, as Roy details, have traditions going back hundreds of years in India. The second is an architect-turned-activist who gets swept up in the Kashmiri struggle for independence.

“The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t,” another Hijra tells Anjum, making the case that trans people like them are a metaphorical embodiment of the religious divisions polarizing India.

Anjum gets caught in pogroms against Muslims in a way that nearly destroys her. “I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing,” she says at the beginning of the novel. Her place of retreat is a cemetery, where she builds a series of ramshackle rooms above the graves of her family and starts collecting strays and waifs in need of shelter. The Jannat Guest House, as she calls it, serves as home for a growing list of minor characters, including an orphan who renamed himself Saddam Hussein. Anjum and her graveyard family could have been scope enough for a novel, but Roy then switches gears entirely to Tilo’s story.

We learn about Tilo first through three men who went to school with her and loved her: a Kashmiri activist, a journalist, and a member of the Indian security forces. Garson Hobart, as Tilo nicknamed him, starts things off with a jaded tone entirely different from what’s come before. “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg. Its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence,” he says. “As long as the center holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine."

Explaining the conflict over Kashmir, he says, “It made for the perfect war, a war that can never be won or lost, a war without end...” before his alcohol-fueled grief spills over into the tale of how Tilo came back into his life, courtesy of a message she sent through her torturer. 

Anjum’s and Tilo’s stories do connect, eventually, but it’s easy to see how a reader could lose patience waiting for that to happen. Those who do not share Roy’s political views on Kashmir – which don’t read here as a screed but are clearly deeply held – also are unlikely to enjoy her new novel, which vividly portrays the brutality inflicted on those even tangentially caught up in the conflict. The stories that stayed with him, one of the characters says, are the ones where “hope and grief were woven together in it, so tightly, so inextricably.” 

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“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a magpie kind of tale – a heaping collection of tossed-together treasures nested in Roy’s deep sense of compassion for minorities and those cast off by society.