Following the monumental success of the Man Booker Prize winning God of Small Things, the release of Arundhati Roy’s second novel twenty years later unsurprisingly generated a lot of buzz. However although The Ministry of Utmost Happiness shares a likeness in structure to its predecessor, it’s a very different output.
It seems that the twenty year interim between the two novels goes some way to explaining their difference. Since God of Small Things was published, Roy has focused her energy on political activism, writing several essays on social activism in India, denouncing government policies and shedding light on atrocities such as the Gujarat Massacre. This influence is clear throughout, with the story revolving around the social effects of India’s turbulent modern history.
The reader is introduced to a complex cast of characters early on in the novel. The first is Anjum, a hermaphrodite (‘hijra’) from Old Delhi. The second is Tilo, the estranged daughter of a Christian woman and ‘Untouchable’ man, whose story develops via the impressions of the men who loved her. These two primary characters serve as the touchstone from which a myriad other character stories develop and eventually intertwine. This multitude of stories and characters is the crux of Roy’s intention “I wanted to write a book in which the story was like the streets of a great city […] I wanted even the smallest character to have a story”.
Though moments of evocative description akin to her first novel are invariably dotted throughout The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, its key difference is that personal character stories appear just as important as the political and social dialogue of twentieth century India. Although it’s a departure from Roy’s debut work, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is definitely worth reading in its own right.
Image via The Jakarta Post