Cover image for The ministry of utmost happiness / Arundhati Roy.
The ministry of utmost happiness / Arundhati Roy.
Publication Information:
Toronto : Penguin Canada, 2017.

Physical Description:
449 pages ; 22 cm
Geographic Term:


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1 Bob Harkins Branch ROY Book Adult General Collection
2 Bob Harkins Branch ROY Book Adult General Collection
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2017 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a dazzling new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The God of Small Things . It takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent--from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Dehli and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.
It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love--and by hope.
The tale begins with Anjum--who used to be Aftab--unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her--including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo's landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs' Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.
As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these richly complex lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy's storytelling gifts.

Author Notes

Suzanna Arundhati Roy, 1961 - Suzanna Roy was born November 24, 1961. Her parents divorced and she lived with her mother Mary Roy, a social activist, in Aymanam. Her mother ran an informal school named Corpus Christi and it was there Roy developed her intellectual abilities, free from the rules of formal education. At the age of 16, she left home and lived on her own in a squatter's colony in Delhi. She went six years without seeing her mother.

She attended Delhi School of Architecture where she met and married fellow student Gerard Da Cunha. Neither had a great interest in architecture so they quit school and went to Goa. They stayed there for seven months and returned broke. Their marriage lasted only four years. Roy had taken a job at the National Institute of Urban Affairs and, while cycling down a road; film director Pradeep Krishen offered her a small role as a tribal bimbo in Massey Saab. She then received a scholarship to study the restoration of monuments in Italy. During her eight months in Italy, she realized she was a writer. Now married to Krishen, they planned a 26-episode television epic called Banyan Tree. They didn't shoot enough footage for more than four episodes so the serial was scrapped. She wrote the screenplay for the film In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones and Electric Moon.

Her next piece caused controversy. It was an article that criticized Shekar Kapur's film Bandit Queen, which was about Phoolan Devi. She accused Kapur of misrepresenting Devi and it eventually became a court case. Afterwards, finished with film, she concentrated on her writing, which became the novel "A God of Small Things." It is based on what it was like growing up in Kerala. The novel contains mild eroticism and again, controversy found Roy having a public interest petition filed to remove the last chapter because of the description of a sexual act. It took Roy five years to write "A God of Small Things" and was released April 4, 1997 in Delhi. It received the Booker prize in London in 1997 and has topped the best-seller lists around the world. Roy is the first non-expatriate Indian author and the first Indian woman to win the Booker prize.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Appearing two decades after 1997's celebrated The God of Small Things, Roy's ambitious, original, and haunting second novel fuses tenderness and brutality, mythic resonance and the stuff of front-page headlines. Anjum, one of its two protagonists, is born intersex and raised as a male. Embracing her identity as a woman, she moves from her childhood home in Delhi to the nearby House of Dreams, where hijra like herself live together, and then to a cemetery when that home too fails her. The dwelling she cobbles together on her family's graves becomes a paradoxically life-affirming enclave for the wounded, outcast, and odd. The other protagonist, the woman who calls herself S. Tilottama, fascinates three very different men but loves only one, the elusive Kashmiri activist Musa Yeswi. When an abandoned infant girl appears mysteriously amid urban litter and both Anjum and Tilo have reasons to try to claim her, all their lives converge. Shifting fluidly between moods and time frames, Roy juxtaposes first-person and omniscient narration with "found" documents to weave her characters' stories with India's social and political tensions, particularly the violent retaliations to Kashmir's long fight for self-rule. Sweeping, intricate, and sometimes densely topical, the novel can be a challenging read. Yet its complexity feels essential to Roy's vision of a bewilderingly beautiful, contradictory, and broken world. 150,000-copy announced first printing. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

A WRITER HAS witnessed a riot. He is not, he says, a "joiner," but the violence is so ugly that he enlists in a peaceful protest movement. The experience of solidarity changes him. "When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world," he writes, "in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking: Is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of these descriptions failed to find a form - or a style or a voice or a plot - that could accommodate both violence and the civilized, willed response to it?" This was the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, writing in 1995, a decade after a governmentsponsored massacre left3,000 Sikhs dead in Delhi. The questions he asked have only grown in relevance. How to write about such an event without descending into despair? And how to give hope without being treacly? I thought of these questions while reading Arundhati Roy's "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" - her first novel in 20 years. Set in India in the present decade (with back stories extending into the 1950s), it is a novel about social and political outcasts who come together in response to state-sponsored violence. Roy's first and only other novel, "The God of Small Things," was a commercial and critical sensation. The gorgeous story of a doomed South Indian family, it sold six million copies and won the Booker Prize. It became a sort of legend - both for its quality and for its backwater publishing story: Roy, unlike so many other successful Indian writers in English, didn't live abroad or attend an elite college. She had trained as an architect and had an obscure career as an indie actress and screenwriter. Her success, which involved foreign agents and a startling advance, was linked to India's kickstarting, liberalizing economy as well. It seemed everything had come together for Roy's book. Roy reacted with instinctive defiance. She stopped writing fiction and began protesting against the Indian state, which, she felt, was steamrollering the rights of the poor and collaborating with capitalist overlords. Several books of essays followed. Their titles - "The Algebra of Infinite Justice," "The End of Imagination," "Capitalism: A Ghost Story" - convey the largeness of her concerns. She traveled with Maoist guerrillas in an Indian forest, marched with anti-big-dam protesters, met with Edward Snowden in a Moscow hotel room, and was threatened and even briefly imprisoned by the Indian government - and she continued to write. But the writing was not of the same standard as her fiction. Though occasionally witty in its put-downs, it was black-and-white and self-righteous - acceptable within the tradition of political writing, but not artful. So it is a relief to encounter the new book and find Roy the artist fully and brilliantly intact: prospering with stories and writing in gorgeous, supple prose. The organs of a slaughtered buffalo in one scene "slip away like odd-shaped boats on a river of blood"; the "outrageous" femininity of transgender women or hijras in a neighborhood make the "real, biological women" look "cloudy and dispersed"; a boat is seen "cleaving through a dark, liquid lawn" of a weed-choked lake. Again and again beautiful images refresh our sense of the world. The story concerns several people who converge over an abandoned baby at an anti-corruption protest in Delhi in 2011. There is a hijra named Anjum who has survived the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002. There is her sidekick, a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussain because he is obsessed with the "courage and dignity" of Saddam "in the face of death." And there is an enigmatic middle-class woman called S. Tilottama who ferries the abandoned baby to her home. Tilottama, who shares biographical details with Roy, is perhaps the central node of the book; she connects everyone. In college for architecture in the 1980s she was close to three men - all of whom end up being involved with the Kashmir conflict in some way: one as an intelligence officer, the other as a journalist, and Musa, the Kashmiri of the group, as a freedomfighter, or militant. The three men intersect again on an autumn night in Kashmir in the 1990s, when Tilottama, nicknamed Tilo, is arrested on a houseboat for apparently colluding with a militant. What follows is a saga that enfolds the whole conflict. The modern Kashmiri struggle for independence from India was inflamed in 1990, when Indian security forces fired on unarmed protesters; aid and arms from Pakistan flowed in. Now Kashmiris agitating for self-determination live in the most densely militarized area in the world, with civilians regularly arrested, tortured, and "disappeared." Roy, in her nonfiction, has taken a sharp interest in Kashmir, and it is evident in this novel, which is blazing with details about the Indian government's occupation and the Kashmiri people's ensuing sorrow. She knows everything from the frighteningly euphemistic military terminology of the region (informers are "cats" and so on) to the natural landscape of "herons, cormorants, plovers, lapwings," and the "walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards." She looks into homes, into bomb sites, into graveyards, into torture centers, into the "glassy, inscrutable" lakes. And she reveals for us the shattered psychology of Kashmiris who have been fighting the Indian Army and also occasionally collaborating with it. These sections of the book filled me with awe - not just as a reader, but as a novelist - for the sheer fidelity and beauty of detail. A worried father watches his son save himself as he falls down the stairs in their house. "How did you learn to fall like that?" he asks. "Who taught you to fall like this?" (He fears, like so many Kashmiri parents, that his son has joined a militant group.) A young militant describes buying ammunition from the army, because, in Kashmir, "everybody on all sides is making money on the bodies of young Kashmiris." A turncoat Kashmiri torturer who works for the Indian government unconsciously introduces a journalist as being "from India." This is terrific novelistic noticing, and it has none of the programmatic feeling of Roy's nonfiction. The other part of the book, which concerns Anjum, gives Roy more trouble, but only in its political aspects. We see how Anjum, born intersex as Aftab in the conservative Muslim quarters of Old Delhi, wishes "to put out a hand with painted nails and a wrist full of bangles and delicately liftthe gill of a fish to see how fresh it was before bargaining down the price." She eventually joins a hijra home. Then, in 2002, on a visit to Gujarat, she is attacked by right-wing Hindu mobs. While swiftly narrated, this section is flatter in execution: We know where Roy stands, where her sympathies lie, and though she finely conjures the world of Old Delhi Muslims and hijras, what emerges is a sort of political fairy tale, with the good guys and bad guys clearly delineated. Even here Roy can't help writing with astonishing vividness, immersing us deep into a subculture. She has also crammed this section with superb mini-biographies, as if she's conducting a novelistic census of the entire neighborhood. Nevertheless this section seemed for me to belong to a different book. And here one comes to the problem with the form Roy has chosen. For the Kashmir stories, Roy relies on a looped, nesting structure familiar from "Small Things"; though occasionally ponderous, it heightens our suspense. The Anjum sections are linear and propulsive and often playful. But Anjum and Tilo and the other outcasts are brought together not through intellectual affinity but the device of the abandoned baby at the protest. The baby takes up a lot of space in the novel. Significant time is devoted to debating who she is and to hiding her, and we don't understand Tilo's or Anjum's obsession; it seems like sheer novelistic stubbornness, a desire to connect plotlines and political movements. And in doing so, Roy ends up erasing meaning. In the Kashmir sections she has so wonderfully answered Ghosh's call, showing us the camaraderie of Kashmiris in the face of despair; here, because the camaraderie is forced, the novel begins to feel like a sentimental response to violence - a fairy tale in a time of suffering. Roy, who has witnessed a great deal of turmoil, is uniquely placed to emphasize the solidarities between movements. She wants to show us a genuine counterculture of protest. Nevertheless, I longed for fewer connections, fewer babies and more indepth depictions of the psychologies of the movements. I wanted Roy to focus not on the big symbols, but once again on the small things. KARAN MAHAJAN'S second novel, "The Association of Small Bombs," was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

Library Journal Review

Roy's first novel since her 1997 Booker Prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things, is well worth the wait. It begins with the story of -Anjum, a hijra (transgender or gender-nonconforming individual) growing up in a traditional Muslim family in Delhi. Anjum moves into a house with other hijra, then, after surviving a massacre while on a religious pilgrimage, moves to a graveyard where she creates an unlikely home for misfits. Tilo, another major character, is the defiant wife of a journalist living in a wealthy diplomatic enclave of Delhi. She is described first through the eyes of her college friend -Biplab, a government employee, who sees her as misled by Kashmiri rebel propaganda. Through the eyes of a mob in Jantar Mantar, she is the "kidnapper" of an abandoned baby. To an academic who has been fasting for 11 years, she is a publisher. The uncanny intersecting of these and many other characters' lives, along with fables, songs, and literary quotes, create a brilliant bricolage. Roy looks unflinchingly at brutal poverty, human cruelty, and the absurdities of modern war; somehow, she turns it into poetry. VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers of literary fiction. Fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, or Garth Risk -Hallberg's City on Fire will especially enjoy.-Kate Gray, Boston P.L., MA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut), in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother's arms wrapped in two shawls, said, "It's a boy." Given the circumstances, her error was understandable. A month into her first pregnancy Jahanara Begum and her husband decided that if their baby was a boy they would name him Aftab. Their first three children were girls. They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum's life. The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body--eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes--with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part. Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was. Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash. Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken. Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs. Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child. Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things--carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments--had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him-- Hijra . Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar . But two words do not make a language. Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl. Excerpted from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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