The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

This is a vast sprawling sort of novel with tentacles that go everywhere but also a central nervous system where the various stories make a kind of sense. It begins with someone, Aftab, who lives in a graveyard, a deliberate contradiction, and who then turns out to be half male and half female and essentially hermaphroditic. A series of events and coincidences then draw the novel into a kind of sideways account of the long-running simmering war between India and Pakistan and between Muslim and Hindi, not to forget China and all the major powers with a point of view on what should happen in the region.

It is a pointless dispute, created by the original partition of India, and incapable of resolution. Everyone allegedly wants peace but what they all get is a bloodthirsty and prolonged civil war. There isn’t really a good side although I think Roy has sympathies with the Kashmiri nationalists. The landscape is peopled with corrupt people who often do not get what they deserve, victims who certainly don’t deserve their fates, insurgents and terrorists who all think they must be right and informers and spies who deserve all they get. It’s a mess and the novel reflects it well, often most powerfully through the impact on the helpless.

In the end, there is a vague sense of resolution and the thought that things might get better but there is always a hint that where there is a political vacuum global extremists will still seek to profit. However, the graveyard as a place to live starts to thrive, some of the lost children are found and it becomes more respectable to be a hermaphrodite in a world where the shock and horror headlines are taken by transsexuals.

You might wonder what on earth the book is all about after this! It certainly isn’t a detailed historical account of the Kashmiri struggle or a sympathetic novel about how the world relates to people of mixed genders. Perhaps the metaphor is actually straightforward. India and Pakistan is the hermaphrodite child of the Empire, male and female in opposition but unavoidably a single entity, and cutting bits off doesn’t change who you are. That might sound like a gloomy prospect but, at times, the book is quite funny and is always well-written.

The other thing to say about it is that it all takes place in that extraordinary mixing bowl of cultures, beliefs, colours and tastes which is how the West likes to think of India. I’m not sure that the idea that anything can happen because this is India works anymore, although it is how we like to think of the place so, sometimes, I got a bit bored of the sensory bombardment but that doesn’t detract from what is a quite excellent novel.

(I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley from the publishers, Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Books. The Penguin edition of the book was published in June 2018)


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