Angry novels are divisive. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s hyperanticipated and indignant return to fiction, has accordingly delighted and exasperated in equal measure. The satisfied advertise Roy’s radiant prose, her resolute politics, and her ambition. The disgruntled disparage her maudlin prose, her preachy politics, and her incoherence.1 Everyone is right. The sentences are alternately mesmerizing and cloying; Roy’s convictions are bold and bald; the scope is tremendous and the structure clumsy.
The distaste for Roy’s tone recalls Virginia Woolf’s complaint that Charlotte Brontë was too angry to write good fiction.2 As this argument goes, fury disfigures form. Roy’s critics, if not Woolf, have a point—formally, the novel is a bit of a mess. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is really two short novels scantily stitched together: the first about a community of hijras (transgender women and intersex people) cohabiting in Old Delhi, the second about the separatist movement in the region of Kashmir. But even within each of these sections the narrative is digressive and shifts abruptly between a dizzying number of forms, unfurling through letters, official government notices, diary entries, newspaper clippings, witness statements, press releases, text messages, music lyrics, epitaphs.
This experimental recklessness is the product of Roy’s unbounded fury—at structures, at institutions, at people. Her outrage is directed not solely at the plight of Anjum, a transgender woman from a conservative Muslim family; before the novel’s midpoint she shifts to an entirely new set of characters variously involved in the Kashmiri fight for freedom and introduced via asides on India’s partition in 1947, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal later that year, the American war in Afghanistan, the privatization of Delhi’s garbage collection, urban poverty, rural poverty, India’s Naxalite-Maoist insurgency, and police rape.
Roy’s diatribes vary wildly in both length and potency. She excels at blistering takedowns of the powerful men of Indian politics, whom she leaves unnamed but barely disguised: we can identify Atal Bihari Vajpayee (“eloquent, except for long, exasperating pauses when he lost the thread of his argument, which was quite often,” Manmohan Singh (“all the political charisma of a trapped rabbit”), the hunger-striking Anna Hazare (“He lay fatly on his back with the air of an ailing saint”). She reserves special hatred for the man currently running the country and for the rise of violent Hindu nationalism administered by his fascist foot soldiers. Nothing horrifies Roy more than the willful whitewashing of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. India’s elite, intelligentsia and un-intelligentsia alike, have mastered amnesia.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat, a loyal member of the Organization (as were the Home Minister and the Prime Minister), was, at the time, up for re-election. He appeared on TV in a saffron kurta with a slash of vermilion on his forehead, and with cold, dead eyes ordered that the burnt bodies of the Hindu pilgrims be brought to Ahmedabad, the capital of the state, where they were to be put on display for the general public to pay their respects. A weaselly “unofficial spokesperson” announced unofficially that every action would be met with an equal and opposite reaction. He didn’t acknowledge Newton of course, because, in the prevailing climate, the officially sanctioned position was that ancient Hindus had invented all science.
The “reaction,” if indeed that is what it was, was neither equal nor opposite.
It is sentences like these that turn people off. They are, critics say, too obvious, belligerent, tangential, hectoring—in fact, not even fiction.3 This is true, in part. Many of these polemical detours are indistinguishable from Roy’s fiery, utopian political nonfiction (in which, for the 20 years since the publication of her first novel, she has voiced unwavering support for India’s oppressed and marginalized), and they are often barely connected to either of the novel’s plotlines.4 As a result, they are disorienting and threaten to overwhelm the charming cast who populate the narrative.
Yet if Roy’s outrage is structurally destabilizing, it is also indispensable. George Orwell, who was more admiring of writerly passion than Woolf, wrote that Charles Dickens’s greatest attribute, indeed his redeeming attribute, was his generous anger.5 Roy’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is enriched by a similar spirit. (Ministry wears its Dickensian inheritance proudly: it features a revolving door of eccentrics, indifference to psychological depth, unashamed sentimentality, even a series of abandoned children.) As Dickens was, Roy is fervent and unafraid, but her positions are more radical, her hate purer, and her anger more profuse. Hers might better be called promiscuous rage—wild, indiscriminate, quicksilver. This seemingly spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings makes for unwieldy writing and exhausting reading at times, but it also yields lucid, electric prose.
The most remarkable quality of Roy’s fury is that it isn’t corrosive; her capacity for hope remains undiminished.
Roy is at her best when she attends to single, slowed-down moments. She is a master of tiny physical details. Her sentences sing when she takes a breath and uses her tremendous observational powers to describe brief, tender interactions. She finds paternal diligence on a day out at the zoo (“A man bent down to his little daughter dressed in a bright frock, her eyes smudged with kohl. He pointed to the hippo and said ‘Crocodile.’ ‘Cockodie,’ his little girl said, cranking up the cuteness”) and captures ordinary maternal anxiety in a depiction of Anjum spooning turmeric milk into the mouth of her sick adopted child. The sharp, doting images are rarer in this novel than in The God of Small Things (1997), the debut that rocketed her to global fame, but they are no less pleasurable for that.
Ephemeral, imagistic moments are also how we get to know Tilo, the novel’s coprotagonist and Roy’s avatar (a firebrand Malayali architecture student with thick, messy hair who was raised by her single mother, a Syrian Christian schoolteacher), and Musa, the reticent freedom fighter she loves. Tilo and Musa are college sweethearts who reunite while Musa is mourning his martyred wife and child. In Musa, the figure of the “Muslim terrorist”—that is, a young man born to a particular faith and driven to violence by a political situation—finds sympathetic fictional form. It is a welcome relief from the poorly drawn caricatures (and abysmal prose) offered by some of the big men of English and American letters after 9/11.
Roy’s decision to return to the genre that made her famous is best justified by her attention to idiosyncrasies, as in this description of Musa’s daughter watching a passing funeral procession before she is massacred by the Indian army:
Miss Jebeen was bundled up against the cold in two sweaters and woolen mittens. On her head she wore a little white hijab made of wool. Thousands of people chanting Azadi! Azadi! funneled into the narrow lane. Miss Jebeen and her mother chanted it too. Although Miss Jebeen, always naughty, sometimes shouted Mataji! (Mother) instead of Azadi!—because the two words sounded the same, and because she knew that when she did that, her mother would look down at her and smile and kiss her.
It is the details—a little girl’s little hijab and her playful, private word games—that transform an intellectual understanding of politics into visceral abhorrence. By urging sympathy for an individual (here the devastated father of a once-precocious dead child), Ministry generates real hatred for the guilty. With flashes of minutiae, Roy infects us with her rage more effectively than she does while preaching.
The novel also shines when it depicts minor villains, the diverse handmaidens of injustice: there’s Sangeeta Madam, who ably exploits a fleet of private security guards; Dr. Ghulam Nasi, the self-proclaimed “sexologist” who makes a living “selling spurious, substandard body parts to desperate people”; Amrik Singh, who gleefully hunts, tortures, and eliminates militants and then seeks asylum in America; Biplab Dasgupta, the sad, drunk mouthpiece of the establishment who is hopelessly in love with Tilo. No character is mocked as mercilessly as Naga (also unrequitedly in love with Tilo; also an embedded critic of Roy and her positions), the urbane, faux-progressive journalist in cahoots with the government. Roy, a longtime victim of the abuse and incompetence of India’s mainstream media, excoriates Naga and his ilk.
Fiercely competitive TV channels covered the story of the breaking city as “Breaking News.” Nobody pointed out the irony. They unleashed their untrained, but excellent-looking, young reporters, who spread across the city like a rash, asking urgent, empty questions; they asked the poor what it was like to be poor, the hungry what it was like to be hungry, the homeless what it was like to be homeless. “Bhai Sahib, yeh bataaiye, aap ko kaisa lag raga hai … ?” Tell me, brother, how does it feel to be … ? The TV channels never ran out of sponsorship for their live telecasts of despair.
Experts aired their expert opinions for a fee. Somebody has to pay the price for Progress, they said expertly.
With many of her fictional creations, lovable as well as odious, Roy flouts that most sacred of MFA dictums: she tells rather than shows. Yet this superficiality (another Dickensian trait) creates vivid characters. As with her suspended moments, these quirky flat characters linger. Brimming with oddballs and misfits (goat-breeding magnates; illustrious goat butchers; security guards; woke, Western-dressing hijras), Ministry is a deliberately crowded piece of fiction. Its all-are-welcome attitude is mirrored in Jannat Guest House—the home-cum-hotel-cum-funeral-parlor for the outcast that Anjum constructs in an old graveyard—where the story’s various subplots finally converge.
The novel’s exuberant, inclusive ending reveals the most remarkable quality of Roy’s fury: it isn’t corrosive. Her capacity for hope remains undiminished. This sets it apart from other recent English-language fiction by non-expatriate Indian authors. Neel Mukherjee’s stunning The Lives of Others (2014), for example, matches Roy’s latest in scope, but its elegant exposure of injustice is imbued with despair. Ministry, on the other hand, balances searing critique with blithe optimism. But while Roy’s criticisms are systemic, her proposed solutions are domestic. She might be shouting from the rooftops, but she’s happiest inside the home. The balm is in the reconstituting of families: the rescuing of abandoned babies, the burial of imperfect parents, the rewarding of devoted surrogate mothers. All this consanguine harmony culminates in an extensive wedding guest list.
This kumbaya conclusion—involving a joyride through Delhi in a billionaire’s Mercedes, celebratory dancing, and admiration of the universe as reflected in a puddle of piss—is ultimately unsatisfying. That said, the novel offers another avenue for hope. Roy’s voracious criticism of the merry new face of neoliberal India is underwritten by a nostalgia for an India of yesteryear, which she imagines as riven by happy, plural contradictions, like Anjum’s mother, a Muslim housewife who sells white-cotton Gandhi hats to Hindu shopkeepers in Chandni Chowk to supplement the family income and sends her transgender child a hot meal every day.
Here, Roy offers readers a usable past: a country where people of different genders, castes, and religions once lived calmly side by side. This feels less saccharine and more possible than the mix of genders, classes, castes, and faiths that blissfully inhabit Anjum’s graveyard home. Certainly, this vision is also naive—India’s past has never been free from violence and poverty—but we’ll have to find hope where we can.
- Numerous reviewers are overwhelmingly positive: Sameer Rahim praises the novel for being “political but never preachy; heartfelt yet laced with ironic humour”; Ron Charles calls it “a remarkable creation” that “never descends into polemics, no matter how broad its sympathies.” But elsewhere, this enthusiasm is matched by aversion: Caroline Moore derides it as transmitting “appallingly sentimental outrage”; Seemita Das says Roy “gets carried away”; Eileen Battersby, in a particularly censorious review, calls it “messy and superficial.” Other reviewers have been ambivalent: Michiko Kakutani considers it “an ambitious but highly discursive novel”; Boyd Tonkin writes that it is “always bold, sometimes brilliant,” yet “can veer close to sentimentality”; Natasha Walter acknowledges its “clashing subplots and whimsical digressions” but urges us to “stick with this novel [and] give it time to grow.” ↩
- Woolf writes: “One sees that [Brontë] will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929; Harvest, 2005), p. 69. ↩
- Much of this brand of criticism fixates on the novel’s conspicuous handling of political issues: Sunil Menon writes that “[the novel’s] plot is an elaborate contrivance that allows the author to trawl through her pet themes, almost all of her very political non-fiction resume, tie them up in a loose bundle, and recast them in the complex half-light of fiction”; Nandini Balial says the novel is “a compelling tale … [that] turns into a wide swath of narrative non-fiction”; Seemita Das critiques the book for “glaring its political face at close proximity.” ↩
- Roy’s response to an accusation by historian Ramachandra Guha reveals that she is cognizant of her tone: “Never was there a more passionate indictment of passion, a more hysterical denunciation of hysteria—he’s right, I am hysterical. I am screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he is going Shhhh … you’ll wake the neighbours! But I want to wake the neighbours, that’s my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes.” The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy (Penguin, 2008), p. 13. ↩
- Orwell concludes his long essay on the Victorian novelist with a description of Dickens’s imagined face: “He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” George Orwell, “Charles Dickens,” in A Collection of Essays (Harvest, 1981), p. 104. ↩