Twenty years after Arundhati Roy’s transcendent The God of Small Things, she has written another work of fiction. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness deals with varied characters and sources of unrest in India, though, rather than the unhappiness of a single family.
The novel begins in roughly the 1950’s Delhi with Aftab, the only son of his Muslim family. Aftab was born a hermaphrodite, and his parents decided he would be a boy. Aftab, however, feels he is a girl, so in his teens he joins the hijras of Shahjahanabad, a group of transexuals and transvestites who are mostly sex workers. Aftab becomes Anjum.
Roy follows Anjum’s adventures for nearly half the book, during which time India is rocked by several eras of attacks on its Muslim communities. Eventually, as an older woman who feels that the affections of her adopted daughter have been lured away from her, Anjum moves away from the hijras to live in a graveyard and befriend a host of misfits.
With the appearance of a second unwanted baby, Roy’s narrative goes off in an entirely different direction, which does not seem to tie up with the previous story for some time. Instead we have the story of the friendship between Tilo, Naga, and Musa, a Christian-raised girl and two boys. Musa eventually becomes a revolutionary fighting for the freedom of Kashmir. Roy’s book is angry as she documents abuses of power by the Indian government on relatively innocent citizens who are not Hindu.
Frankly, it’s hard to know what to make of this novel, which seems to be all in pieces and has too easy of an ending. One key to it is a poem written by Tilo at the end of the novel. “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Well, this novel feels like Roy tried to cover everything, with many characters, many forms of narration, many stories.