The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Book Review

Somehow, the new book of Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost  Happiness, does not seem to have received the reception it deserved. Partly this is understandable, because the fanfare, with which the first novel was celebrated when it received the Booker, could not be repeated. I saw only a few reviews of the new book. They were either written by fans or decided non-fans. There was a common tendency to compare the new book with the earlier one. This in itself is a problematic, if not wrong, approach. The God of Small Things was the living down of a childhood in a Syrian Christian village environment, violation of marriage rules, caste barriers, coming to terms with an orthodox communism under which playmates could be Lenin or Stalin, but never Trotzky or Rosa. The ingeneousness of that book was to make the microcosm of that village intelligible to the whole wide world without compromising the local colour. In the intermittent twenty years, Arundhati   has worked hard to understand People’s Struggles, first in Narmada, then all over the country. She plunged wholeheartedly into the Nuclear Question, which she felt to be “The End of Imagination”. She also did “Walking with the Comrades” in Bastar. She has lived down the caste question further in her long essay “The Doctor and the Saint”, which was published with the critical edition of Dr. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (New Delhi 2014).

ministry-of-utmost-happinessWhen I read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it struck me immediately how much she has taken Urdu and Sufism on board against the saffron parakeets  and how central the trans-gender and Hijra milieu has become to her. There is a building of solidarity beyond the known boundaries of community and gender, and this in itself is very fascinating. It contributes further to the dismantling of restrictive family ties, without leading to solitude or fragmentation.

The narrative is indeed very complicated. It leads us from Architecture School in Delhi to Kashmir and back to Jantar Mantar, the playground of all democratic and not so democratic struggles. The mirror held up to us when caricaturing Anna Hazare,  Arvind Kejriwal,  Manmohan Singh and many more (all under interesting new names) is very captivating.

One striking feature is the thread of foster-mothering without physical motherhood. The trans-woman Anjum brings up a foundling but there is a conflict between her and a more modern foster mother, who is also a trans- woman, but attached to an NGO. This foster child later marries a Chamar, who goes by the name of Saddam Hussein after the Gujarat riots. It is a contradictory world indeed. The most remarkable feature is the thread of foster-mothering which connects Kashmir with Bastar. Tilotama, the dark skinned Kerala  architect, who was an illegitimate child out of wedlock adopted by her own physical Syrian Christian mother  after a break in an orphanage, has to live down her relationship with her mother yet again. The mother dies demented but reconciled in a hospital. (Belonging to an older generation, I felt sorry for Mary Roy , an old icon of the women’s movement for having defeated the Syrian church in court, forcing them to give inheritance rights to women. She won in court, but never got the land. She did not like to have been left to die in the first book, and here we go again, demented and asthmatic.  But Arundhaty warmly mentions her in the acknowledgement section of the book.)

Tilotama goes for an abortion when she gets pregnant, because she wants to avoid the close bond of physical motherhood, but she takes great risks  while salvaging a child who is a foundling in Jantar Mantar , left behind  by a demonstrator and “kidnapped “ by Tilo. This foundling child “replaces” a Kashmiri child called Miss Jebin the first, daughter of a resistance fighter Musa, who, together with her mother, was killed during a police firing at a martyr’s funeral in Srinagar. Interestingly, the dark skinned foundling in Jantar Mantar, called miss Jebin the second, later turns out to be the daughter of a woman Naxal  guerilla in Bastar, Revaty, who was gang raped by seven policemen. This woman, who knew she was going to die in a brutalised situation without support, wrote a letter to her child, which with the help of comrades was deposited at Jantar Mantar and “kidnapped” by Tilo. After sharing the letter with the trans-gender community in the graveyard in Old Delhi, Miss Jebin the second becomes   Miss Jebin Udaya. She becomes the foster child of Anjum, the older trans- woman, but Tilotama will keep an eye on her.

I was fascinated how the patriarchies of army violence and armed freedom struggles in Kashmir and Bastar are getting connected in the stories of these girl children. I was also disturbed how the armed struggle in Kashmir has deformed the Kashmiriat nurtured by Sufism. I met several people who complained about finding the different layers of the book a bit disconnected. It is true, I also had to read it a second time.

I feel one of the difficulties is to come to terms with the three male characters from Architecture  School to whom Tilotama relates. The depiction of the upper caste, upper class culture of two of these study mates, their involvement with establishment, media, even army, is very revealing and disturbing, while the third one, a Kashmiri freedom fighter , Musa, gets sucked into the pull of the popular struggle, which finally spells his death. The striking question which the Kashmir angle of the book raises is whether the militarisation of the Indian state leads to its self destruction. A very pertinent question indeed. It also applies to armed liberation struggles.

Strangely, this is a marvelous book, witty, perceptive, full of love for life and all creatures, deeply caring. The poor and destitute who people these pages will not be able to read and the middle class who reads may not quite understand, because they are stuck in their middle class culture and find it difficult to get it how Jantar Mantar, Kashmir and Bastar and the new life in the old Delhi graveyard are connected. This is a book about resurrection and uprising, hope and love, because “Miss Jebin Udaya is come”. I feel deeply thankful for this book full of Urdu poetry and light, in these dark times.


Gabriele Dietrich is a Sociology Professor at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai, affiliated to the nation’s first University, the Senate of Serampore College (University).


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