My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sometime in 1998, when I was in high school, in a news article, I read about an award called the ‘Booker Prize’ (later did I realise it was called the Man Booker Prize) and that an Indian had won the award for the year. Though my reading habit was on the decline back then, I did get my hands on the book that won Ms. Roy the Man Booker – The God of Small Things. I recall having skimmed through a few pages in the book, realised it was not my type of book and gave up the idea of reading it. A couple more false starts in the 2000s made it seem as though the book was not for me. Fast forwarding to March 2015 and a beach in Goa, I saw myself with this book sitting in a beach shack. I do not know what made a difference now – if it were the ‘me time’ or if I had grown up to appreciate the writing better – I really could not stop reading the book and I finished the book in a little of a day’s sitting at the beach. ‘This woman is brilliant!’ is all I said to myself about the book.
I never went on to read Ms. Roy’s other pieces of non-fiction she had written over the years and I eagerly awaited for her next book. And there was no sign of it, until mid-2016 or so, when it was announced that her new piece of fiction ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ was coming out in June 2017. Phew! It would have been gross injustice to Ms. Roy’s writing skills if she had stopped with the God of Small Things alone.
Having gotten a copy on the day of its release (and via the Flipkart Book Review program later), I really wanted to sit down with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and spend all the time that week reading it. However, time is a luxury these days and I found myself reading it over 6 weeks on multiple airplane journeys. The exact opposite of what I wanted to do. It was a new experience in itself and perhaps re-reading the portions of the book to preserve continuity gave things a different meaning at times.
Penning down about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the toughest task I have had to do in a while. I still cannot get myself to say much about the book since the book with some bit of non-linear narrative, multi-person perspective and slight magic-realism (not too evident as such, or I misread a few things) is not a page-turner. In addition to this, Ms. Roy tries to put in a real world setup to drive the story with events from the recent history including 1984 Sikh riots, 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, 2002 Godhra riots, 2012 Anna Hazare fast, Kashmir crisis and many more. It does get a little difficult at times to realise if this is a piece of fiction or if Ms. Roy has a point to make about the current political scenario.
The story’s protagonist Anjum and Tilo, and the associated male character trio Musa, Naga, and the landlord (whose name I don’t seem to recall now) are strong characters and Ms. Roy’s ease in making you love the characters shows. Particularly, Anjum’s story through the first 80 or so pages reads like poetry. Just when you think that you are back in that zone of reading a well-crafted narrative, the meandering mess that the novel ultimately turns out to be actually begins. While there are parallel narratives to this one which ultimately seem to converge, one is unable to see the bigger picture and a lot of the intricate details in the setup of the story seem to be lost somewhere in the abyss.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a definite lesson in writing for someone and it surely an example of how not to navigate through a narrative that has started out well. There’s crispness in Ms. Roy’s language when it comes to conversations and there’s the inimitable verbose nature while describing things as with God of Small Things.
One thing is for sure though – I will go back to read this book once again in the near future. But, if only the parts of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ added up and ended up being much more!
This book was provided to me as a part of Flipkart’s Book Review Program.