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Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The year 2010 I picked up a battered copy of God Of Small Things, and I fell in love with Arundhati Roy and her expressive and detailed writing. And now in 2017, I have fallen in love with her all over again through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The book is not just a story, it’s a journey through changing times in India, from Kashmir insurgency to latest cow vigilantes. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness introduces you to unforgettable characters caught up in the tide of history and coming modern times. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, there’s happiness and comfort found in tragedy, love stories shared and a provocation.

The story of Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins with Anjum, who because of series of events has now shacked up in a graveyard, where she lives like “an old tree”. The graveyard is not just where people leave their departed loved ones but is also a mehfil where anybody and everybody are welcome, from a mangy dog to people who are hiding their identity. Over a period of time, Anjum’s graveyard becomes a small sanctuary which is secular in nature and protected from the outside world and its demons.

The word best associated with Anjum is Hijra. Born as Aftab, Anjum goes through a series of surgeries to find her inner self. Since her teenage, she has lived and fond solace in Khwabagh, a place of liberation and self-expression, a place where she could belong. One day, she decides to undertake a journey to a Gujarat Shrine, where she is caught up in a massacre of Hindu Pilgrims followed with government fueled attack against Muslims. She temporarily sheds her colorful clothes and takes on Pathani suits to the graveyard, her new home. And this turn of events signals a sprawling expansion of the upcoming pages on the book.

The next part of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us from Delhi to Kashmir, where India and Pakistan are waging a war against each other on the Line of Control, turning inhabitants of the most peaceful and serene landscape into militants, jihadis, informants, and victims. The protagonist of this part of the book is torn between complexities of his work in intelligence and his love for a woman who as suffered the worst of Kashmir. And this section is horrific yet so enthralling that you cannot stop devouring it! One of the characters from this section mentions,

“Their problem is not confusion, not really. It’s more like a terrible clarity that exists outside the language of modern geopolitics. All the protagonists on all sides of the conflict, especially us, exploited this fault line mercilessly. It made for a perfect war – a war that can never be won or lost, a war without end.”

It’s hard to find anything that was not brilliant in the Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Some of the readers may find it over-populated with characters and no sequence in events. But I guess only a true reader will be able to find stability in this chaos. And one of the best things about this book is that you can actually hear Arundhati Roy’s thoughts in the text. As an active spokesperson when it comes to Kashmir conflict, Roy has made sure to put her heart into the Ministry of Utmost Happiness and it has the power to make the reader keep down the book and think about what we know and what’s the reality.

Even though the Ministry of Utmost Happiness may seem like a patchwork of random characters, by the time you reach the climax you are left completely stunned. Each word (iota), no matter how random in sequence, of this beautiful book constitutes an idea so brilliant that it makes the reader sit up.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a roller coaster ride of narratives which painful, funny, sexy and out of the world. It’s a constant struggle of individual sacrifice in service of the country and challenging the ideologies. It’s a text that deciphers the make believe world that we live in. It’s a beautiful book and definitely, a must read for everyone!

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