KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JANUARY 2018 (Reviews)
Roy (1961-) won the Man Booker prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of
Small Things. Since that success, she has been a prominent political activist and
critic concerning a wide range of contentious domestic and international issues.
She has also written non-fiction and numerous essays on contemporary politics
and culture. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Roy’s second novel.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
The introductory quote in the book is, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart...”,
from a Turkish writer named Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963). I assume that when a
writer has a quote, almost like a dedication to his/her book, that it was chosen
with purpose. The quote from Hikmet is fitting in light of what ensues in Roy’s
novel in two ways.
First, because Hikmet has been described as a “romantic communist” and a
“romantic revolutionary”; he was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and
spent much of his adult life in prison or exile; he died in Moscow. Roy is a
kindred spirit. In last twenty years she has been politically active and very critical
concerning the environment, anti-globalization, neoliberalism, US foreign policy,
India’s policies on nuclear weapons, industrialization and economic growth,
Kashmir (she supports independence from India), Israeli settlement policies,
charges of genocide in Sri Lanka, and more. Little wonder that she has run afoul
of the law on various occasions.
The second echo with Hikmet is the double-edged, “matter of your heart”.
Double edged because under the horror and depredation and corruption and
abuse chronicled in this novel, under the pervasive and fostered fear of “the
other” however defined, there is love between people, sometimes in the most
unlikely and most difficult circumstances, and there is love in commitments to
something larger, something that one wants to contribute to a greater good,
even at great personal risk.
The novel almost reads like a polemic. You can feel the anger, but Roy does not
quite cross the line. She uses a panoply of characters to illustrate/argue/define/
describe difficult and dangerous lives beset by inequalities and death, all pretty
much stemming from nationalist, social, economic, and religious fanaticism and
greed. She excoriates a system that chooses not focuses on the “good” news
with the explosion of wealth (for some) and the burgeoning middle class while
millions are still ground down by poverty and a system rigged against them.
Some may argue that the novel could have benefitted from a more stringent
editor, that it is too discursive, that it might even have been two books. I
disagree. The novel does meander and seems a little forced here and there, but I
think Roy does a wonderful job of bringing her characters to life in all their
complexities as individuals and in the circumstances that determine and often
force their paths of life, and death. India is a vast, complex, stratified country of
huge, and growing, differences and inequalities. How to single-out which
practices or conditions to convey a sense of India? You might argue with her
selections, but I think Roy has written from her heart about her multifaceted
perspectives on India.
I have mused over the meaning of the title: what is The Utmost Ministry of
Happiness? At the end of the novel we get the story of a child, Miss Jebeen the
Second, and her mother, in a letter delivered after the mother has been killed in
the Kashmir war. It is a wrenching story and at the end of it:
“Each of the listeners recognized, in their own separate ways, something of
themselves and their own stories, their own Indo-Pak, in the story of this
unknown, faraway woman who was no longer alive. It made then close ranks
around Miss Jebeen the Second like a formation of trees, or adult elephants—an
impenetrable fortress in which she, unlike her biological mother, would grown up
protected and loved.”
This passage has two key points: the universality of human experience that can
resonate across place and time, and the essence of what is the Ministry of
Happiness: to be loved and to know love, in any circumstance, stage and age of
There was a review recently in the New York Review of Books of, Ants Among
Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, by Sujatha
Gidla, a book about Dalits, formerly “untouchable” Hindus. A number of
observations from the reviewer echo themes that Roy explores in her novel:
“India, the world’s largest democracy, also happens to be the world’s most
hierarchical society....The institution of caste, the social group to which Indians
belong by birth, remains the most formidable obstacle an egalitarian ethos....in
the Hindu caste system defined by ‘graded inequality’...there is no such class
as a completely unprivileged caste except the one which is at the base of the
Gidla argues that, “everything exciting and progressive” in the 1950s and 1960s
was “associated with communism”. Echoes of Roy’s political tendencies, and a
tie back to her selection of a quote from Hikmet.
Finally, “...Gidla’s characters are not two-dimensional victims, poor and weak,
waiting to be liberated from their primitive existence by some modern ideology
or institution...Rather, she commemorates their ingenuity and creativity, their
repertoire of cultures and memories...she displays an ethnographic fidelity to
the stories, images, gods, taboos, and fears of her community...the emotional
current is always strong. People fall in love, and are cruelly thwarted, by both fate
and man-made prohibitions.” (emphasis added)
This quote could serve also as a description of Roy’s novel.
Tags: John Klassen