The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A shattered story

I’m a serial plot chaser. When I’m reading a book or watching a show, I can’t concentrate on the details until I know what happens. The curse of speed reading often rears its head, and I quickly find out the ending – at the loss of enjoying the character development, writing style and language. For that reason, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is perfect.

There’s too much to resolve and nothing to resolve at the same time. There’s no discernible plot and no happy ending to seek out. There are too many characters to neatly tie up, and too many historical and political ties to stray from reality.

The Ministry is rather like a forest fire. You can feel the heat from page one. But the glow of the furnace is so distant, you think you’ll never reach it.

Yet by the end, the fire rages around you. And when you finish it, the world doesn’t feel the same anymore.

The Plot

Plot isn’t the focus here. The novel revolves around hope and humanity. It builds stories that get cast into the wind, only to fall into the web of another character arc. But The Ministry is a merciless read. It’s filled with juxtaposition and cruel contrasts: from the way it’s written to the stories it tells.

Take how you read the novel, for example. It was a slow burn for me, missing the pace of a plot. But despite this languorous rhythm, it’s quick. You need a sharp mind to keep up with its twists and turns; the way it dips into the past before ricocheting back into the present.

Arundhati Roy makes you work hard for this novel. As soon as you begin to relax into the storytelling, it’s whipped out from under your feet; much like peace and security for each of the characters. When you get used to the chaotic third-person narrative, you’re handed over to a steadier first-person account.

The plot is less shaped by what characters want, driven mainly by the political and historical events happening at the time. Despite studying history throughout all of school and college, I know barely anything about India’s history. Reading The Ministry really opened my eyes to what has happened – and what’s still going on. It shows a broken world and lets broken people tell their stories.

This book isn’t for you if you want a race to the end or a cathartic resolution. The plot – or lack of – won’t keep you glued to the page. The whispered, ferocious love within every sentence, however, will.

The Language

The language is poetic. It flows with a rhythm that keeps you reading. But this poetic, lyrical language depicts brutal scenes and criminal atrocities. Each single word is beautiful, yet together they create abhorrent acts.

Roy has an unmistakable ability to discretely swap between matter-of-fact, report-like writing and stunning prose that makes you read aloud to anyone in company. The poignancy created by lyrical sentences and brutal acts is felt in every page.

“The moment passed in a heartbeat. But it did not matter. What mattered was that it existed. To be present in history, even as nothing more than a chuckle, was a universe away from being absent from it, from being written out of it altogether. A chuckle, after all, could become a foothold in the sheer wall of the future.”

The Characters

The amount of characters in The Ministry is daunting. At one point, I was about to start writing down who was who and what they did. But as you read on, their stories begin to connect.

Character development isn’t linear – it’s about as opposite as you can get. You’ll meet many characters and instantly be thrown back in time to discover their stories. Others, you need to wait hundreds of pages until you see who they truly are. And some remain enigmas.

At first glance, it’s hard to identify who the main character is – or if there even is one.

Is it Anjum, the hijra, who both starts and ends the book? She is the black hole in this book’s universe, the vacuum at the centre of a whirlpool. Everyone is pulled to her, where they find comfort and safety.

S. Tilottama is another likely candidate. Introduced a third of the way through, she’s the centre of the world for three very different men. And despite seeing her through their eyes, her own eyes and the narrator’s eyes, you finish the book with the same sense of mystery that you started with. She keeps her distance but lets you join her journey.  

“It was herself she was exhausted by. She had lost the ability to keep her discrete worlds discrete – a skill that many consider to be the cornerstone of sanity. The traffic inside her head seemed to have stopped believing in traffic lights. The result was incessant noise, a few bad crashes and eventually gridlock.”

The Verdict

Some books demand attention and shout at you to read to the very end, not letting you put them down for a second.

The Ministry doesn’t shout. It whispers quietly. And without you realising, its rich descriptions and historical accounts seep into your life. I found it hard to get fully into this book – maybe because I’m used to reading lighter, plot-driven books; maybe because I was sat by a noisy pool in Ibiza. But after 20, 30 pages, I found it hard to get my mind out of it.

It’s a story about everything and nothing. It mimics humanity closer than any book I’ve read. Life is not a neat, three act structure. Life is confusing, complex and plotless. Life is about hope, love and the people you surround yourself with. And that’s exactly what The Ministry of Utmost Happiness represents.

“I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.”

Rating: ****

Goodreads’ Blurb

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years – the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who love her.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love – and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.


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