THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS, by Arundhati Roy. Alfred A. Knopf, 449 pp., $28.95.
Twenty years is an eternity in the publishing world, but that’s how long it’s been since we had a novel from the Indian writer Arundhati Roy. In case 1997 is somewhat hazy to you, that’s the year that Roy published her debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” the lushly written story of a pair of South Indian twins and the ill-fated love affair between their mother and an Untouchable man — the lowest of the low in India’s caste system. The book became an international bestseller and won the Booker Prize that October. Roy told reporters she’d write another book only when she had another book to write.
She was true to her word. Though Roy has written nonfiction and journalism, and emerged as an outspoken critic of the Indian government, there hasn’t been another work of fiction until now. After two decades, she really did have a book to write, one that seems to have poured out of her like a rushing river.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a dazzling work of imagination — a tumult of vibrant characters, stories and prose that engages deeply with recent Indian history and the struggles of India’s oppressed peoples. To anyone who thought Roy was a one-hit wonder, the novel is a full-throated rebuttal.
How to summarize the plot? Early in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” we witness the birth of an intersex baby in the walled city of Old Delhi — a child raised as a Muslim boy who “stepped through an ordinary doorway into another universe,” choosing to live among a group of Hijras — transgendered women with a long, marginalized history in India. Anjum’s story is one major thread in the novel, as she witnesses a deadly anti-Muslim riot (she is spared because the mob believes it is bad luck to kill a Hijra) and, numb with grief, moves into a Delhi cemetery. There she lives almost ascetically, gradually building a home for herself — the Jannat Guest House — that becomes both a funeral parlor and a haven for other Hijras. Also finding refuge there are a foundling left on the steps of the old mosque, a blind imam and a young Untouchable man who dubs himself Saddam Hussain.
Fasten your seat belts — all of this transpires within the novel’s first 100 pages. The other major narrative thread concerns an unorthodox South Indian woman named Tilo. “She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash,” observes a friend. “As though she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked — like pets.” Tilo studies architecture in Delhi in the 1980s and through a beloved college classmate, Musa, is caught up in the long, violent struggle for independence in the disputed northern territory of Kashmir. Where the Anjum pages are almost fable-like — “Midnight’s Children” by way of “Middlesex” — the Kashmiri section has the ominous suspense and moral weight of a story by Joseph Conrad. It’s a page-turner, with a terrifying scene set in a Kashmiri cinema turned torture center and a denouement aboard a houseboat on Dal Lake — where Tilo re-connects with Musa, now an underground insurgent sought by the Indian authorities — that will break your heart.
Perhaps the only unconvincing aspect of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a subplot involving a baby left at a Delhi protest encampment. (Yes, this is a novel with not one but two foundlings.) The baby serves as a link between Anjum and Tilo — both feel called to mother her — but it never feels like more than a plot device.
“The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a deep dive into Indian culture, overflowing with words in the Urdu language, lessons in Moghul history, barbed references to Indian politics, copious brand names. Even the most minor of characters — someone long ago buried in Anjum’s graveyard, for instance — is given a back story. Yet the novel almost always fascinates, conjuring in its swirl of stories a world all its own.
“How to tell a shattered story?” Tilo asks in a poem that she shows to Musa. Roy has found a way to tell the shattered story of modern India — the glories of its multitudinous peoples and cultures as well as the brutal machinations of power and prejudice. For all its denseness and darkness, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is an exhilarating read, one that reminds you what great fiction can accomplish.