Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Amazon, Kirkus, The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Hudson Group
A dazzling, richly moving new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The God of Small Things
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent—from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.
It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love—and by hope.
The tale begins with Anjum—who used to be Aftab—unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her—including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.
As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut), in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, “It’s a boy.” Given the circumstances, her error was understandable.
A month into her first pregnancy Jahanara Begum and her husband decided that if their baby was a boy they would name him Aftab. Their first three children were girls. They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum’s life.
The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.
Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was. Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash. Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken. Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs. Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child. Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.
Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Booker Prize–winner Arundhati Roy’s dazzling new novel that explores deeply connected layers of family, love, and identity, set against the backdrop of contemporary India.
1. The novel opens with a vignette describing the mysterious death of vultures—and how “not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds” (page 5). How does this occurrence set the stage and tone for the rest of the novel with regard to the state of India’s society and the unrest that the characters experience within themselves and with the outside world? How does that mood transition into the graveyard setting of the first part of the book?
2. Discuss the complications of Aftab’s upbringing and his parents’ reactions to their child’s gender. What does the family dynamic suggest about the role that biology plays in determining one’s true family versus an individual’s ability to create or choose one’s family?
3. Anjum is told that a Hijra is “a living creature that is incapable of happiness . . . The riot is inside us. The war is inside us” (page 27). To what extent do you see this manifest in Anjum’s character throughout the book, and in what ways does she defy that definition?
4. What roles do magic and superstition play throughout the novel? Which characters are more inclined to subscribe to unconventional beliefs, and do they seem more comforted or disillusioned by those beliefs in the face of harsh realities?
5. Discuss the following idea: “What mattered was that [the moment] 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” (page 55). How does the formal inventiveness and variation of the novel’s narrative—which is told through documents, written and oral histories, and other archival materials passed among characters or left in their absence—attest to this sense of one’s relevance in history at any given moment? What are the different characters’ motives for leaving an impression of their existence?
6. How does the variety of perspectives that the documents in the novel afford you as a reader—from Tilo’s notebooks to the letter from Miss Jebeen the Second’s real mother—different, if not conflicting, portraits of the political conflict going on in Kashmir? Overall, did they allow you to more clearly see one side’s argument over another’s? What kind of texture did the shifts in narrative form create in your overall reading experience?
7. What is the intersection between death and life in the novel? Consider the ways in which Anjum’s graveyard/funeral parlor prospers and grows throughout the novel, and the notion that “Dying became just another way of living” (page 320).
8. How does Roy create the atmosphere and emotional tenor of the novel’s primary cities/places in India? What sensory details or descriptions stuck with you the most as the backdrop for the characters’ somewhat nomadic existence?
9. Did you find there to be more similarities or differences between places or scenes where protesting and violence occur in contrast to those where there is relative peace and civility? How does the point of view from which a given scene is narrated affect how you see a place?
10. How is parenthood, and, more specifically, motherhood, explored in the novel? Discuss in particular the mother-child bonds that Anjum, Tilo, and both Miss Jebeens experience.
11. How is religion a defining feature for characters in the novel and a main source of conflict in the society depicted? How do the differing beliefs and political loyalties affect events that transpire in the novel’s different geographical areas of conflict?
12. What role does gender play in the novel, in terms of how characters are expected and allowed to behave as well as how they respond to certain emotions, events, and treatments? Is gender the primary way a person identifies instead of by religion, political party, ethnicity/country of origin, or even profession?
13. The Landlord’s chapters are the only sections written in the first person. How does that point of view color your understanding of the relationship among him, Tilo, Naga, and Musa, including the knowledge that they met on the set of a play? What makes this web of love so intricate, and how does the war intensify their bonds even as it threatens to shatter them?
14. Musa is one character whose identity must be repressed in various ways to ensure his safety, and even his most arduous disguises are not always successful. What does his struggle and that of others in similar situations (people who disappear and/or transform into others) suggest about the mutability of one’s identity—whether it be by necessity or by organic change? How might you interpret the line “Only the dead are free” in that context (page 361)?
15. Discuss the lines of poetry that Tilo writes the end of the book, “How / to / tell / a / shattered / story? / By / slowly / becoming / everybody. /No. / By slowly becoming everything” (page 442). How do the main characters—Tilo, Musa, Naga, and Anjum—embody the idea of telling a story through the assimilation of its many fragments?
16. By the end of the novel, how did you interpret the meaning of its title?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Arundhati Roy
On the day we spoke, Arundhati Roy was under attack. A lawmaker (and Bollywood actor) from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had tweeted that Roy be tied and dragged from an Army Jeep for her support for the freedom fighters in Kashmir. His reference connected to a grisly episode from a few days earlier, in which an Indian Army major had trussed up a civilian named Farooq Dar to the hood of his Jeep as a human shield against a stone-throwing mob. The politician has since deleted the tweet, but the pressures Roy faces in India's constricting political and expressive space continue as dissenting authors, bloggers and academics face the wrath of the Modi Government. There is, as Roy puts it, "much terror in the air."
It is among just these kinds of macabre realities, and of an atmosphere laden with fear, that Roy penned her much-awaited new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Taking her readers into the winding alleys of Old Delhi, where India's increasingly beleaguered Muslim minority currently ekes out a beleaguered existence, Roy tells the intertwined stories of Anjum and Tillo, transsexuals (hijras) who also inhabit other margins. We spoke about the novel, Roy's political writing and the task of articulating India's complexity via her layered and multi- dimensional fiction. Rafia Zakaria
The Barnes & Noble Review: In the past couple of decades you have written mostly non-fiction. What made you turn to fiction now with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and would you call it a work of "political fiction"?
Arundhati Roy: To me everything is political. I realize that this is a cliché but it is also true. In India issues of caste, of rising cultural or religious nationalism, are in the air you breathe. If you choose to write and not write about them, then the fact that you avoid them is a very political act. There is no way you can hide your politics away in any form of literature that you choose; it is not more or less political than anything else. It [politics] is seeded in the air we are breathing now.
BNR: In your book, you refer many times and with some cynicism to "The New India," a place fraught with strife and a rabid religious populism. What is the role of the artist in this New India? Must art turn to activism now?
AR: No, what I am saying is that all art is political, whether you are overtly aware of it or not; to avoid looking at what is going on is also political. I do not think that my novel is a manifesto that is masquerading as a story where characters are playing out an ideological map that I have drawn; it is not what I do.
BNR: The fluidity of identity and the question of "passing" are central to the book: men turn to women and then back to men, Muslims pass as Hindus and little girls are dressed as boys. Is this an argument against immutability, against the belief identity is something inherent and unshakeable?
AR: Everybody in the novel has some kind of border running through them. Anjum has the border of gender, for Tillo it is caste, for Nimmo it is Indo-Pakistan, Saddam has caste and religious conversion. Even the graveyard, where much of the action of the book is located, is some kind of border between life and death. The book is also about how, when you harden these borders, this violence of inclusion and exclusion results.
BNR: What, then, of an author's identity? For instance, what does it mean to be a brown female Indian author who writes in English? What do you make, for instance, of cultural appropriation and what authors like Lionel Shriver have called "the right to write fiction and take on other identities"? Should the fluidity of identity or exploration trump the dynamics of power, of whiteness writing brown-ness?
AR: When you come to India you become witness to the complexity of appropriations, you see that every form of dominance and appropriation goes to the bottom, there is no pure victim and pure oppressor; a system that perpetuates itself and the oppressed are part of the project; it's very complicated. One cannot make any declarations. As a fiction writer, your world is people and all kinds of people and you have try and do the best by them.
BNR: The book is laden with loss: the loss of India's syncretic past, the loss of people on whose graves new lives are constructed, the loss of old buildings, old ways of living, old stories. There is a sense of endangerment. Is that a reflection of how you feel about the India of now?
AR: Well, I certainly have never felt so much terror in the air, the terror of minority communities, the terror felt by people who do not support the Hindutva project, the silence, the subjugation, the cooption. I have never felt like this ever before. I am the last person who looks back with nostalgia. I know what the past was for women and for Dalits, but what is happening now is terrifying. It's not about nostalgia; it's more about the speed with which the idea of justice is disappearing around the corner. There used to be a sense of revolution, people were demanding equality and justice. Now justice has just become a question, Kashmir is occupied, the forests are full of soldiers, there is no clean water to drink, all of us have identity cards, the level of devastation of the land is pretty terrifying as are the ways in which people, Black Africans, Muslims, Dalits, are being lynched. It is terrifying and everyone thinks it's a great democracy.
BNR: The novel plays great attention to the vocabulary of violence. For instance, you present the Kashmiri English alphabet constituted entirely of references to state violence and to religious extremism. You also present an array of vile insults that rain down on hijras. When words exist and cement division and subjugation, can they ever be erased, made to not exist? Can the verbal architecture of hate that they represent ever be dismantled?
AR: The thing is, this language of hate it's like something being dripped into our bloodstream. You just look at the language being deployed by politicians during elections, you don't know how you can come back to any place of sanity. It was unleashed at Partition, but even then there was at least an attempt to nominally say that India was a socialist and secular republic. Now you feel that the Constitution is going to be changed, at least for those who are marginalized, who are minorities, or who are the people who don't agree with this ideology (even if they don't come from the oppressed class). The government today, all of whose members belong to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevakh Sangh), which was founded in 1925, has been moving to this idea of a Hindu nation for a while. However, 9/11 gave them impetus, and the pogrom in Gujarat, it was more brazen because it dovetailed into the Islamophobia in the rest of the world. It is so today also.
BNR: Delhi and Kashmir are both enclaves for India's Muslims, where they eke out lives of desperation or revolution. What made you set the book in these contested spaces?
AR: It is a very different scenario for Kashmiris, because at least they are a majority where they are; there are no mobs roaming the streets and they have the dream of freedom. In the rest of India, in the villages, there is a terrifying scenario, where a person can be lynched for something like moving their cattle. They cannot respond, because the immediate consequence is collective punishment (for all members of that minority). There is great anger over dispossession and all that anger is being funneled downwards and on Dalits and Muslims. This is, of course, the way Governments win elections; they provide means via which the dispossessed can channel the anger further down, on those even more dispossessed.
BNR: Is there a parallel in America?
AR: There is a political parallel there but there is also a big difference. Trump is not supported by the institutions of government [in the way Modi is in India], and he is not supported by the media. In India, it is deeper: lots of institutional support, no one is mocking Modi, all the chess men are in place, history and syllabi are being re-written. It is a pretty dark tunnel.
BNR: You've described your political essays as a "march" and your fiction as a "dance." What do you mean when you say that?
AR: All the political essays were written at a time when things were closing in, something was happening, there was military being deployed in the streets or into the forests. Every time I wrote one I would say I am not writing another one, yet you cannot keep quiet and then again you get into trouble. When I write political essays, my body is different; it's a body of a fighting force. When I write fiction I am never in a hurry, never trying to write anything necessary. In writing (this book) over the last ten years, and all these people (characters) have lived with me, I have been keen to make sure to love them even in the wicked world. I am not interested in timeliness; it is a more dreamy and beautiful process. When I was writing this book, what I wanted to do was look at a story like the map of a great city, the whole of it, and then never walk past anybody, sit down in places or go down a blind alley. I wanted to make the background, the foreground and the city a person, to not be frightened of politics and yet to not submit to some idiotic template or some chess men character. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the product of that experiment. All the characters are real to me and in that sense the book is like a tree that has been nourished by what I know.
May 7, 2017