Let me preface this by saying that I like Arundhati Roy. I think she is an eloquent speaker. I think as a non-fiction writer, she manages to write with such depth and passion that I repeatedly re-read her essay collection Listening to Grasshoppers. And I like that she has been able to shine a light on social justice issues that have gone unnoticed as India creeps to the top of the GDP charts. Lastly, while many people feel that she’s too critical of India’s government and infrastructure, I think she’s critical when criticism is due and her outspokenness highlights the fact that India is still a democracy.
However, I didn’t enjoy her latest work of fiction: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Now before everyone tells me I’m a hypocrite, a philistine, sexist, or puts me in the same category as certain BJP legislators who wish she’d get tied in front of a jeep, let me explain why I wasn’t a fan of her latest novel in the following seven reasons.
(DISCLAIMER: SOME SPOILERS BELOW)
1) It’s Too Political
I get it. The government is falling apart. The Indian army is destroying Kashmir. Politicians are corrupt. But please Arundhati, when you start writing dialogue where female and male characters describe sleeping with one another and not having sex to ‘keep things secular’, it’s a bit of a stretch. Also, it is quite dismissive and rather patronising to claim that trans people would claim that their bodies are ‘like the Indo-Pak conflict’. The book is filled with silly examples of Roy trying to jam-pack her political views within the fictitious frame and remind the reader that she’s a political author. It just doesn’t work and the novel suffers for it.
2) Red Betel Stains and Human Excrement
Shining red betel leaf stains, bright henna-dyed hair, pee, and poop, oh my! We get it, the state of India’s environment is terrible. But really, red betel leaf, henna hair, and describing the fact that there aren’t very many toilets used, is such a cop out with South Asian literature. It’s quite clear that descriptors such as these are meant to tug on the Western reader’s heartstrings and evoke a Slumdog Millionaire sort of sympathy for the poor characters in that awful country. Pa-lease!
Well, you’ve got the Kashmiri militant guy, you’ve got the Hijra trans Muslim character, a two state hetero romance, various Maoists and Dalits, evil soldiers, ooh and a trustworthy elderly imam thrown in for good measure. Less is more doesn’t just apply to interior design and architecture, it applies to fiction too. The novel is full of stock characters from marginalised backgrounds. By trying to include every community that’s been wronged by India, Roy seems to actually extinguish what little voice they have in the novel.
4) Two-Dimensional Female Characters
One of the main female characters is introverted, smokes cigarettes and is the object of affection of three men. She smokes, therefore, she’s edgy (?) and doesn’t jump over the moon when guys are interested. It’s basic and lazy character development for one of the central female characters in the novel. Secondly, the Hijra trans character is really superstitious and paranoid. This characterisation just adds to reason number three and continues to vilify and stereotype Indian trans people.
5) Borrowing From Other Books
Calling the Prime Minister ‘Gujarat ka Lalla’ and giving pretty transparent code names for other major political figures through modern Indian history similar to Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and numerous others is beyond cliché. Not to mention a skirmish beginning because of a renegade Fruity juice box… that screams Case of the Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. The list goes on.
6) Vignettes and a Structure That Doesn’t Fit
We begin with a Hijra trans character. Then we are introduced to another storyline which has nothing to do with the first main character and their story and the first character is seemingly forgotten. The middle of the novel also gets so hung up on the Kashmir conflict by moving from the third person to the first person, to the inner thoughts of a rooster, to an epistolary of reports and letters. It’s cluttered, chaotic, and drags on and on.
7) Motley Crew of Characters
One scene in the book describes an Eid celebration where addicts, Hijras, a Dalit, the elderly imam, and various others all come together and happily partake in a goat feast. Another has this same group get in a limo and gaze in awe on their visit to a shopping mall in Delhi. Bringing this motley crew together feels a bit more like Gilligan’s Island rather than bringing any substance to the novel or its characters.
All this being said, let’s take into consideration that it’s been 20 years since she last wrote a novel: The God of Small Things. And that was a Booker Prize winner and a massive bestseller. She’s also written a myriad of essays and non-fiction works, and might I add seemed to get annoyed during interviewers asked when she would be writing her next novel. So who knows what her mindset was when writing this novel, but to be frank: it doesn’t work. So while many may feel I have been a bit harsh, I invite those readers to go and read the novel for themselves. But… don’t say you weren’t warned.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are of the author. It does not reflect the views of InUth.com, nor does InUth.com take any responsibility for it.