Asia Life

The God of Great Things, India’s Arundhati Roy Returns With a New Novel

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is important as a collection of essays but less digestible as a novel.

The God of Great Things, India’s Arundhati Roy Returns With a New Novel
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Vikramjit Kakati

Imagine comparing a beautiful landscape painting with a harsh TV documentary on contemporary social issues; an old sepia photograph with an award-winning controversial photo exhibition; a multi-layered poem to a collection of activist songs. There may be truth in each of these forms and they may even approach the same subjects, but the way of telling the story remains different. The differences are as vast when one compares the two novels by the award-winning Indian novelist, Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati Roy belongs to an elite club of internationally recognized Indian authors writing in English. She rose to immediate fame with her first novel, The God of Small Things, published in 1997. The book has since claimed the Man Booker prize; it has gone through reprints and has become a hero of many essays and academic articles on English literature. Roy, in turn, became a famed writer internationally but within India she gradually became even much more famous for her activism and blunt comments on Indian politics and the state of society.

Twenty years have passed and now Roy is giving us her second novel: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. How does it fare in comparison to the The God of Small Things? As mentioned above, the task of comparing is not an easy one as these are not simply two different novels by the same author but two different literary forms.

Let me start on a personal note. When The God of Small Things came out, I was in high school. I did not know much about India. The novel’s story landed the unprepared foreign reader in a village in India’s picturesque state of Kerala, to follow the history of one family. The book was originally written in English but sprinkled with words in the Malayalam language, sometimes with no translation. The landscape was depicted with the skill of a painter, but the story was thick with descriptions of family and social life that an average teenager can find hard to digest. The constant shifts in chronology demanded a lot of concentration from the reader. The novel’s emotional style also showed a great deal of empathy for human beings, an empathy of the kind felt by a child and of the kind felt by an adult woman – both of which can be difficult to grasp for a self-centered boy in his late teens.

I did not like the novel upon the first reading but my mother did. I know now that I was just too young to understand the value of the book and perhaps also too young to understand its subtleties and its emotions the way my mother understood them. But I think I’ve read The God of Small Things at least twice since then – in a time when I was older and when I already had developed a keen interest in India. Now I admire the beauty of the language; I can follow (I think) the wittingly arranged unchronological line of the story and I, of course, treat the novel as one more source of knowledge on Indian society.

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I tried to more or less follow Roy’s uncommon career since then. Many writers need quite a few books to reach the level of accomplished style and the heights of fame. Many of them shy away from engaging in political or social debates, which can arguably both enhance their fame as well as cause trouble. In the case of Roy, that was different. She was acclaimed as soon as she published her first book. She probably could have easily chosen to write another novel in the next few years and stay in the literary spotlight without courting controversies. Instead, Roy started to get involved in various movements and directed her pen to social activism. She started to take on India’s maladies one by one, gradually gaining probably more foes in her home country than friends.

Roy has become involved with the movement to save the Narmada River from building a large dam on it. She took a stance on the contested Kashmir issue that was unacceptable to many Indians (including the government) and took the side of India’s tribal communities against international companies that are encroaching on their territories. She has become a very vocal votary of leftist ideas, a position that includes the critique of religious bigotry, Hindu nationalism, the foreign policy of the United States, the free market, the freedom given to large companies, overexploitation of natural resources, and the like.

One of her most brazen acts – at least in my view – was reaching out to Maoist rebels that operate in India’s remote areas, staying with them in a jungle, and then describing her observations in a brilliantly written essay, Walking with the Comrades. If that is not enough to put one in trouble, the position of writers and activists like Arundhati Roy is even more precarious nowadays, when India is under rule of the Hindu nationalists whom she has always criticized. And instead of letting go until they will lose elections or choosing to emigrate from India, Roy is taking the nationalists head on (not that she was kind to the previous governments).

To be sure, I do not share many of Roy’s views but I respect her courage to speak her mind. And I do not think that of these two elements of her life – being a writer and being an activist – as separate ones. I do not think it is wrong to take on both of these roles at the same time. It is also not that Roy the Activist is completely different from Roy the Novelist. Some of the ideas that she later claimed in a blunt manner where already very visible in The God of Small Things. That novel, after all, is a clear attack on the traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal society, on the indifferent state in which brutal individuals and cunning political tricksters continuously oppress the common people. Roy’s essays, such as The End of Imagination, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, or Walking with the Comrades, share a lot of traits with her novel in terms of her skillful and emotional style.

Yet I did wish for Arundhati Roy to write another novel, to take a leave of absence from her fight for ideals in the real world and once again build her own literary microcosm in which every reader, regardless of his political views, could submerge. I am sure I was one of the many eagerly waiting and it took 20 years to see her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, appear on the shelves.

One thing is for sure: it is not another The God of Small Things.

This review is already nearly 1,000 words long and it seems I have not even started reviewing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But in a way I already have. Roy’s second novel turns out to be a sort of a summary of her 20 years of activism; a list of India’s current maladies, a photo gallery of the writer’s ideological enemies. The Kashmir issue, the chauvinism, nationalism, human rights abuses, rising Hindu-Muslim tensions… it is all there, and much more. It also very clearly Roy’s vision of the history of India in the last few years. Some main events – such as the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat or the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe – are mentioned directly. Real-life personalities have their names changed or nicknames assigned to them, but it is otherwise very easy to decipher whom Roy means (and attacks). The “Poet Prime Minister” is Atul Behari Vajpayee (India’s prime minister from 1999-2004); “Gujarat ka Lalla” is Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister; “Aggarwal” is Arvind Kejriwal, the current chief minister of Delhi, and so on. Reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is actually like reading a collection of political and social essays in a form of an novel. And that, at least for me, is the problem with the book.

Roy the Activist is not a different person from Roy the Novelist. These are just two aspects of her life and interwoven ones, too. Of course she is the only person to decide whom she wants to be. But in terms of form, an essay by an activist is not a novel. An essay should offer a list of all the main points in the line of argument. The novel is no place to include all of the points and if it does, the writer should cleverly include them in dialogue, in plot solutions, and in a symbolic manner (none of which is obviously easy). The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has, for instance, a part that describes many different protest movements sharing the same space near the Jantar Mantar (an observatory in Delhi). And while such a place indeed exists and serves this very purpose, trying to describe protest after protest makes the style cumbersome and can even make the reader forget the main plot. Moreover, by bundling up a collection of essays one can very neatly devote each chapter to a different topic. Yet, if the structure of a novel follows topics rather than heroes, the writer can – let’s be blunt – kill the story. Contemporary India probably faces far too many challenges to put them in one book.

To me, The God of Small Things had three main powers: brilliant language, witty structure and feelings, and empathy. The feelings, the human drama, the sad stories are all there in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It is just that the heroes are, at times, subsumed by movements, overpowered and carried by the currents of society and history. On the other hand, it is true that this is what happens to most of the individuals in the real world. Roy is simply not selling us an American dream but showing the Indian (and not only Indian) reality: no heroes saving the world, no individual decisions on which the fate of millions could depend.

The structure of the novel once again refuses to be linear. In the course of the story, the beauty of life is once again shockingly countered with its brutality. Roy has not lost her unbelievable writing skills in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The heroes’ background is once again painted with a multicolored brush. The language as such is also still very original. The God of Small Things became a darling for a score of experts in literature because of its experiments with the English language. Such playing with words is a bit downscaled in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness but this is simply because The God of Small Things was written from the perspective of two kids learning English and treating it like toy: sometimes disassembling it into pieces and sometime breaking it. But even in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness the puns are visibly intended. For instance, there is a movement in the novel which is portrayed as being supported by “left wing,” “right wing” and by the “wingless,” and there appear “civil servants” in “uncivil clothes.”

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Thus, the Arundhati Roy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is still the Arundhati Roy of The God of Small Things. The writer has not lost her undeniable talents but has shifted her focus. The God of Small Things focused on details: elements of landscape, parts of the human body, rooms in the house, but also haunting feelings, persistent memories, and perishing moments. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book on movements and processes, on boundaries and their transgressions. The God of Small Things has become the God of Great Things.

Let me add two last things. First, I am certainly a demanding reader. I have not only read Roy’s previous novel and some of her essays, but I have been more or less following the same events in India as covered by the second novel and Roy’s comments on them. I am therefore not so much keen to read it all again in the form of stories. But I do acknowledge that for many foreign readers The Ministry of Utmost Happiness may offer a rare chance to learn about India’s grim reality, to get to know a perspective that is very different from the dominant narratives and a one that gives a voice to marginalized groups.

Second, I understand Roy wrote two novels that are partially autobiographical and that is something natural for any writer to do. Roy grew up in Ayemenem in Kerala, which is exactly where most of the action of The God of Small Things takes place. Roy did admit that the novel incorporates elements of her childhood life, such as family excursions to the city cinema to watch The Sound of Music. This to a degree explains why the world of The God of Small Things is so realistically and yet so magically described.

In a later stage of life, Roy moved to Delhi and this is where a part of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set. Old Delhi, for instance, is described with a great understanding of the old Muslim culture that used to flourish there. In a recent interview Roy admitted owning a small place in Old Delhi apart from her regular house in New Delhi, and the Old Delhi spot apparently serves as her base to explore the area. But most of the time The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is autobiographical in a different and already mentioned sense: as a catalogue of political and social struggles in which the author was (and is) involved. If we do not deny the writer’s urge to include parts of his or her life as it was done The God of Small Things than the same should apply to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Still, as long as my preferences are concerned, I would wish for Arundhati Roy’s third novel to be constructed more like the first one: to be focused on a geographically and socially more limited area, to offer us a small but colorful world instead of a vast and grey one, to show us the little things that can be as important as the big ones. All things said, I do wish Arundhati Roy will write a third novel.