For the past two weeks nearly every morning, I have woken up, bleary-eyed, to fresh reviews of Arundhati Roy’s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I open my Facebook app, still in bed, and there they all are, floating around my timeline, these reviews and profiles and interviews, generating a kind of cool, electric excitement that seems a huge favour to the miserable summer.
They are all juicy. Many are scathing. Others are gushy. Most flit between the two extremes. In general, they make you feel like this is the kind of novel that you’ll just have to make up your own mind about. Because whatever the feverish spate of online sales might tell you, in liberal circles, Roy’s novel – only her second in 20 years, all the reviews scream – is the “unmissable” accessory this summer.
To be bought in hardback, preferably, arranged artfully on the table with a mug of tea by its side, a picture clicked and posted on social media without any delay. And imagine, all this even before the book’s official release.
On June 6, Roy’s novel hit bookstores.
By then, most news media in India and abroad had held forth on her genius, her flaws, her politics, her activism, accentuated by her many reported quirks and accompanying vintage-chic photographs of Roy looking alternatively impish and pensive. The Guardian carried an extract from the opening chapter, accompanied with a profile-interview which focused, almost ironically, on her eccentricities, like how she consulted the “folks in my book” before signing the book deal once she had finished writing it.
Wrote Decca Aitkenhead in her widely-circulated piece: “‘Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.’ They’re always with her? ‘Oh yes. As soon as I shut the door, it’s, “So what did you think of that person? Idiot, right?”’ Will she ask them how this interview went after I leave? She looks surprised I’d need to ask. ‘Yes, of course.’”
The novel about everything
Whether favourable or not – Roy, the personality, nearly always makes for engaging copy. The book, though, looked like it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and it was ripe for the picking, to be endlessly talked about, eulogised, taken apart...till everyone tired of it all and moved on. With Roy having mined many moments from India’s history – the Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Maoist insurgency, the Gujarat riots, the Kashmir conflict, the anti-corruption movement, and even the rise of the gau rakshaks and Hindutva – the book was naturally positioned to spark much debate.
The review that followed in The Guardian took a balanced view, talking about Roy’s “ability to create a bright mosaic out of these fragmented stories”, but also noting that too many characters and voices in the novel dilute the effect. Back in India, The Guardian’s enthusiasm was matched by Mint Lounge in its “seven-step guide to everything there is to know about the most anticipated book of the year”.
In a subsequent review, author Jerry Pinto called Roy’s story “hideous and beautiful”. An important and interesting novel, he said, while openly illustrating its serious flaws. “The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness also reads like a first draft (is this also part of the deal? I can’t tell). We are introduced to a character on page 143 but we must wait until page 175 before he is named. But he is only one of the 50 main characters – I counted – in this populous book. Almost every story is told backwards, so you are always in free fall through time and the story has already been told before it has begun.”
At HuffPost India, Somak Ghosal called it a far cry from her brilliant first novel, elaborating on why some readers might feel it challenging to engage fully in the novel’s design: “Soaring to flights of irony and poetry one moment, plunging into anodyne reportage the next, it appears to be composed by several minds and hands, unable to decide its tone and texture. More worryingly, the plot seems to stick together multiple strands of narratives with the merest excuse of a literary scotch tape – without too much care, or perhaps with such exquisite design that eludes the lesser mortals.”
In praise of her prose
Not everyone felt bogged down by the novel’s vast star cast or crowded canvas of pet causes, however. Critic Nilanjana Roy, calling the book “an elegy for a bulldozed world” in her Business Standard column, found it to be rewarding. “…[The] great pleasure of reading Ministry is its intricacy, the profusion of lives woven together into a massive tapestry.” On Twitter, critic Sanjay Sipahimalani, in a series of tweets, defended the right for a novel to “aspire to be large, loose, baggy and wonderful. This is one of them..Most novels are islands; Ministry is an archipelago.”
The Times found it “inventive without being merely tricksy....It is the novel as intimate epic. Expect to see it on every prize shortlist this year.” Time was similarly pleased, calling it undeniably good literature. “With its insights into human nature, its memorable characters and its luscious prose, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is well worth the 20-year wait.”
In a book that is being seen to be as polemical as its author, the review in Scroll.in found an organic balance within the pages: “...the acerbity of Roy’s political eye is balanced by her all-encompassing, expansive delight in the world.” And Outlook magazine said: “As it lurches between magical and social realism, so to speak, you don’t know whether to marvel at her ability to telescope events, build a collage of everything, or be exasperated at this baedeker of headline events.”
...and the brickbats
But the review that caught everyone’s attention – partly because it was one of the first – appeared in The Irish Times, proving that like many celebrated authors in the world, Roy, too, could be the subject of hatchet jobs. The review in question was so biting in its critique – incidentally accompanied by the most dated picture of the author seen in any other review or profile – that it made you wonder about the acidity of the critic.
It described the novel as “chaotic”, “messy”, “superficial.” And then the reviewer launched an attack on Roy which seemed to have been simmering for 20 long years. “About the most interesting aspect is Roy’s determined cheerfulness. That is not to suggest the book is funny or even amusing; it is not. Roy is not witty although the prose is slangy and often achieves a situation comedy-like banter. Yet it is far less ponderous than her overrated debut, The God of Small Things, which unexpectedly won her the Booker Prize in 1997...” And, more indignantly, “Roy’s new book resonates with the confidence of a writer aware she can now get away with anything, and has, so the narrative slides between the two-dimensional characters and stark factual anecdotes...”
Those who love to love Roy were outraged, those who love to hate her were thrilled, the ones in neither camp were merely tickled/curious that she could be written about in this way in the international media. The ones who felt particularly bruised were quickly soothed by a profile of Roy and her book, appropriately titled, Arundhati Roy Returns to Fiction, in Fury that appeared around the same time in The New Yorker.
The piece, more than anything, seemed to appreciate the various complexities that her new fiction offered its readers – not just in the Indian context but also on a global level. And with that Roy’s writing prowess went back to being worthy of intense meditation. Open magazine voiced a sentiment that was fast catching on, that while crediting it for much beauty, “the politics of Roy all too often overpowers the story, thus weakening its frame. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has flashes of brilliance and lines that will take your breath away. But at the end of the novel, you’ll feel it is less a novel and more a political project.”
So is there more disappointment than elation in the ongoing hullabaloo? Is the book too far-reaching for its own good? Too fragmented? Too experimental? And if it is all that, is it really such a bad thing? Can a book just be what a novelist wants it to be, not what we want it to be – take it or leave it?
The central stories of the transgender woman Anjum and former architecture student Tilo are being written about as being deeply affecting, as “Roy’s gift is not for the epic but for the personal...It’s when Roy turns from the specifics of her characters’ lives and tries to generalise about the plight of India that her writing can grow laboured and portentous...” is New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani’s view.
In another review in the same paper, Karan Mahajan responds to certain portions of the book, like those where “she reveals for us the shattered psychology of Kashmiris who have been fighting the Indian Army and also occasionally collaborating with it”, with: “These sections of the book filled me with awe – not just as a reader, but as a novelist – for the sheer fidelity and beauty of detail.” But in what he calls Roy’s novelistic stubbornness, and her desire to connect plotlines and political movements, she “ends up erasing meaning”.
Another charge is that “the new book proves that Arundhati Roy the Activist has won over Arundhati Roy the Novelist”, with the review in India Today calling it a “dud”, and that “it marks the end of an imagination”.
The writer and the written about
If the reviews so far have seemed expectedly brooding and studious – Roy’s recent interviews about the book lend a more airy, philosophical mood, underlined by her sharply catchy vocabulary. In her insightful, often amusing, chats, she talks about her thoughts on humans being rabid, not dogs; having a room of her own in Old Delhi that gives her a special proximity to a world she wrote about in this novel, and her “principled” decision to not attend prominent literary festivals in India.
If her heightened sense of righteousness can feel heavy, her self-awareness is disarming. She makes urgent, important points, with statements like: “I think the real danger in our society is that we have digested and held in our bellies so much violence that it becomes hard to be moral. Because something outrages you, and yet, you are completely blind to something else and you say, ‘Why are you bringing that up?’”
And then, talking about the anatomy of a novel, she says it is “like a prayer, a song”, very-headline worthy as noted in two interviews, in Outlook magazine and The Hindu. And writing fiction is also a bit like dancing, she explained in an interview to Scroll.in. She told Slate even a little fairytale was political in some way, and that it is a myth that one could write anything that was non-political.
What about working in autobiographical details into a novel, writer Zac O’Yeah asked her in The Hindu interview. “It is hard to say, because where does your imagination end and your experience begin? Your memories? It is all a soup. Like in The God of Small Things when Esthappen says, ‘If in a dream you’ve eaten fish, does it mean you’ve eaten fish?’ Or if you’re happy in a dream, does it count? To me this book is not a thinly veiled political essay masquerading as a novel, it is a novel. And in novels, everything gets processed and sweated out on your skin, has to become part of your DNA and it is as complicated as anything that lives inside your body.”
When asked about the darkness in her novel, she responded: “But yeah, there’s also quite a lot of light. And the light is in the most unexpected places.”
The Utmost Scorecard
Likes: Scroll, Business Standard, New York Times, The New Yorker, The Hindu, The Times, The Indian Express, Time.
Fence-sits: Mint, Outlook, Open, The Guardian.
Dislikes: The Irish Times, India Today, HuffPost.