BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, June 2017
The sophomore effort of a novelist whose debut made a splash is fraught with high expectations that all too often go unmet. Arundhati Roy presents a special case. It’s been two decades since she won the Booker Prize and wide acclaim for The God of Small Things. But in the intervening years her nonfiction and activism have drawn comparisons to Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva. Her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, underscores this veer toward politics.
The novel is one of the most polemical in recent memory, and the characters act as animators of these polemics. Expressed with her usual musical precision, Roy’s anger has many targets. The rise of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is one bête noire. Another is India’s continued possession of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region.
Roy’s first novel arrived weeks before India’s first nuclear test—which she condemned—and commentators saw the novel and the test as assertions of a rising India. Her second novel is an indictment of an India drunk on power, mistreating its poor and minorities. Ever the contrarian, Roy defends Kashmiris who seek self-determination. To Roy this is a matter not only of justice but also of survival—of India as a heterogeneous, secular state and of South Asian civilization. Experts consider Kashmir to be the most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
More a mosaic than a traditional, coherent story, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness sometimes resembles James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even in style it ramifies, and Roy’s characters are a jumble—similar to India’s welter of competing adversities, which V.S. Naipaul described as a “million mutinies.” The God of Small Things was a lively, virtuosic performance. In its successor, disgust is a recurring theme, and Indian media will likely pan it for anti-Indian propensities. But Roy’s love for the people of India is clear. She doesn’t hate India; what she hates is oppression.