Let’s begin with what is to be said at the end. There is a certain bewildering sense of acknowledgement that this book can’t be reviewed in terms of common nuances related to plot lines and character development, which are usual in case of a novel. One can see that Roy has an exceptional craftsmanship but its resulting art is something you would gawk at with a scrunched up face, because there are elements which would leave you emotionally drained and then there are others which are plain awkward.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has one of the most beautiful beginnings, with allusions and metaphors and motifs and motives, clearly etched in every single word. It sets a certain mood which unfortunately doesn’t last. The poetic prose is something to cherish all through the book indeed, just that it comes heavy handed sometimes.
The storyline follows the trajectory of contemporary India, from the streets of old Delhi and activism hub of Jantar Mantar to war-torn and militarized Kashmir valley and the lush tribal forests of Central India. It seems to work out an interwoven tale of characters who are seeped in the political ideology of the author. Emotions are parlayed in favor of politics and politics is parlayed in favor of preaching in its exploration.
The characters work well enough – the Hijra, Anjum and the eccentric architect/activist/traitor, Tilottama or Tilo (modeled after the author herself) have gripping tales of pain and coming of age and political maturity, while the secondary characters create the interconnecting web through their identification as a Dalit masquerading as a Muslim, a Kashmiri militant, a civil servant, a charismatic reporter, a military commander, an Imam confidante, et al – it’s still burdensome to encompass the depth of such important issues like military occupancy, tribal rights, caste conflict, religious fundamentalism, third gender struggle in one piece of text even through such myriad characters, so much so that it just comes out hollow.
With such writing devices as letters and random scribbles on pages and manifestos and poetry, all the tropes succeed to some degree in telling a shattered story. But it’s not by slowly becoming everything or even everybody.
It’s a good book but it could have been something so profound – how though – it is hard to tell. That “lack of” though just can’t be overlooked and that undoes wherever it was headed.