The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

At last she is back! Arundhati Roy recently published her second novel. Some 20 years ago her debut The God of Small Things sky rocketed her to litterary fame. Astonishingly she won the booker prize for the same year (1997). This instant success was probably due to several factors, but partly this was due to her potent and clear language in the middel of a complex narrative with shifting and intertwining persepectives, along with tangible dreamy and excotic flavour of India.

While the God of Small things story line went on in exotic Kerala. The new novel is set in Dehli. While Dehli may be more familar a place than Kerala to western readers, the themes here are combined in a startlig way. Although complex in its narrative, the God of Small things managed to continously lead the reader back to a clear cut pathway through the jungle, as it were. An the story was more personal revolving around a familiy drama. The Ministry of utmost Happiness also manages this patchwork storytelling, but here the encompassing story line is not immediately evident. Rather, it is composed of several undercurrent stories that combine in the city of Dehli, in the recent political turmoil and disharmony of modern India. The characters in the novel are numerous and diverse reflecting the diversity of Dehli and urban India.

In the two decades that have passed since her classic debut, Roy has become renowned as a political activist in India. She has fought for local tribal people whose lands are being engulfed by greedy industrial companies, the Kashmir conflict, she has followed Maoist rebels hiding in the jungles of the East, protested about enviromental issues and other marginalized groups in current India. She has met fierce criticism for being anti-Indian at home, even by fellow writers like Salman Rushide. And the Governmen has been after her, levelling charges and putting her in prison for a short time. Despite these troubles, she has continued to write numerous essay collections on these issues.

The stories in her new novel tap into many of these major controversies, like the mass persecutions and killings of muslims in 2002 in Gujarat. Anjum is on a visit to Gujarat when this happens, and back in Dehli she is left to digest what this sudden horror means for her as a muslim. These massacres came as a response to an hitherto unexplained fire that broke out in a train with Hindu pilgrims. The current PM of India, Narendra Modi was in fact chief minister in Gujarat at that time, when more than 2000 muslims where brutally slaughtered by fanatic Hindu nationalist mobs. Some claim that Modi, a declared Hindu nationalist himself, had his part to play in this organized pogrom that erupted in a seemingly modernising India.

The shadow of hindu nationalism extends further in the book, through the treatment of the Kashmir insurgency and the violations by the Indian army in particular. We meet Tilo whi an architect student who has a boyfriend in Kashmir involved in the freedom struggle. She is surrounded by some strange people, for instance her landlord who is connected to the Government Secret Services. We also meet a transgender woman, traditionally called Hijra, living in the muslim quarters of Old Delhi. After the Gujarat massacre of 2002 she decides to og live in a Dehli cemetary. She also has fears for the future that reflects the potential danger of the Hindu nationallism and lack of tolerance. The Ministry is a powerful book that invites to deep pondering and reflection on current India. Although a more complex novel, the themes are crystal clear and connect with ease to a disconcerting national background.

- Avanti Flatabø