I’ve been putting off reviewing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for ages – as despite my very best efforts to like this book, it just wasn’t for me!
Arundhati Roy is known for her political activism, and her views and opinions are made abundantly clear in her writing. Through the eyes of her characters, she paints a stark and vivid picture of India after the partition, the conflict in Kashmir and the rigid caste system against a backdrop of politics and religion.
Having a better knowledge of key events in India’s history as well as important recent political figures would have been so helpful here, as I spent a LOT of the time looking references and background up on the internet.
This was the side of things I did somewhat enjoy, as I like learning more about different cultures and histories. However, without some existing knowledge (internet based or otherwise!) of recent Indian politics, history and the key players, this book would have been impossible to make sense of.
The parts of this book that have stuck with me are the stories about the ordinary people, caught up in the atrocities and injustices that surround them with no hope of breaking free. From the villagers in the Kashmir to the people living on the street in Delhi, this is a recurring theme. There is a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. On the one hand, people are moving forward into the future, with technology and tourism and everything that goes with it, while for others this is hopelessly out of reach.
However, the book is long and meandering. It skips from place to place and time to time, sometimes narrating events from a distance and sometimes homing right in on the details of a particular character. Often the story veers off into a long and extended anecdote or political discussion. I personally found that it really difficult to follow the main thread of the story.
I also found it hard to relate to the characters. We’re told details about their lives but they didn’t come alive to me and it all felt quite detached. There are also so many characters, some of which seem to have nothing to do with the main story. I understand that all of this is intended to build a rich picture of India and the different people that live there, but I would have preferred to have more of a personal connection to the people around who the plot revolves.
Clearly Roy was trying to raise awareness of some really important issues, but for me the writing style felt heavy and dense. It felt like this was a book that was written to make a point, rather than to be enjoyable for readers. Each page felt like a bit of a slog to read and I had to force myself to keep picking it back up. I finished it with a sense of achievement and relief, but I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it.