The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy
God damn Arundhati Roy.
God damn her and her beautiful books, which are so impossibly sad and so incredibly beautiful.
I have always thought, because I teach it to my AP students, that The God of Small Things ends with the most beautiful romantic scene I think I’ve ever read because Roy wanted to end the book on a happy note, that she wrote it intentionally out of chronological order specifically so that she could end it with hope, with the two lovers planning to meet again the next day, even though we know they won’t, or if they meet the next day, then they don’t meet the day after that, or ever again.
Now that I am reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (I am not finished with it, so I’ll need to stop writing this in a moment and go back to my sorrows), in which she has done nearly the same bloody thing, putting an exquisite lovely romantic scene near the end of a brutally heart-wrenching book, I think I may have to stop believing in the optimistic explanation of the incongruous, unchronological way Roy writes these books. I’m not sure yet, because this isn’t the very last chapter, so maybe other things will happen – and there actually is some hope in the novel that there will be some happiness, a fair number of good characters who could create a safe space to live and laugh in; but in God of Small Things two of the four good characters died and one ended up insane, leaving the fourth utterly alone, so… – but I am familiar enough with this feeling to know that Roy might have made the same play. This book is also out of chronological order, and since it is my first time reading it, that makes it difficult to follow, so there are parts I don’t remember well and maybe I should, to understand; which means maybe I don’t understand. I have to go read more.
But now I’m wondering: what if she put the happiest, most love-full part at the end of The God of Small Things because that makes it impossible to enjoy, since we’ve just been through 25 chapters of sorrows? What if she does it that way because she wants us to read the joyful part and think, “Well, this would be lovely, if my heart wasn’t already shattered into a million pieces by everything else I just read.”? And what if that is the point, because it makes the joyful part into a sad part, knowing that we can’t enjoy the joy because of the sorrows we’ve been through – which makes the sorrows even sadder?
Pardon me. Have to go finish the book. I just had to write down this theory when it hit me.
– One hour and twenty minutes later –
All right. Okay. I was wrong: this book does actually have a happy ending. Of course it isn’t that simple, it isn’t all happy; there is death everywhere in the book, and it isn’t good death, not valuable, honorable, restful death. But the book is as much about those who live as it is about those who die, and the deaths make the life more precious, not the other way around.
So: to be clear. This book is about India and the war in Kashmir. At the end of the book, a character reads these words in a notebook: “How do you tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No: by slowly becoming everything.”
That’s the book.
It has much of the same beauty that Roy put into The God of Small Things. The writing is, as always, brilliant: essentially beyond my capacity to even grasp, let alone describe. The book has a dense history of India, a complex exploration of the relationship between the present and the past, once again worked out through complicated family relationships and through appalling violence. The caste system is, as I suspect it always is, an indispensable element of the conflicts, though they are largely religious in nature: Muslim versus Hindu versus Sikh versus Christian. There is a terribly intricate narrative structure, with multiple interwoven plots and point of view characters, with no particular adherence to a timeline. There is another character that bears much resemblance to Roy herself, the child of a Syrian Christian woman from the state of Kerala, who studies architecture but does not become an architect, who is beautiful and strange and difficult. There is a beautiful romance, a number of broken romances, and an enormous, unbearable weight of violence and suffering and sorrow and alienation.
But there’s a lot in this book that wasn’t in the first book. The scope is wider: there are more characters, there are more conflicts, there are more settings. There is much more violence, and more villains who carry it out. And there is a lot more happiness at the end, a lot more peace, a lot more closure.
I don’t know if I recommend this book. I will need to read it again, and probably write a lot in the margins. But I feel much the same about this book as I felt about The God of Small Things after I had read it only once without writing anything in it, which was, I thought I should read it again; once I had, it became one of my all-time favorite works of literature. I suspect this one may follow the same path. So in the meantime, in-between time, this is a beautiful and difficult book, and if that’s your thing, I highly recommend it.