Among this year’s most anticipated novels is Arundhati Roy’s second, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” which comes 20 years after her debut, “The God of Small Things,” which won the 1997 Man Booker Prize.
Roy is not a tentative scribe. In the intervening decades, she has written several nonfiction books and countless essays, more than enough material to tide over her fans until this thrilling sophomore novel.
When Aftab spots a “tall, slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick, gold high heels,” he comes to a startling realization. “He wanted to be her … he wanted to put out a hand with painted nails and a wrist full of bangles.”
Aftab becomes Anjam and, at age 15, leaves her birth family and moves into the Khwabgah, “House of Dreams,” a community of other hijras, which includes trans, gender-fluid and intersex people. For Anjam, entering the Khwabgah, where “Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated,” was like “walking through the gates of Paradise.”
Thirty years later, haunted by a brutal act of violence, Anjam leaves the Khwabgah to return to the Duniya, the real world, to “live like an ordinary person.” She makes her home at the graveyard where several generations of her family are buried and establishes a business and sanctuary, Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services.
It is here where she welcomes hijras, refugees, outcasts and others who seem to arrive as if swept in by the tide. Anjam proudly serves as Jannat’s overseer, protector of the vulnerable, champion of the persecuted.
“This place where we live, where we have made our home,” she declares, “is the place of falling people.”
Among her guests are the beguiling S. Tilottamma, whose history is as fraught and fractured as Anjam’s own; a man called Saddam Hussein, who plots revenge for his father’s death, and Musa Yeswi, an impassioned Kashmiri nationalist.
As she did in “The God of Small Things,” Roy astutely unpacks the layers of politics and privilege inherent in caste, religion and gender identity. Her luminous passages span eras and regions of the Indian subcontinent and artfully weave the stories of several characters into a triumphant symphony, where strangers become friends, friends become family, and the disenfranchised find the strength to wrestle control of their own narratives. “To be present in history, even as nothing more than a chuckle, was a universe away from being absent from it, from being written out of it altogether.”
Anjali Enjeti is an award-winning essayist and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Georgia.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
By: Arundhati Roy.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 444 pages, $28.95.