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Divinity lost: Ministry of Utmost Heartbreak

A grand achievement always raises expectations for its follow-up. Add two decades of anticipation into the mix, and you have a recipe for a frenzy of excitement and high hopes that, given the probable mean age of the earliest fans, is nothing less than Potter-mania for the middle-aged. 

But has the sorceress been able to cast her spell again? As much as I wanted, yearned, ached to shout out an emphatic yes, the reality is really closer to a quiet, heartbroken no.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a bad book. It’s possibly not even an unexpected book from someone who over the years has overshadowed her literary acclaim with her assertive, thinking-woman’ activism. (Her satiric take on the absurdities of the humanity-eschewing capitalism and voracious militarism of modern South Asia form many of the zingers of the text.) It’s just not the book that lovers of The God of Small Things were breathlessly awaiting.

The book felt personal – as if it were some how your own little discovery; your own story.

Her first book was a tiny superpower. In it, Arundhati Roy had created an intimate little world that almost imperceptibly enveloped you like the water at high tide, in words that made you feel as if you were reading and magically understanding an entirely new language. The fact that it was feted with the Booker was almost incidental: the book felt personal – as if it were some how your own little discovery; your own story.  

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is almost the exact opposite. It’s a riot of colorful characters operating at a panoramic scope. The plot hurtles along at breakneck speed through the twists and toxins of the subcontinental landscape – which might have been engaging before the age of social media had turned every local eccentricity/atrocity into an unsteady 3-minute phone video which everyone had forwarded on at least two different WhatsApp threads. There’s no question of owning this story; you can only be a spectator.

The narrative is anchored by the fates of two women, and the oddballs they encounter, the loves they inspire, and the tragedies they overcome. Roy is a competent storyteller and she dresses the personalities and journeys of this duo in multiple layers of quirky details, but sadly falls just short of humanizing them. They remain characters concocted by a clever mind, not souls that capture your imagination. Oh, and there’s also a bonus sub-plot about Kashmir. Right. Moving on.  

The writing can be catchy and the wit can be sharp – especially in the service of the free-flowing commentary on pressing social and political issues without which no piece by Roy is now conceivable. But I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her characters or what happened to them. It was like a circus of a 1,001 clowns: they might be amusing for a bit but you certainly won’t catch yourself wondering what the story behind one single painted smile was.

I didn’t.

I just skimmed through it, waiting for the over-stuffed clown car to make its final exit.

 

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