There are two statements that describe The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. One, it is a coming together of different narratives; the earthy, painful, funny, sexy, and violent ones. The second narrative is its fast pace as well as the frayed edged and longueurs that creep up almost suddenly.
It is a depiction of the lost and found, self-denial and sacrifice, as we as the battle between a rigid society and self-assertion. The main character of the book is Anjum who has decided that she will live in a graveyard and thinks of herself as a “tree”; unmoved, in sync with nature, mute, but all-seeing.
The writer is aware of the complexities of independence as a campaigner of it herself. Anjum is what you would call a “hijra” or intersex, eunuch, or transgender. She had both female and male sex organs and was born Aftab. After a time, she undergoes surgery. From the time she was an adolescent, Anjum had always lived in the Khwabgah (sleeping quarters) and for her, this had always been the space she could self-express and liberate herself.
The residents of Khwabgah are very different and diverse in their self-identity, experiences, and their origins. However, their commonality is that they are all society’s outcasts. Even though there are residents that are happy with the identity of being Trans, Anjum would much rather be referred to as a hijra.
Roy introduces us to a plethora of characters such as Zakir Mian, Gudiya, Saddam Hussein, Isharat, and many others through Anjum. Once the reader becomes invested in Anjums’ journey into motherhood, they become aware that the book isn’t about one story, it is a reference to many.
Quite abruptly and without warning, the reader meets Naga, Musa, Biplab, and Tilo, all having no connection with Anjum but are college friends that met in the mid 1980’s. The core of the novel revolves around these friends. Many years later Naga is a well-known leftwing journalist, Biplab works for the Indian Intelligence Bureau, and we experience Musa freedom fighting in Kashmir.
Tilo remains mysterious to the reader. However, as the years wear on, their intertwined lives come apart and each friend is a representation at the conflicting ideologies holding onto Kashmir.
The story at this point moves back and forth and settles into forgotten notebooks, official reports, witness reports, and immigration forms that tell the hazy story of Kashmir. All through the book, Roy craftily exposes her readers to the different experiences of life in India.
Roy covers everything that India is about; domestic abuse and suicide, war-ravaged Kashmir, the marginalised, untouchables and outcasts, as well as the misunderstood. No stone is left unturned. As the book approaches its end, the readers are confronted with an eye opening question, “how do we tell a shattered story?
The response that follows is complex at first but turns into an eye-opener for the discerning reader: by becoming everybody and becoming everything. In essence, it is quite clear that this is exactly what Roy was doing with the novel; becoming everything and everyone.