Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness – my review

Somewhere towards the end of Arundhati Roy’s latest book, there is a paragraph about a cat that is found in a houseboat in Kashmir that is being raided by the Indian Army. The soldier grabs her and then throws it away in the dark waters below.

“She flew through the air, yowling, with her fangs bared and her little claws extended, ready to take on the entire Indian Army all by herself. She sank without a sound. That was the end of yet another bewakoof who did not know how to live in a mintree occupation.”

This para, for me, illustrates Roy’s anger and frustration with the Indian state, on display throughout the book, at its peak. That Roy does believe that an event like this – when an Indian soldier is heartless enough to throw a kitten into the depths of a lake, is plausible, sums everything that she feels about the Indian Army and the overall Indian state per-se.

Here in Australia I can see Roy is popular and her latest book has been given royal treatment by the few bookshops that remain here – by placing mountains of the hardbound at the entrances. If you have followed Roy’s non-fiction works and the state of India affairs over the past 10 years or so you will find this book to be predictable.

There is Godhra, there are the Gujarat riots, there is more than one reference to our current PM (“Gujarat ka Lalla”), the jantar mantar anti-corruption movement, Hazare, the list could go on.

I am not going to go into the characters of the story. To me, each character is eventually an extension of Roy’s own personality – I am not complaining, but maybe I am. The problem with this book is that since all the characters borrow the same narrative there is no one to defend Roy’s accusations. There is no “other side”. If you ask Roy, maybe she will say exactly that – there is no other side in our country. You are silenced if you have a viewpoint other than what the state wants you to have. It is an exaggerated point of view but to be fair to Roy, there is truth in that.

Throughout the book, there is so much anger and rage, you wonder where did Arundhati Roy get this from. As the book goes on, with every chapter, with every page, the rage reaches new heights and the hopelessness you feel as a reader, plunges to lower depths. It is like Roy has created a lake of anger and you are asked to drown in it.

But through its unrelenting narrative, Roy gives an insight into the life of Kashmir – a place mostly rendered opaque because of the single one-sided narrative of the media and the Government (depending on which country you are from). The words are powerful, the prose is rich as you’d expect from a writer of Roy’s prowess but well, it gets tiring.

There are always two sides to a story and I kept missing that other side here. I can imagine Roy asking me to read the newspapers and the mainstream media to get the other side — the “mainstream” view. But to me, that absence – that inability of the author to go outside her comfort zone and to try and be in someone else’s skin, to portray and to think like a character from the “mainstream” view is the undoing of this book. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this is Arundhati Roy — The activist, writing the book.