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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

A NOVEL
Written by ARUNDHATI ROY
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Publisher: Knopf
On Sale: 06/06/2017
Price: $28.95
ISBN: 978-1-524-73315-5
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
A dazzling, richly moving new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The God of Small Things
 
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent—from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.
It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love—and by hope.
The tale begins with Anjum—who used to be Aftab—unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her—including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.
As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ARUNDHATI ROY is the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things. Her nonfiction writings include The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic, and Capitalism: A Ghost Story, and most recently, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, coauthored with John Cusack.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
She was the fourth of five children, born on a cold January night, by lamplight (power cut), in Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, “It’s a boy.” Given the circumstances, her error was understandable.

A month into her first pregnancy Jahanara Begum and her husband decided that if their baby was a boy they would name him Aftab. Their first three children were girls. They had been waiting for their Aftab for six years. The night he was born was the happiest of Jahanara Begum’s life.

The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.

Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was. Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash. Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken. Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs. Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child. Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.

Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
open close READER'S GUIDE

1. The novel opens with a vignette describing the mysterious death of vultures—and how “not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds” (page 5). How does this occurrence set the stage and tone for the rest of the novel with regard to the state of India’s society and the unrest that the characters experience within themselves and with the outside world? How does that mood transition into the graveyard setting of the first part of the book? 

2. Discuss the complications of Aftab’s upbringing and his parents’ reactions to their child’s gender. What does the family dynamic suggest about the role that biology plays in determining one’s true family versus an individual’s ability to create or choose one’s family? 

3. Anjum is told that a Hijra is “a living creature that is incapable of happiness . . . The riot is inside us. The war is inside us” (page 27). To what extent do you see this manifest in Anjum’s character throughout the book, and in what ways does she defy that definition?

4. What roles do magic and superstition play throughout the novel? Which characters are more inclined to subscribe to unconventional beliefs, and do they seem more comforted or disillusioned by those beliefs in the face of harsh realities? 

5. Discuss the following idea: “What mattered was that [the moment] existed. 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” (page 55). How does the formal inventiveness and variation of the novel’s narrative—which is told through documents, written and oral histories, and other archival materials passed among characters or left in their absence—attest to this sense of one’s relevance in history at any given moment? What are the different characters’ motives for leaving an impression of their existence? 

6. How does the variety of perspectives that the documents in the novel afford you as a reader—from Tilo’s notebooks to the letter from Miss Jebeen the Second’s real mother—different, if not conflicting, portraits of the political conflict going on in Kashmir? Overall, did they allow you to more clearly see one side’s argument over another’s? What kind of texture did the shifts in narrative form create in your overall reading experience?

7. What is the intersection between death and life in the novel? Consider the ways in which Anjum’s graveyard/funeral parlor prospers and grows throughout the novel, and the notion that “Dying became just another way of living” (page 320).

8. How does Roy create the atmosphere and emotional tenor of the novel’s primary cities/places in India? What sensory details or descriptions stuck with you the most as the backdrop for the characters’ somewhat nomadic existence? 

9. Did you find there to be more similarities or differences between places or scenes where protesting and violence occur in contrast to those where there is relative peace and civility? How does the point of view from which a given scene is narrated affect how you see a place? 

10. How is parenthood, and, more specifically, motherhood, explored in the novel? Discuss in particular the mother-child bonds that Anjum, Tilo, and both Miss Jebeens experience. 

11. How is religion a defining feature for characters in the novel and a main source of conflict in the society depicted? How do the differing beliefs and political loyalties affect events that transpire in the novel’s different geographical areas of conflict? 

12. What role does gender play in the novel, in terms of how characters are expected and allowed to behave as well as how they respond to certain emotions, events, and treatments? Is gender the primary way a person identifies instead of by religion, political party, ethnicity/country of origin, or even profession?  

13. The Landlord’s chapters are the only sections written in the first person. How does that point of view color your understanding of the relationship among him, Tilo, Naga, and Musa, including the knowledge that they met on the set of a play? What makes this web of love so intricate, and how does the war intensify their bonds even as it threatens to shatter them? 

14. Musa is one character whose identity must be repressed in various ways to ensure his safety, and even his most arduous disguises are not always successful. What does his struggle and that of others in similar situations (people who disappear and/or transform into others) suggest about the mutability of one’s identity—whether it be by necessity or by organic change? How might you interpret the line “Only the dead are free” in that context (page 361)?

15. Discuss the lines of poetry that Tilo writes the end of the book, “How / to / tell / a / shattered / story? / By / slowly / becoming / everybody.  /No. / By slowly becoming everything” (page 442). How do the main characters—Tilo, Musa, Naga, and Anjum—embody the idea of telling a story through the assimilation of its many fragments?

16. By the end of the novel, how did you interpret the meaning of its title? 

Suggested Reading

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy