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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Book Review)

Arundhati Roy is an Indian writer from New Delhi who gained international fame with the publication of “The God of Small Things,” published in 1997. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published this year, is her only other fiction book since, and it definitely feels like 20 years in the making.

The novel traces many characters lives, but begins with the story of Aftab, a young boy who grows up to be Anjum- a transgender woman who lives in the Indian hijra community. In India a hijra is a transgender person who was assigned male at birth. The hijra community is an important part of Indian culture as their sexuality is believed to be transformed into sacred powers, and they challenges Western ideas of sexuality and gender. Ajum becomes a sort of celebrity in the hijra community, but after a near death experience chooses to live the rest of her life in a graveyard. Ajum builds a room for herself in the graveyard, and soon opens an inn to host travelers and homeless people passing through. Of one guest in particular Ajum muses:

“She knew he’d be back. No matter how elaborate its charade, she recognized loneliness when she saw it. She sensed that in some strange tangential way, he needed her shade as much as she needed his. And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”

Though the characters in the book all seem to have broken stories, if you look close enough you realize that this brokenness is precisely what gives them the power to radically change their life’s direction. This goes for a country as well as another character in the novel states:

“One day Kashmir will make India self-destruct in the same way. You may have blinded all of us, every one of us, with your pellet guns by then. But you will still have eyes to see what you have done to us. You’re not destroying us. You are constructing us. It’s yourselves you are destroying.”

Though one of Roy’s characters expresses this statement expresses this sentiment at the end of the book, I can’t help but think that this is a big part of Roy’s motivations for being a writer herself:

“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”

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