Wednesday 7 June 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Last week Mr Books and I went to the movies for the first time this year!

I know! How did that happen? How can our life be so busy that we don't make time to go the movies anymore? Surely having adult children living at home means less work and running round? And more to time to ourselves?

We will have to find a way to get better at this sharing a house with other (young) adults stuff.
And, of course, I shouldn't complain. One day they will leave home; one day rents and house prices in Sydney will become reasonable and do-able for the average person again and on that day we will miss them terribly.

But for now, let me get back to being excited about the movie we saw last week.

Viceroy's House stars the wonderful Hugh Bonneville as Lord Mountbatten and Gillian Anderson doing an amazing version of Lady Mountbatten. The story follows their time in India in 1947 in the transition of British India to independence and the eventual Partition of India and Pakistan.

It was a very thought provoking and timely story about the catastrophic and on-going problems that occur when one country meddles in the internal politics of another. Self-interest, the divisive nature of religion, the British policy of divide and conquer and the need for secure oil reserves all played a part in the unravelling of Colonial India. Britain (and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) are still dealing with the after effects of this time to this day.

Last month I received an advance copy of Arundhati Roy's latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It was 'highly confidential' and strictly embargoed. I resisted the urge to read it straight away, to avoid any temptation to tattle on social media!

After coming home from watching Viceroy's House seemed like the perfect time to begin. That would give me one week to read the book before the embargo lifted on Monday 29th May 9am (EST).

The first thing that struck me was the use of local lingo. I enjoy learning new words and phrases. Sometimes Roy gave us a context for these words and sometimes she didn't. For example:
'You mean I've made a khichdi of their story?' she asked.

I looked up khichdi to discover it is a rice and lentil dish common to South Asian countries. In India it is one of the first solid foods fed to babies.

'I'm a mehfil, I'm a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing.'

Mehfil is a place where music and dance performances occur.

'Sach Khuda hai. Khuda hi Sach hai.' Truth is God. God is Truth.

After examining Aftab he said he was not, medically speaking , a Hijra - a female trapped in a male body - although for practical purposes that word could be used. 

There were also some lovely turns of phrase early on:

No matter how elaborate its charade, she recognised loneliness when she saw it....And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.

However, at page 29 I started to struggle. My initial enthusiasm waned. I began to feel manipulated, the situation felt contrived, then Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children jumped into my mind.

I loved and adored Midnight's Children with such intensity that any other simply pales in comparison.

So I put The Ministry of Utmost Happiness aside and quietly dubbed it instead #ministryofutmostdisappointment. The ABC TV Bookclub had announced they were reading it for their 6th of June show. I thought I would wait to see what they all had to say, before deciding to continue or not.

Most of them had something positive to say about the language, one of the characters and the structure, but when asked at the end, if they would recommend the book to anyone, most said not really. They enjoyed reading it, and were glad that they had read it, but found it uneven and as Marieke Hardy said 'I like other books better and I'd recommend them instead'.

To summarise - if you didn't like The God of Small Things then you may or may not like this book too. But if you loved The God of Small Things then you most likely will find this disappointing.

I for one have decided to abandon this book at pg 49.

I have too many other books I really want to read.

But I'm very keen to read your reviews.
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  1. I started The God of Small Things years ago.
    I abandonded it and threw it in the bin.
    Never looked back...
    You are not alone!

    1. I adored TGoST when I read it 20 yrs ago (although I haven't tried a reread to see if it holds up now).

      I felt a HUGE sense of relief when I decided to abandon this one though - it had become a millstone around my neck.

  2. To be honest, I've not even really fancied it, and the more reviews I read, the more I don't. Hm.

    1. I have a thing for Indian literature, so I had high hopes....

    2. Me, too. Heaven-Ali is enjoying it though so I might give it a go.

  3. I have now finished the book! I was deeply disappointed, having loved The God of Small Things, and found it very disjointed. Parts of it are interesting and parts I found almost incomprehensible - could be down to the fact that I know next to nothing about the situation in Kashmir. I'm still thinking what to write about it and will let you know if/when I do.

    Margaret @ BooksPlease -

    1. Well done for making it all the way through. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.


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