The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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My review of Arundhati Roy’s first novel in twenty years appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The novel’s first long section hinges on the life-story of a trans woman named Anjum, born Aftab, a Muslim in Delhi. Fleeing her family, Anjum moves into the Khwabgah, a refuge for trans people, in which “Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated.” Here is how Anjum’s mother reacts when she discovers, “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part”: “Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash,” “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.”  This manages to be unpleasantly coy (“boy-parts,” “girl-part”), grammatically irregular (“undoubtedly girl-part”), and psychologically unconvincing (would Anjum’s mother really shit herself in horror?), all at the same time.  

When Roy moves away from Anjum, offering sidebar portraits of dozens of other characters, her prose deteriorates even further. Anjum’s father, a businessman, is frequently interviewed by Western visitors, for whose benefit he quotes Urdu poetry: “What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.” This is a terrible sentence. To begin at the very beginning: “a perfidious samosa?”  Really?

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