Arundhati Roy’s first book “The God of Small Things” was published twenty years ago and won the Booker – one of a handful of debut books that have earned that honor. Since then she has been very active and productive with non-fiction titles. Her politics and her books have been in the limelight and I must confess that I have not read any of them. And while I enjoyed “The God of small things”, I read it soon after it was published and only recall the broad outlines. ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ is her second novel – and it is difficult to place it. It is not quiet fiction, more like fact-ion, with the thin plot veering around every major political events of the last 3-4 decades – from the Sikh riots, through the Gujarat riots, Babri Masjid, Kashmir- and politician be it Anna Hazare and Kejriwal and Narendra Modi ……… and we see them all from the Arundhati Roy view of the world. The last of these, Kashmir, gets the most prominence, as it (along with the Maoists) has probably been her major pre-occupation these last few years. Of course, there are parallel stories of which the two major ones are that of the hijra, Anjum and of the non-conforming Tillomina, who is an almost autobiographical character. There is a lack of love in Anjum’s life, and finally it is all heaped on an abandoned baby that she adopts. Following the many turmoils , including a year spent in Gujarat during and after the riots of 2002, she takes up residence in a graveyard near her old home. Tillo, on the other hand has three men who are in love with her, but circumstances leads her to the same graveyard.
It is a frustrating book – when you think ‘enough is enough’, let me give it up, there is a flash of brilliance and you wan to read on. I could not get engaged enough with the characters to want to know what happens to them – but the prose itself becomes engaging enough to go on to the end. Overall, a mixed reaction…….. [Book 2]
Zadie Smith is a more regular writer than Roy, this is her 5th book. She is an author whose books I have enjoyed, having read all her 4 previous books, although not with equal interest. This is her 2nd Booker nomination, the earlier one was for “On beauty”. The story is of a friendship, between the protagonist (whose name we never learn) and Tracey from their pre-teen years through the early decades of their life. There is much in the relationship that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – the girls grow up in a disadvantaged council housing, go to local schools. The more academic protagonist, who sees herself as somehow the lesser of the two admires and in part envies her friend, who she sees as the more talented and self assured. But life has its own games – while the protagonist achieves some level of success – she becomes personal assistant to a Rihanna style pop dive – Tracey’s dance career does not go far, she has 3 children without a father in sight, lives on dole. But as to who is the happier, now that is a question that Smith has us thinking about. What is happiness? she seems to be asking. She also delves deftly into the complex issues of the immigrant guilt, the link to the mother land, color etc…. On the whole its is a great book with few characters that are well etched, a well scripted story, and of course great writing. However, I felt that it was maybe 50-80 pages too long! [Book 3]
Another author I have enjoyed, is Kamila Shamsie, having read three of her earlier books. But this is her best, short absorbing, intense with living, breathing characters and situations that could happen every day in this crazy world we are living in. Shamsie is of Pakistani origin and lives in London, thereby familiar with the intrusions that the current ISIS/Islamophobic world has made on the every day lives of Muslims – even the most ordinary citizens. And the protagonists in this book, are not ordinary Muslim Brits of Pakistan origin – there are the 3 siblings who live in the shadow of the terrorist father who was tortured and died in the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the handsome young son of the Pakistan origin, British Home Secretary. The plot is a modern, albeit modified re-telling of Sophocles “Antigone” and poses moral questions of the ‘natural law’ versus ‘man-made law’> It leads to a climax that is unexpected and affects the lives of all concerned. In spite of that, no other ending would have been appropriate – and left me feeling – ‘Wow, this is a GOOD book’! [Book 4]