The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a long and sprawling novel that seems to cover a vast swathe of current political issues, seen through the lens of modern Indian society.
We open with the story of Anjum, an intersex woman who identifies as female despite being brought up as a boy. She finds others in the same position and joins a community with them in Delhi’s old town. But gradually, she branches out on her own and forms her own community of oddballs and misfits, hanging out in a graveyard. Much of the mis-fitting seems to stem from religious and caste based prejudice.
Then the story shifts to Kashmir and the struggle between Islam and Hinduism as it escalates into full-on war. We meet a different cast of characters, one of whom, Tilo, an architect and activist, is to be the lynchpin of the Kashmiri part of the book. However, Tilo’s central role is not immediately obvious and emerges almost by default as other characters fall away.
This is a difficult book with a cast of hundreds, multiple story lines and themes jostling for attention. All with lengthy asides drawing on literature, poetry, political invective and spiritualism. And there are whole sections that are so esoteric they are almost unintelligible. And the Tilo and Anjum sections of the novel never integrate. They don’t even try to integrate. It is as though multiple sections of various incomplete novels have been gathered and bound together.
At a conceptual level, it conveys the chaos of India. Individual scenes are very evocative – whether that is in a bustling market, a protest outside Jantar Mantar or in a cinema turned torture centre in Srinigar. But as a story telling exercise it just doesn’t work. There is little plot and negligible character development. It feels like a series of scenes created and loosely linked to illustrate political points. That’s something that might work in a shorter work, but after so much of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it has long outstayed its welcome.
Nevertheless, the book clearly has something. Normally a work this disjointed would have been abandoned relatively early in the piece. But the more lucid pieces do command the attention and the novel does create a level of intrigue to see where it all might be heading.
Ghachar Ghochar is a deliciously nasty little story.
Our narrator is sat in Coffee Shop, a Bangalore restaurant that has humble origins. He sits, making his coffee last for hours, admiring the sophistication and discretion of Vincent, the handsome waiter. Our narrator quietly watches the drama in other people’s lives unfold around him, sitting serenely with his coffee getting cold.
This inspires our narrator into reminiscing how he came to be sat there. Our narrator’s story peels back in layers like an onion. First he tells us of his daily life coming to the Coffee Shop; then he tells us how the family’s peace was disturbed by a strange woman coming to the door for his uncle, the proprietor of a successful spice company and sole provider for the family; and then we learn of our narrator’s humble origins, growing up in a small, dark house almost devoid of furniture, rubbing shoulders with his parents, his sister and his uncle – all supported by his father’s meagre income as a salesman. Having gone back layer by layer, we then track back forward to the present moment. But each time we come back closer to reality, we have to slightly reassess what we thought we knew delving back into the past.
The narration is beautiful. The narrative voice is gentle, cultured but slightly aloof and judgemental. You feel the voice is just the right side of arrogant. It opens a window onto a slice of modern India, the incredible land of contrasts. On the one hand, there are colourful saris and aromatic spices, but on the other there is poverty, destitution and subsistence-wage slavery. Ghachar Ghochar avoids the tendency of Indian novelists to load their text with untranslatable terminology – there is the odd term of art (including the title, which turns out not to be in any language at all) – but for the most part it is extremely clear.
The narration is also very concentrated. The short number of pages contains a huge amount of plot and character development; significant detail can be contained in what might appear to be a throwaway line. This will keep the reader flicking back to check what actually happened couple of pages back or perhaps even a couple of dozen pages back. Although the sentences are clear, keeping on top of it all is a Herculean task – albeit one that rewards the patience and cross-checking.
This is actually a really complex novella that works on a number of levels. It addresses themes such as money and happiness; whether a person has a responsibility to work; whether possessions are actually worth anything; and the role of women in modern (Indian) society. For almost all of the novella, it appears to lack a bit if direction, being a bit of a meander through these issues. You feel it couldn’t possibly come together in the space remaining. But right at the death, there is a sentence that turns the whole novella into something coherent and nasty. I defy anyone who gets to the end not to reread the last 20 pages – working back and back and back towards the middle of the book.
A few years ago, I released my book "Ancients' Royale" on Kindle, about two immortal (and dysfunctional) brothers running in a bar in Halifax who find themselves in the cross-hairs of a demon sorceress. My second book continues their story, pitting them against the ancient gods and Titans in a worldwide battle royale. I love reading about world mythology, folklore, and religion, but I'm also a big fan of Tintin and "Hitchhiker's Guide", which is where I feel my writing styles stem from. The end result is a "young adult, contemporary fantasy, action-adventure comedy" series that I will wrap up by this summer's end.
Please, feel free to download, post a review, or even go back and buy my first book should this pique your interest! And thanks!
(Note: this book will be free between June 4th and 5th, 2016)
Here's the cover art I drew for it:
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is very topical, dealing with the lives of illegal and semi-legal migrants to the UK. But topicality does not guarantee that a novel is any good.
In this novel, Sahota introduces us to a number of Indian migrants who have ended up in Sheffield and London. Principally, we follow Randeep, Avtar and Tochi as they embark on a new life. Avtar is on a student visa but has no intention of studying; Tochi arrived hidden in a lorry, and Randeep has hit the jackpot with a marriage of convenience to Narinder, a British woman of Indian heritage. They struggle to find slave-labour work, they and their families are laden with debt, and generally life is a whole lot harder than they imagined.
On the positive side, Sahota gives a humanity to these hidden migrants. They are individuals rather than part of some generic swarm. We see their back stories in India; we see the impact of the caste system and how far it restricts social mobility – preventing movement upwards but also burdening high caste Indians with expectations they cannot always fulfil. We see the fine line between ambition to work, and the temptation (and even need) to lie, steal and cheat. We see the confusion that can arise from misunderstanding a strange culture and fear of exposing oneself by trying to resolve those misunderstandings.
But on a heavy negative side, we find a novel that is clumsily structured and whose execution does not match its ambition. Having established the cast in the opening pages, we find ourselves spending a good half of the novel back in India telling four separate back stories (those of our three heroes and Narinder). These are way too long, don’t have proper links to the main novel or to one another, and just sit like undigestable lumps. They break all sense of narrative drive and confuse as much as they illuminate. It makes the novel feel like a real slog, and when you get to 60% on your Kindle and you’re still dealing with the background, you wonder whether there is even going to be a foreground at all. It might have been preferable for the back stories to have been shorter and, perhaps, dripfed into the main narrative.
A further problem is that: the characters are insufficiently distinctive. They take it in turns to be the bad guy, the voice of reason, the desperate, and the pious. They don’t behave consistently from one scene to the next; they don’t seem to have much logic behind the decisions they take. There are also a slew of supporting characters, most of whom seem to be nothing more than their actions. If the story requires someone to be daring, a side character will pop up to be daring. If the story requires someone to know something, up will pop a character to know it. For a novel that tries to show migrants as individuals, it is a bit disappointing that they all seem so interchangeable.
If the men are indistinguishable, Narinder is simply not believable. She has an over-bearing father; an over-protective brother, yet she seems to traipse off to India at will, hanging around with whomever she pleases and engaging in a series of relationships in plain sight – yet her family never notices. The explanation for her offering herself as a bride of convenience is not plausible and her method of going about it seems to fly in the face of her supposed motivation. She zips between strength and victimhood; independence and beholdenness with dizzying speed.
A further irritation – and this is a common failing of Indian themed books (Amitav Ghosh comes to mind) – is the constant dropping of Indian words into the text. Not once or twice, but several times a paragraph. Perhaps this is intended to remind us that the characters may not be speaking in English, but it does render much of the descriptive narrative pointless. This might be compared with The Fishermen (also Booker shortlisted in 2015) where the few Nigerian words deemed necessary are translated or explained.
By the end, a sort of story has started to emerge. Even then, it is pretty loose, proceeds at glacial pace despite frenetic travel between various English cities. Multiple strands seem to fly off (in slow motion) but never land. This all leads up to an epilogue which, in too many pages, tells us that they all lived happily ever after – whilst not addressing the cliff-hangers at the end of the story proper. It’s deeply unsatisfying.
As in his previous novel: Ours Are The Streets, Sunjeev Sahota has taken an important and interesting subject matter but not quite made it work. This could have been insightful and moving. Instead it feels clunky and sterile.
Sleeping On Jupiter is extremely neutral. Yes, really. Some of the writing is good, the characters are clear cut, but overall it is very, very meh.
Part of the shortcoming is that the novel features three stories all set in the coastal town of Jarmuli. One is the story of Nomi, an Indian refugee returning on a filming mission to the scene of some atrocities she experienced in childhood. The second is the story of Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three older women on holiday and trying to cope with Gouri’s dementia. The third is the story of some of the beach boys who sell tea and guided tours to the visitors. The three stories all touch on one another, but the linkages manage to be both insufficiently substantial and overly coincidental to make for a single story. Sometimes three stories can nevertheless rub along, perhaps through creating the location as the star of the story, but this never quite happens. Instead, the reader tries to fill in gaps and spot linkages whilst not appreciating the stories that actually are on the page.
Some commentators have said that Anuradha Roy has created a good sense of place. I tend not to agree. Although some of the individual details are right – the interior of the Indian Railways carriage; the tea cart on the beach, overall Jarmuli doesn’t feel right. It feels too small, too empty. There are no characters other than those named in the text – no background crowds or incidental people. There seems to be no employment, no industry, no hinterland. Just a temple, a couple of hotels, and a very unspecific place where children were detained many years ago. The ages also don’t seem to tie up. Nomi is supposed to be a young woman – almost of backpacker age – yet she treats the land she left at the age of 12 as though it was some vague memory from early childhood. She is supposed to be the contemporary of one of the beach boys, yet the elderly women are supposed to be just one generation above the beach boys. It doesn’t quite add up.
Sleeping On Jupiter is not a terribly demanding read. It does have some scenes of brutality and unhappiness, but they do not dominate the story. Mostly it is a novel about a beach holiday, suitable for reading on a beach holiday. And like that beach holiday, it slips away quite quickly without leaving much lasting impression. That such an ordinary novel is long-listed for the 2015 Booker Prize, and that it sits somewhere in the middle of my 2015 Booker reads, really speaks volumes for the poor selection made by this year’s Booker judges.