Arundhati Roy

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness

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  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 75-page guide for “The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness” by Arundhati Roy includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Nature of Paradise and The Importance of Ambiguity and Diversity.

Plot Summary

Spanning the 1950s to the 2010s, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a 2017 novel by Arundhati Roy, follows the interconnected lives of several characters against the backdrop of contemporary India. The novel skips backwards and forwards in time freely, often pauses for detours into the stories of minor characters and includes several texts within the main text (e.g., Bhartiya’s manifesto, or Tilo’s Kashmiri-English Alphabet). At heart, however, the novel consists of two main narrative threads, one of which is centered in Delhi, and the other in Kashmir.

The first begins with Anjum, a Muslim Hijra (a traditional third gender in India comparable to the term “transgender woman”). Anjum, who is born intersex and named Aftab, is initially raised as a boy. Once Aftab enters adolescence, however, he rejects this male identity and joins the Khwabgah, or “House of Dreams”—a local community of Hijras—taking the name Anjum. Anjum spends more than three decades in the Khwabgah, earning her living (as many Hijras do) as an entertainer and a sex worker. Although she becomes quite successful, she longs to experience life as an “ordinary” (33) woman and, in her 40s, adopts an abandoned toddler whom she names Zainab. However, her plans to leave the Khwabgah and live with Zainab as a typical mother and daughter are thwarted by the rise of anti-Muslim feeling in the early 2000s. While making a religious pilgrimage, Anjum is attacked by rioting Hindu nationalists in the Indian state of Gujarat—an experience that leaves her too traumatized to care for Zainab and eventually prompts her to leave the Khwabgah altogether.

Anjum moves into an old Muslim cemetery, intending to stay there until she herself dies. Over time, however, and with the support of friends from her former life, Anjum begins to come to terms with her experiences, and makes a real home for herself in the graveyard. She builds a house, complete with facilities like electricity, and eventually takes in fellow lodgers. The two most significant of these are a blind imam (Muslim spiritual leader) named Ziauddin, and a young man who gives his name as Saddam Hussain, but who is in fact a Dalit (the lowest class in the Indian caste system) seeking vengeance for his father’s murder.

The second major storyline takes place partly in Delhi, but primarily concerns events that occurred in Kashmir in the 1990s, which Roy explores from several different characters’ perspectives. The figure at the heart of all these narratives is S. Tilottama, or “Tilo”—the illegitimate daughter of a well-to-do Syrian Indian woman who “adopted” Tilo several months after the child was actually born. Tilo grows up to attend architectural school in Delhi, which is where she meets three men who fall in love with her: Biplab Dasgupta (a cautious and pragmatic man who goes on to work for the Indian government), Nagaraj Hariharan (the charming and passionate son of upper-crust Hindu bureaucrats who becomes first a radical journalist and later a security analyst), and Musa Yeswi (a Muslim Kashmiri who also studies architecture and who dates Tilo while in college). All four characters fall out of contact after college, but their lives intersect again years later in Kashmir, where separatists are waging a war for independence against the Indian Army.

One night in Kashmir, Biplab Dasgupta (who is posted in the region) receives a call that Tilo has been arrested in a raid and sends Musa (who is also there on assignment) to pick her up from army headquarters. Both men assume that the “Commander Gulrez” who was killed in the raid alongside Tilo must have been Musa, who had joined the separatist movement after his wife and daughter (“Miss Jebeen”) were mistakenly shot and killed by Indian forces. However, Roy eventually reveals that this was not the case: The man identified as “Commander Gulrez” was simply a mentally disabled man who worked on the houseboat where Musa and Tilo were visiting with one another (Musa himself had left some hours before the raid).

On Musa’s advice, Tilo marries Naga shortly after her arrest. Soon after the wedding, she discovers that she is pregnant (by Musa) but has an abortion because she fears that her own relationship with a child would be no better than her mother’s relationship was with her. She also remains traumatized by her experiences in Kashmir and eventually separates from Naga after 14 years of marriage, no longer able to bear the double life she’s leading. After the divorce, she spends four years in an apartment she rents from Dasgupta, who, after she leaves, finds an array of papers in her rooms dealing with Kashmir and the trips Tilo has made there over the years.

Tilo’s reasons for leaving her apartment are where her story intersects with Anjum’s. Sometime in the 2010s, a series of protests erupt at Jantar Mantar in downtown Delhi (Roy’s fictionalized account is likely based on the 2011 anti-corruption and land acquisition protests). Anjum, Saddam Hussain, and a few of their friends have gone to Jantar Mantar to see the demonstrations for themselves, when they suddenly hear that an abandoned baby has been found in the crowd. Anjum hopes to take charge of the little girl herself, but before she can, a mysterious woman—Tilo—whisks the child away.

Tilo takes the baby (whom she names Miss Jebeen the Second) on impulse, feeling that the child will somehow “turn the tide” (219). Fearing police involvement, however, she readily agrees to leave her apartment when Saddam Hussain leaves a card for her with the address of Anjum’s cemetery home, Jannat Guest House and Funeral Parlor. Tilo accordingly moves into the cemetery with the baby and slowly begins to move beyond the trauma of her experiences in Kashmir.

Jannat Guest House, meanwhile, has become a bustling business and community center. One regular visitor is Zainab (now a seamstress), who eventually becomes engaged to and marries Saddam, who has decided to set aside his quest for vengeance in the knowledge that other Dalits are carrying on the fight. Both he and Tilo gain additional closure when Imam Ziauddin, Anjum, and the rest of Jannat’s makeshift family symbolically “bury” the ashes of Tilo’s mother, as well as a shirt they have bought in honor of Saddam’s father. Eventually, the group also buries a letter they receive from Miss Jebeen the Second’s birthmother—a Maoist freedom fighter who became pregnant as the result of rape and who has since died in action.

Meanwhile, Dasgupta continues to obsess over the documents he found in Tilo’s apartment. When Musa unexpectedly stops by one night, Dasgupta admits that he now believes the Kashmiri separatists are in the right. However, he doesn’t move beyond this realization and begins to slide into alcoholism.

In the final pages of the novel, Musa visits Tilo at Jannat Guest House; although both he and Tilo are aware that he will likely be killed when he returns to the fighting in Kashmir, she is now able to make peace with that fact. As the novel ends, Anjum takes Miss Jebeen the Second out for a walk through nighttime Delhi, and even the dung beetle that lives near Jannat Guest House feels that “things would turn out all right in the end Because Miss Jebeen, Miss Udaya Jebeen, was come” (444).

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