In her bestselling, highly anticipated second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Booker Prize–winning author Arundhati Roy weaves together the lives of a diverse cast of characters from throughout the Indian subcontinent. The violence of India’s ancient caste-system and the memory of the 1947 Partition are never far away, if not right in the forefront, creating divisions that Roy’s characters must contend with and bridge. They are upper-caste Hindu, Dalit, Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Sufi), Christian and Sikh; they are from the South as well as North; they are Kashmiris—civilians as well as militants fighting for liberation from India. Some are working for the Indian Intelligence Bureau. Many fall between the borders of castes and religions and nationalities.
The conflict has left its mark. Roy shows, however, that despite their differences, her characters have much in common. Each fights a personal battle—as one says, “Indo-Pak is inside us” (p. 27). These inner struggles, along with the reality of the tumultuous world in which they live, threaten to tear them apart. Like all of us, though, they seek to be healed, to be accepted, and to be cared for, and it is this human desire that brings them together and unites them.
In this sweeping narrative, as she displays the breadth of humanity, Roy introduces us to a great many figures. We at the Reading Group Center have created a character guide to help you follow them all. Print it out, stick it in your book, and refer to it as needed.*
It’s also helpful to have some background on the conflict that permeates the area. Keep reading for a brief history of the Indo-Pakistani conflict.*
The animosity between India and Pakistan started when the two countries were formed by the partition of British India in 1947, creating a Hindu-majority India with a large Muslim minority and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Millions of people were violently displaced or killed during the separation.
India and Pakistan both lay claim to Kashmir, the northernmost region of the subcontinent. India currently controls about two-thirds of the area, basing their claim on an agreement signed in 1947; this is administered as the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the largely Buddhist region of Ladakh. Pakistan controls the other third, citing the Muslim majority in the area. Kashmir, which has been the center of conflict for three wars and countless skirmishes between India and Pakistan, is widely considered one of the world’s the most heavily militarized zones.
Within Jammu and Kashmir, the Kashmir Valley is the most contentious area. Kashmiris are calling for Azadi: freedom from India and autonomous rule. The inhabitants of the Valley are predominantly Muslim. There was a tiny minority of Hindu Brahmins called Kashmiri Pandits, most of whom left the valley in the early ’90s when the conflict began. In attempts to maintain control of the area, India has deployed half a million soldiers there, making it one of the densest military occupations in the world. The Indian forces have committed acts against the Kashmiris that have been called violations of human rights. The Kashmiri militants, though lacking the power and scale of a state, have been condemned for their acts as well. According to the Associated Press, the conflict has resulted in the deaths of 68,000 people.
*Please note that our summary of this complex and ongoing conflict is by no means comprehensive and is meant only to inform your reading of this book. (Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Pakistani_wars_and_conflicts, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_conflict, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_conflict#Reasons_behind_the_dispute)
Character Guide for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Ahlam Baji – The midwife who delivered Aftab/Anjum
Anjum (Aftab) – A Muslim Hijra (hermaphrodite) and founder of Jannat Guest House
Anwar Bhai – A brothel owner who brings one of his girls, Rubina, to the graveyard to be buried
Ambassador Shivashankar Hariharan – Naga’s father
Ashfaq Mir – Deputy Commandant of the Shiraz Cinema JIC
Assistant Commandant Pinky Sodhi – A beautiful and brutal interrogator for the Central Reserve Police Force
Baby and Heera – Muslim Hijras at the Khwabgah
Begum Arifa Yeswi – Married to Musa, mother of Miss Jebeen the First
Begum Renata Mumtaz Madam – A belly dancer buried in the graveyard
Begum Zeenat Kauser – Anjum’s aunt (her father’s older sister)
Bibi Ayesha – Anjum’s oldest sister, died of tuberculosis
Biplab Dasgupta (Garson Hobart) – Deputy Station Head for the Intelligence Bureau.
Married to Chittaroopa (Chitra) and has two daughters, Rabia and Ania
Bismillah (Bimla) – Manages the kitchen and guards the Khwabgah
Bombay Silk – A beautiful Hijra who first leads Aftab to the Khwabgah
Bulbul and Gudiya – Hindu Hijras at the Khwabgah
Comrade Revathy Maase – Mother of Miss Jebeen the Second
Dr. Azad Bhartiya – On a prolonged hunger strike near Jantar Mantar.
Friends with Tilo since they met at a sandal shop
Dr. Bhagat – The doctor visited by members of the Khwabgah
Dr. Ghulam Nabi – A “sexologist” who sees Aftab
Dr. Mukhtar – The doctor who performs Anjum’s surgery
Gulrez (Gul-kak Abroo) – A simple man who lives on Musa’s houseboat
Imam Ziauddin – The blind imam who visits Anjum in the graveyard
Imran Qureishi – The rising star among young butchers
Ishrat – A beautiful, ostentatiously dressed Hijra who travels with Anjum to the protests near Jantar Mantar
Jahanara Begum – Anjum’s mother
Jalib Qadri – A lawyer and human rights activist murdered by Amrik Singh. Shooting breaks out during his funeral procession
Khadija – An associate of Musa who travels with Tilo
Major Amrik Singh (Spotter) – Military officer in charge of counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. Claiming to be the victim of torture, seeks asylum in America with his wife (Loveleen nèe Kaur) and children.
Mary – A Christian Hijra at the Khwabgah
Maryam Ipe – Tilo’s estranged mother
Miss Jebeen the Second (Miss Udaya Jebeen) – A baby abandoned at Jantar Mantar
Mr. D. D. Gupta – An old client of Anjum’s who moves to Baghdad
Mulaqat Ali – Anjum’s father
Mumtaz Afzal Malik – The taxi driver that took Salim Gojri to the meeting with Amrik Singh
Musa Yeswi (Commander Gulrez) – An important militant fighter for Kashmiri Azadi (freedom)
Nagaraj Hariharan (Naga) – A journalist working in Kashmir with ties to the Intelligence Bureau
Nimmo Gorakhpuri – A young Muslim Hijra who becomes a beautiful goat magnate outside of Delhi
Ram Chandra Sharma (R.C.) – A colleague of Biplab Dasgupta at the Intelligence Bureau, Naga’s “handler”
Razia – A somewhat crazy resident of the Khwabgah and Bismillah’s companion
Roshan Lal – Headwaiter of the Rosebud Rest-O-Bar who visits Renata Mumtaz’s grave
S. Tilottama (Tilo, Ustaniji) – Architect and publisher of Azad Bhartiya’s pamphlet.
Attended architecture school with Musa, Naga, and Biplab Dasgupta.
Takes the abandoned baby from Jantar Mantar
Saddam Hussain (Dayachand) – A former untouchable who works odd jobs including in a mortuary and as a security guard and owns a white horse named Payal.
Wants to kill Sehrawat, a police officer, for the role he played in Saddam’s father’s death
Saeeda – A younger, newer member of the Khwabgah. Anjum’s rival
Salim Gojri – A friend and partner of Amrik Singh who participated in the kidnapping and murder of Jalib Qadri
Saqib – Anjum’s younger brother
Showkat Yeswi (Godzilla) – Musa’s father, a building contractor who works closely with the Military Engineering Services
Ustad Hameed Khan – The music teacher
Ustad Kulsoom Bi – The head of the household at the Khwabgah
Zainab – Anjum’s adopted daughter
Zakir Mian – A friend of Anjum’s father and proprietor of A-1 Flower who accompanies Anjum to Ajmer, where they are caught in a riot