Arundhati Roy

(Penguin, £8.99)

Roy’s profile has been kept high by her political journalism, so it’s a jolt to realise that there has been a two-decade gap since her celebrated Booker-winning debut novel, The God of Small Things. Twenty years in the making, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness brings to mind Dickens or Zola, a sprawling, bustling novel told from the perspective of the streets.

The India Roy presents here bristles with conflict, as “the saffron tide of Hindu nationalism rises in our country, like the Swastika once did in another.” The Kashmir situation, and Hindu-Muslim aggression in general, is stirring up visceral hatred. In Delhi, a rickety settlement is broken up by bulldozers and police in the name of gentrification, giving activists of all persuasions a chance to vent their anger, including people still protesting about Union Carbide. And as police and protesters square up to each other, a baby is found abandoned, its mother unknown, only to disappear again.

Roy shows us her India through the eyes of its outcasts, opening on Anjum, a transgender woman who takes her place among the hijra, India’s time-honoured “third gender”, in Delhi. She moves into their house, the Khwabgah, living there for years and even raising a foundling daughter, until she is caught up in a massacre at a Gujarati shrine. Traumatised, she leaves the Kwabgah, adopts more sober dress and goes to live in a graveyard, “like a tree”, where she provides shelter and services for the disenfranchised and discarded. The other major character is a former architecture student, the enigmatic Tilo – a woman seemingly untroubled by concepts like identity and home, but who is nevertheless determined to be reunited with her old partner, Musa, a driven and passionate fighter for the Kashmiri cause. Years earlier, Tilo was part of a love quadrangle at a student drama group. Of her admirers, Musa, an artist with labourer’s hands, is now in Kashmir, and Biplab is an official with the Intelligence Bureau who feeds titbits of information to Naga, once a political firebrand now a compliant journalist.

It’s Tilo who whisked the baby out from under the noses of the demonstrators (and Anjum herself) before clearing out of the flat she rented from Diplab, leaving some odd documents behind for her former landlord to puzzle over. Why should Tilo have a file on a man who moved to California to escape persecution and who then went on to kill himself and his family?

Streamlined it isn’t. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an unflattering shape, bulging in places, as though it had been roughly lashed together from a selection of possible narratives. But perhaps that’s an inevitable fate for a book that’s about resisting being defined, and which argues the case for pluralism in the face of creaky age-old certainties. At one point, Tilo knowingly remarks, “It’s not sophisticated, what happens here [Kashmir]. There’s too much blood for good literature.” So maybe this isn’t “good” literature. But it’s passionate, exuberant, bracing, unashamedly political and demanding to be taken on its own terms.