My View of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

My View of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

Somak Halder, "Introduction to Contemporary Indian Literature," Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

"They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. " -- God of Small Things

This highly stylized novel tells the story of one very fractured family from the southernmost tip of India. Here is an unhappy family unhappy in its own way, and through flashbacks and flashforwards The God of Small Things unfolds the secrets of these characters' unhappiness. First-time novelist Arundhati Roy twists and reshapes language to create an arresting, startling sort of precision. The average reader of mainstream fiction may have a tough time working through Roy's prose, but those with a more literary bent to their usual fiction inclinations should find the initial struggle through the dense prose a worthy price for this lushly tragic tale.

Rahel and Estha are fraternal twins whose emotional connection to one another is stronger than that of most siblings: Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually as "We" or "Us".As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities. Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream.She has other memories too that she has no right to have. Their childhood household hums with hidden antagonisms and pains that only family members can give one another.

Among the other members of the family there is Blind Mammachi, the twins' grandmother and founder of Paradise Pickles & Preserves, who is a violin-playing widow and who suffered years of abuse at the hands of her highly respected husband, and who has a fierce one-sided Oedipal connection with her son, Chacko. Baby Kochamma, Rahel and Estha's grandaunt, nurses deep-seated bitterness for a lifetime of unrequited love, a bitterness that plays out slyly against everyone in the family; in her youth she fell in love with an Irish Roman-Catholic priest and converted to his faith to win him, while he eventually converted to Hinduism. Chacko, divorced from his English wife and separated from his daughter since her infancy; she runs the pickle factory with a capitalist's hand, self-deluding himself all the while that he is a Communist at heart even as he flirts with and beds his female employees. Ammu, the twins' mother, is a divorcee who fled her husband's alcoholism and impossible demands, a woman with a streak of wildness that the children sense and dread and that will be her and her family's undoing.

The family's tragedy revolves around the visit of Chacko's ex-wife, widowed by her second husband, and his daughter, Sophie Mol. It is within the context of their visit that Estha will experience the one horrible thing that should never happen to a child, during their visit that Ammu will come to love by night the man the children love by day, and during their visit that Sophie Mol will die. Her death, and the fate of the twins' beloved Untouchable Velutha, will forever alter the course of the lives of all the members of the family, sending them each off on spinning trajectories of regret and pain. The story reveals itself not in traditional narrative order, but it jumps throughtime, wending its way through Rahel's memories and attempts at understanding the hand fate deal with her family.

The people of this story don't seem to have a life or positive emotion beyond their careers and their pride in being amongst the higher echelon of proper Indian society. The ongoing conflict inherent of social stratification at various levels (English vs. Indian,Touchable vs. Untouchable, Emotive vs. Social) creates 'bad' people that live life and experience emotion from an inward, introspective and individual versus'good' people that move through life, looking outward and gauging their success by the othersí opinions of their work, position and special abilities (Baby Cochamaís violin playing, Pillai as the head of the Marxist party, etc.). Those that refuse to bow to social propriety are destroyed by it. Velutha, the god of small things, loving Ammu and Rahel and Estha (red varnish under his fingertips), is swallowed by madness and destroyed physically and maliciously by the enforcers of the law. Ammu is forced to leave for loving an untouchable, forced to split her children,and dies alone. And Rahel and Estha form an unusual coda to this story, a dysfunctional product formulated by the events theyíve lived (particularly the lemondrink man,sophie molís death, veluthaís destruction, and the anger, frustration and dearth of positive emotion from their relatives). Their shared "hideous grief" is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

"The God of Small Things" is a story of forbidden, cross-caste love and what community will do to protect the old ways. The Kochamma family business, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, is emblematic of the theme. Ayemenem is practically pickled in history. Roy,an architect and screenwriter who grew up in Kerala, capably shoulders the burdens of caste and tradition, a double weight that crushes some of her characters and warps others, but leaves none untouched. Roy takes up classic material, but she delights in verbal innovation and stylistic tricks. She runs words together -- "thunderdarkness," "echoing stationsounds" -- and plucks nouns from verbs and verbs from thin air. And she has hit on a striking way of getting at a child's point of view (told in third person, the story unfolds more or less as young Rahel and Estha experience it). When her mother tells a rambunctious Rahel to "Stoppit," Rahel "stoppited." At Sophie's funeral, a bat alights on a mourner: the singing stopped for a 'Whatisit?' 'Whathappened?' and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping. "At times it feels as though you've dropped into a faux Rushdie novel, with cartwheeling corpses and talking statues. Mostly, though, Roy's verbal exuberance is all her own, and it makes "The God of Small Things" a real pleasure.

The God of Small Things takes on the Big Subjects -- Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite Joy. Here is a writer who dares to break the rules. To dislocate received rhythms and create the language she requires, a language that is at once classical and unprecedented. Arundhati Roy has given us a book that is anchored to anguish, but fueled by wit and magic.


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Last modified 4 June 2001