Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

Shulin Nishant"Introduction to Contemporary Indian Literature," Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

"Observing the day of small things" is a phrase that eighteenth-century friends used to describe their understanding that no behavior or deed was too small to be subject to God's guidance. This retreat will provide an environment for people to notice more fully and reflect upon the presence of God in their everyday lives. The idea basically focuses on listening to, waiting in and responding to the Living Silence. We will explore finding this rhythm of prayer in the hubbub of daily life -- synergy, harmony, love, perfection, and loss of innocence -- and where one has a potential to be the God of the Small Things around oneself -- by just following your purest feelings.

A Summary of the Plot

This first novel is written in English by a native Indian who makes her home in India. It is the tale of Esthappen (Estha for short) and his fraternal twin sister, Rahel, and their divorced mother, Ammu, who live in the south Indian state of Kerala. Ammu, a Syrian Christian, has had no choice but to return to her parental home, following her divorce from the Hindu man she had married--the father of Estha and Rahel.

The story centers on events surrounding the visit and drowning death of the twins' half-English cousin, a nine year old girl named Sophie Mol. The visit overlaps with a love affair between Ammu and the family's carpenter, Velutha, a member of the Untouchable caste--"The God of Loss / The God of Small Things." (p. 274)

Told from the children's perspective, the novel moves backward from present-day India to the fateful drowning that took place twenty-three years earlier, in 1969. The consequences of these intertwined events--the drowning and the forbidden love affair--are dire. Estha at some point thereafter stops speaking; Ammu is banished from her home, dying miserably and alone at age 31; Rahel is expelled from school, drifts, marries an American, whom she later leaves. The narrative begins and ends as Rahel returns to her family home in India and to Estha, where there is some hope that their love for each other and memories recollected from a distance will heal their deep wounds.

Set in a small town in Kerala, The God of Small Things is about a family, seen from the perspective of seven-year-old Rahel. She and her twin brother, Estha, live with their mother, Ammu, who was married to a Bengali, the children's Baba, but from whom she is divorced. Ammu and, therefore, the twins seem to live on sufferance in the Ayemenem house with their grandmother, uncle, and grand-aunt Baby. The family owns a pickle factory that comes into conflict with the Communists.


It is the story of two fraternal twins, Rahel and Estha, caught in the entanglements of adult corruption, punished for the sins of a world out of their control. Roy relates the events that lead to this tragic end, where one mistake can spiral out of control and can implicate the most innocent. Much of the story is told through the eyes, the fragile perceptions, of these two children. They are struggling to secure a safe environment, the unconditional love of a parent and the promise of a livable future. Their struggle to safeguard themselves and the childhood ends one day, a day after which futures are abandoned and recovery is unthinkable.

"The book really delves, very deep I think, into human nature. The story tells of the brutality we're capable of, but also that aching, intimate love. And for me the twins are what that is about...the ability to actually dream each other's dreams and to share each other's happiness and pain. " - Arundhati Roy

The Idea

Wishing for one day, a single moment, that is free from suffering, boundaries and prejudice to last for a lifetime is a dream inverted and ultimately defeated in Arundhati Roy's first novel The God of Small Things. Simultaneous events combine and combust in one tragic day, a day of persecution and loss that is fated to last a lifetime: love lost, lives taken, families disjointed, childhood destroyed.

Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things that won't get lost
Like a coin that won't get tossed,
Rolling on to you.

But when they get back to where they belonged they realize that things have changed. Twins become strangers, and I do not think that such strangers, esp. Estha , who is strangled with his past and cannot get his self to become "normal" , and Rahel being the reader of her brother,she does the perfect thing -- provides him love - for all the child in him needed was affection, perversion is just to the reader who would feel blasphemed because he does not realize that this is all A.R. has been trying to do in the book - to show the small world we live in - and how we become Gods of our worlds, where there are no worshippers, no takers, but only givers. And in a repressive society where truth has to be hidden for the sake of tradition , the real Gods come up and finally end up feeling gratified.

Acculturation, Colonialism, Developing Countries, Freedom

The backdrop to this tragedy, set in India during the late 1960's, is an environment as beautiful as it is dangerous. Roy's unique and intense attention to detail pulls the reader into this lush, pulsating and ultimately deadly setting. Dwelling there within is a world of dysfunction: a government clumsily struggling to establish itself, a country cut off from its past and unable to clearly define its present, a people turning away from each other. It is the story of forbidden affections, of children abused and criminalized, and of families ruptured. The God of Small Things (the God of loss) presides over all of this, unable or unwilling to stop the suffering, offering no salvation even to the most innocent. A God as weakened and as weighted by tragedy as its victims. Great loss is not marked by ceremony. It is hardly even recognized. A loss is simply a loss, suffering is simply suffering. What occurs is an intensely personal loss which in turn becomes a loss of person, where lives continue but living ends.

The novel is rich with Indian family relationships, social custom and mores, politics, and the most universal of human emotions and behavior. At one and the same time, it is a suspenseful and tragic mystery, a love story, and an exposition of the paradoxes that exist in an ancient land whose history was forever altered by its British colonizers.


Religion ? Sex ? Perversion ? False Exotic Images ?

Despite the fine writing, the evocative descriptions, there is something formulaic about it. The inter-caste affair and the death of a child that lies at the heart of the book are very predictable and the love affair is not plausible, it does not spring from either the characterisation or the needs of the story. There is a sense of manipulation by the author and I thought the incest scene at the end was unnecessary but probably, it was one of the things that people look for nowadays & which makes for a successful book. The masturbation of the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man by Estha is one of these so-called necessary components of a successful book.

In this connection it must be said that Roy handles the sex scene between Ammu and Velutha with artistry. Nevertheless, Ammu's affair with the untouchable is wholly implausible, the more so because Roy does not bother to develop the relationship, it is suddenly sprung on us and we cannot imagine the motivation. This could also be one of the drawbacks of using a seven-year-old as one's narrator.

The God of Small Things is often very amusing; there is a lovely passage where a child recites Lochinvar with a Malayali intonation and pronunciation.For those who know Kerala, it is all very interesting and for those who don't, it is certainly exotic and interesting, but despite all the fine writing, the bottom line is that one is left largely unmoved by the tragedy that unfolds. But perhaps that doesn't matter and the style's the thing.

The Style

That, as Rahel would say, is the purely practical way of looking at it. There is much more. The book is certainly well written and some comparison has been made with Rushdie. However, unlike Rushdie's work, this is easy reading and very accessible. There are some nice turns of phrase and very interesting images. A character dies aged 31 at "a viable, die-able age."

Like most first novels, it is heavily autobiographical and the child character Rahel is so clearly Roy herself that she is a completely plausible character with whom the reader can empathise. In fact, the book's strength lies in its portrayal of the family, its weakness is the story. In this sense, it might be analogous to reconstructing an illness from a chaotic patient narrative. The narrative structure is skillful, weaving back and forth from the present to the past, foretelling without revealing future events alert to signals but isn't immediately sure what they signify, and is drawn to return to earlier sections as the story unfolds, in order to derive full meaning from all of its parts.

The author's style is both poetic and whimsical. The larger story contains many smaller ones that stand alone as small gems of observation and insight. The perspective of childhood--of imagination and inventiveness, of incomplete understanding, fear, dependence, assertion of independence, vulnerability, comradeship, competitive jealousy, and wonderment--is beautifully rendered.

What is the god of small things?

"To me the god of small things is the inversion of God. God's a big thing and God's in control. The god of small things...whether it's the way the children see things or whether it's the insect life in the book, or the fish or the stars - there is a not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries. This small activity that goes on is the under life of the book. All sorts of boundaries are transgressed upon. At the end of the first chapter I say little events and ordinary things are just smashed and reconstituted, imbued with new meaning to become the bleached bones of the story. It's a story that examines things very closely but also from a very, very distant point, almost from geological time and you look at it and see a pattern there. A pattern...of how in these small events and in these small lives the world intrudes. And because of this, because of people being unprotected.. the world and the social machine intrudes into the smallest, deepest core of their being and changes their life." - Arundhati Roy

The novel is rich with Indian family relationships, social custom and mores, politics, and the most universal of human emotions and behavior. At one and the same time, it is a suspenseful and tragic mystery, a love story, and an exposition of the paradoxes that exist in an ancient land whose history was forever altered by its British colonizers.

There are big dreams and little ones.

In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me

I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me

In the book of love's own dream
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me

You flew to me

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me


Postcolonial Web India OV Roy

Last modified 4 June 2001