The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things begins with a quotation from the writer John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” Thus, even as the novel dives into non-linear, multi-voiced perspectives, it is built around the experiences of the twins, Rahel and her brother Estha, the “small things” that alter their fate and their family Ayemenem in the Marxist state of Kerala, India.

At the age of seven, a tragedy–the death of their half-English cousin Sophie Mol–separates the twins. Living and traveling aimlessly, the book begins when the siblings are adults: Rahel returns to Ayemenem after hearing that Estha (Esthappen) had finally come home.

Flashing backwards and forwards in time, from 1969 to 1993, Roy’s masterpiece tackles politics and Indian society- communism, the caste system and religion – as well as love, the loss of innocence, and confronting the past.

Ammu, the mother of the ‘two-egg twins’ left her violent husband to live with her blind mother, Shoshamma Ipe (referred as Mammachi meaning grandmother), her brother Chacko, and her bitter aunt Baby Kochamma. Rahel and Estha’s mother falls in love and begins an affair with Velutha who works in the family’s Paradise Pickles and Preserves factory. Their romance is mired by his status: he is an untouchable, a pervati, who are the lowest group in the caste system. Rahel claims that she saw him marching with the communist, which adds to Baby Kochamma’s hatred towards him. The writer refers to him as “The God of Small Things” and “The God of Loss.”

Chacko, a former Rhodes Scholar returned to India after his divorce with Margaret, an English woman who remarried. He first came as a teacher then later, with his “Bharat bottle-sealing machine, his Balliol oar and his broken heart,” returns to Ayemenem upon his father’s death to build the business, Even if his wife had left him for another man, he is still deeply in love with her and they continue to exchange letters. After the death of Margaret’s husband, she and Chacko’s daughter, Sophie Mol, visits them in the humid southern Indian town.

As the novel weaves backwards and forwards in time, its theme remains clear: things can change in a day. Thus, while grown-ups focus on the big issues, such as social structures and ideology, the small things-those undetected and seemingly irrelevant occurrences – alter their lives.

The family watches “The Sound of Music” in the theatre, where Estha, after being sent out for singing during the film, is sexually molested by the “Orangedrink Lemondrink man.” Later in the story, Amma and Velutha’s relationship is discovered, where the former is locked in the house and the latter is banished. In a fit of rage, she blames the twins who decide to run away and Sophie begs to join. In the river, the boat capsizes and their cousin drowns. The siblings search in vain, but fall asleep in the abandoned house they fondly call “The History House.”  Their mother also loved the abandoned house by the river, but for entirely different reasons–it was where she would meet her lover,  Ammu.

The next day, Sophie’s body is discovered and the blame placed on Velutha. The police arrest the man for having the audacity to cross caste lines and violently beat the untouchable. The twins, who have become close to him, witness the thrashing. They confess what had happened to the Chief of Police, but it does little good because the officer fears that the wrongful arrest of Valuthu, a communist supporter, would instigate further unrest. He threatens Valuthu’s accuser, Baby Kochamma, that if she did not make Rahel and Estha withdraw their story, he would charge her for the false accusation. She manipulates the twins into believing that by accusing the factory worker of the crime, they would be able to save their mother from jail. The woman also convinces them that they pushed their cousin out of the boat because they were jealous. The twins believe both lies and testify against Velutha, who later dies from his injuries. However, when their mother hears of the charges, she runs to the police and confesses what had happened. Fearing exposure, the aunt coerces Chacko into banishing his sister and her children from his home. Ammu cannot afford to fend for both children and sends Estha to live with his father. She lives in poverty and dies in an accident at the age of 31-the same age the twins reunite. No one informs Estha of her death and Rahel watches her mother’s body placed into the cremation oven.

Crossing the greatest line, the twins make love out of “hideous grief.” And in the final chapter, the reader learns the details of Ammu and Valuthu’s relationship. Unable to exist in the world of Big Things, they found joy in the world of the Small Things. Each night they make a small promise, the words: “Tomorrow? Tomorrow.” On their last night together, she turns to says it one more time, “Naalay.” Tommorrow.

Winning the England’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, in 1997, as well ranking No. 1 on numerous Bestseller lists and having been published in more than 20 countries, Arundhati Roy’s first novel has garnered international acclaim. However, despite the book’s success, it also drew national criticism. An individual lawyer by the name of Sabu Thomas chastised for her depiction of intercaste lovemaking and pushed that the last chapter be removed, but fortunately, the obscenity charges were dropped. She was also the first Indian woman and non-expatriate to win the prize.

Roy’s masterpiece calls attention to the “small things” in life, an especially important reminder in this modern society. It is the “small things” that burden Rahel and Estha, such as the daughter’s perception of Ammu’s ever decreasing love, Estha’s sexual abuse from a stranger, and the truth about their cousin’s death. These issues are not confronted, and ends up haunting them throughout most of their adult life. Meanwhile, Ammu and Valutha can only exist together in the midst of the “small things” as in their world of the “big things” (their caste), they can never love each other freely. Thus, these seemingly inconspicuous details profoundly affect the lives of all the characters. Like the novel, people often find themselves chasing after larger goals, ideologies, a preservation of status, yet the subtle elements-such as a moment of peace or a harsh word said impulsively-is often what remains.

The novel touches on the positive and negative effects of maintaining tradition. As the older characters seek control, like Pappachi, who attempts to hold on to his power in the household, or Baby Kochamma who conserves societal rules out of her own bitterness and failed romance, it is the entire family pays the price. However, despite the author’s criticism of the caste system, she points out a need to maintain a sense of cultural identity. Even as the family takes account of colonial influences, such as wearing Western clothing to pick up Margaret and Sophie Mol, watching “The Sound of Music,” Chacko’s education in England, Rahel’s life in the United States, none of the characters renounces their “Indian-ness.” As Sophie Mol steps into view, “Hatted, bell-bottomed and Loved from the beginning,” their cousin’s Caucasian roots is not an issue or a subject of envy for the other children.

There is no real play on ethnic difference, and even Chacko’s depiction of life abroad is not peppered with racial issues between being dark or white, nor is it the source of the breakdown of his marriage with Margaret, and neither is Rahel’s divorce with the American, Larry McCaslin. This “small thing” is an important step in third world literature. Most especially for countries that have experienced colonization, or where Western media plays a strong influence the culture.

Thus, as globalization forges on, it does not mean a culture has to be lost. Tied to this theme is the return to Ayamenen. Even as Ammu, Chacko, Rahel, and Estha flee their home, they ultimately come back.

***Photos not mine.

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