Arundhati Roy has had the advantage of being brought up with great freedom to develop her individual interests and strengths. Her mother, a social activist, founded her own school and let her daughter learn informally, which allowed Roy to follow her inclinations and listen to her inner voice without being bound by restrictive rules. It is this unique voice that lifts The God of Small Things beyond the category of mainstream novel to a work of art. As arresting as the action is in the novel, it is the element of style, in this case an idiosyncratic voice for the seven-year-old twins who largely narrate the story, which continues to captivate and enchant the reader from beginning to end.
This remarkable voice is present in the first important scene in the novel, the funeral of Sophie Mol, a cousin to the twins Rahel and Estha. During the funeral service, a small bat climbs up the sari of Baby Kochamma, the twins’ great-aunt, and when the bat reaches her flesh, Baby Kochamma screams. Roy describes the event as follows: “The singing stopped for a ’Whatisit? Whathappened?’ and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping.” In this passage, Roy runs words together, rhymes gerunds, and records the event as it might have been understood by the children. These techniques, as well as some invented words, are used throughout the book and are just some of the odd uses of language that give the prose its magical, fairy-tale quality.
Acrostics come into play in the scene in the police station, when the twins observe police behavior that is insulting and degrading to their mother, while behind the policeman is a sign with the word “Police” printed vertically, with each letter standing for a benign quality, such as “O for Obedience,” “L for Loyalty,” and “C for Courtesy.” The children understand this scene as one in which the actions do not match the words, a type of irony that forces the twins to create their own reality in the midst of so many events they do not understand.
The construction of the novel is also innovative. The God of Small Things opens with Rahel’s return to the village of Ayemenem twenty-three years after the main action of the novel—when she and her twin brother were children. She has a strange reunion with Estha, who, according to her aunts, no longer speaks. The penultimate chapter of the novel is taken up with an incestuous act between the now adult twins as they seek consolation and surcease from grief in each other’s arms, which connects to Rahel’s arrival in the first scene. Finally, the last chapter is a description of their mother Ammu’s brief and doomed affair with Velutha, the untouchable, which had taken place years before. Thus, the novel is framed by the actions of the adult twins, with the final scene reaching back to the middle of the novel to illustrate what had happened previously. The events are told as flashbacks or flash forwards, and time is so fragmented that it is difficult for the reader to recognize that the entire novel takes place in one day.
Other twinned events give the novel a highly stylized surface. Velutha, the untouchable, is described more than once as the person the children loved by day and their mother loved by night. Both Ammu and her brother are divorced parents. Both Ammu and her own mother, Mammachi, suffered violent abuse at the hands of their husbands. The most conspicuous parallel in The God of Small Things, however, is the great love and understanding that the twins feel for each other and that their mother and Velutha also feel for each other. Both couples act out a transgression of norms: The twins’ coupling defies an almost universal taboo, and Ammu and Velutha’s coupling defies a centuries-old tradition which is still powerful in India.
Before winning the Man Booker Prize, The God of Small Things received a great deal of media attention, both positive and negative. It was declared derivative of James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, and William Faulkner. The style was called overheated, pretentious, and clichéd by various reviewers. In India, media pundits expressed dismay about the backward and disgusting picture of Kerala presented in the novel. Some held Roy responsible for misrepresenting...
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