The God of Small Things Questions and Answers
by Arundhati Roy

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How does patriarchy play a part in The God of Small Things?

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Roy tells the stories of various husband-wife couples whose relationships are distorted because of the patriarchal structure.  The most obvious example is that of Pappachi and Mammachi.  Pappachi rules his household like a demented despot--beating his wife and children and destroying their prized possessions.  Chacko, though less aggressively, than his father, is responsible for his failed marriage.  He has no job, but he refuses to help out around the house, and turns into a lazy slob.  Ammu's husband is willing to prostitute her to save his job.  Roy gives example after example of men's tyrannical actions in their household.  Some are physically abusive, such as Pappachi and the Kathakali Men; but some are more insidious in their domination and sense of entitlement:  Conrade Pillai and Chacko. ...

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Patriarchy and male dominance play a huge role in The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy highlights how the patriarchy, as a structure of oppression, is tightly interwoven with the caste system, a defining feature of Indian society.

Throughout the novel is the repetition of “Man’s Needs”, which first appears in Chapter 8 when Mammachi justifies Chacko’s licentious relationships with the women from the pickle factory to Baby Kochamma. It is here that the term is said to have “gained implicit sanction in the Ayemenem House” (my italics). It is important to note how the word ‘sanction’ holds judicial and legal connotations, and, in its noun form, means permission or approval. Significantly, then, is how ’Men’s Needs’, or male sexual desire, is allowed in the Ipe household.

With ‘Men’s Needs’ and its power of sanction, we can then see how the novel draws larger associations between male power and the caste-system as another form of law that determines what is allowed and disallowed in Indian society. Kerala is split into the “Touchables and Untouchables”, where the lower caste are forbidden from coming into physical contact with the upper caste and are made to live separately from them. The caste system is spatialised, and the labels of “Touchables and Untouchables” give the impression that its discrimination is governed by the ancient fear of racial, biological contamination.

However, the novel reveals a more menacing implication to the caste system, that is, how racial and biological impurity is in fact determined by female sexuality. In Chapter 13, when Mammachi finds out about Ammu and Velutha’s affair, her rage, her “tolerance of ‘Men’s Needs’” with Chacko, became “the fuel for her unmanageable fury at her daughter”. Mammachi displays a double standard: while Chacko is allowed to express and have his sexual relationships, Ammu, as a woman, cannot, because to do so is to directly threaten the racial purity and privilege of the Touchables, is to defile “generations of breeding”. From Alex Tickell’s Routledge Guide on Roy’s novel, the scholar Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas points out that

“Issues of Untouchability and of sexuality are intimately connected, through the traditional concern of patriarchal discourse with the preservation of values and privilege through lineage, and therefore an obsession with the exclusive use of women as property” (87)

Female sexuality and bodies carry cultural responsibility for lineage of class privilege and purity. With this, you may then want to analyse how the link between the patriarchy and caste system is substantiated in the scene where the policemen beat up Velutha in Chapter 18, and ‘Men’s Needs’ is invoked:

“The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear—civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness. Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify. Men’s Needs.”

For further reading, Alex Tickell's Routledge guide provides a wonderful overview of the texts' background, its thematic concerns, and key scholarly essays: