To understand Arundhati Roy’s novel of India, The God of Small Things, one needs some appreciation of the ancient culture that continues to define that country. India’s is a caste system; individuals born to a certain socioeconomic status are privileged, or condemned, to live their lives within the confines of that caste. For the underprivileged – and India has hundreds of millions of desperately poor people – acceptance of their fate is too often the only way to survive. Their prospects of upward mobility, while gradually improving as India’s economy grows, many Indians continue to accept the ancient caste system as inherently “Indian.” The upper castes may include nationalists and extremists, but it is still considered superior to those economically below them. Roy’s novel includes a passage in which Rahel and Estha’s grandaunt, Baby Kochamma, would monitor the children for indications of lower-class manifestations:
“That whole week Baby Kochamma eavesdropped relentlessly on the twins’ private conversations, and whenever she caught them speaking in Malayalam, she levied a small fine which was deducted at source. From their pocket money. She made them write lines– “impositions” she called them–I will always speak in English, I will always speak in English.”
To speak English is a sign of education and sophistication; to restrict one’s speech to indigenous languages is to reveal one’s primitiveness.
There is a strong tendency among novelists, especially those with a romantic inclination, to humanize the less advantaged while demonizing the privileged. To paraphrase the late German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and to contravene the “protagonist” of the recent film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” there is nobility in poverty. In Roy’s novel, the character of Velutha represents purity of the soul. He is of the lower-caste: an inferior form of being to many in the upper castes. Velutha’s affair with Ammu, the mother of Rahel and Estha, and wife of Babu, an alcoholic of little substance who is only talked about or referred to, but is never seen in the story, is forgiven for the emotional vacancy that Ammu’s marriage and divorce left for this noble if destitute soul to fill. The lovers’ meetings provide Ammu the spiritually and physically fulfilling sustenance otherwise lacking in her world. Roy’s descriptions of these passionate encounters invariably involve prose designed to enhance the wonders of the moment:
“The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke.”
“She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no one. She spent hours on the riverbank. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims...”
“He folded his fear into a perfect rose. He held it out in the palm of his hand. She took it from him and put it in her hair.”
Well into the story, specifically, in Chapter 11, fate is beginning to reveal what lies in store for Velutha. As Roy describes the parameters within which this noble being exists, and the limits to how far he can go, the author suggests that his story will not have a happy ending:
“If he touched her, he couldn't talk to her, if he loved her he couldn't leave, if he spoke he couldn't listen, if he fought he couldn't win.”
Velutha may not be the only shining light in the novel – other characters are certainly redeemable – but his unprivileged status in this ancient society has condemned him to a fate unworthy of his life. To perish alone and beaten, physically and spiritually, in a decrepit prison is not the fate an individual like Velutha deserves. That he represents virtue in a story in which examples of such are few, one can certainly conclude that his is the most admirable of characters.