Arundhati Roy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741

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 historical fact in her representation of the local Communist Party of the time. Soon The God of Small Things received academic attention as well. Several collections of essays on Roy and her novel were published by Prestige Books in New Delhi, and within a few years hundreds of essays on the novel appeared in academic journals in the United States and abroad. Scholars gave the book a variety of theoretical interpretations, including feminist, postcolonial, deconstructionist, Marxist, post-Freudian, and other readings. Other analyses emphasized the novel’s use of the techniques associated with a traditionally Western, postmodernist style, such as filtered voices, fragmentation of self, and events recounted by more than one person.

The God of Small Things

First published: 1997

Type of work: Novel

Velutha, an untouchable who is employed in the Paradise Pickles and Preserves factory, has an affair with Ammu, a member of the family who owns it, which leads to his death and the family’s disgrace.

The God of Small Things opens at the chronological end of the story. In the early 1990’s, Rahel visits her family home in Ayemenem, in the Indian state of Kerala. She has come home to see her twin brother, Estha, who had unexpectedly returned. The twins, who were inseparable as children, have not seen each other for twenty-three years, ever since their English cousin, Sophie Mol, drowned in the river after their boat capsized during a Christmas visit. The precocious and indefatigable twins are at the Ayemenem home because their beautiful, sensuous mother, Ammu, married a weak and abusive man whom she later left to return to her family. The twins live in a fantasy world of their own making, trying to hide the more painful events of the novel in denial. For example, Rahel, described as “fiercely vigilant and brittle with exhaustion from her battle against Real Life,” is convinced that Sophie Mol is awake for her own funeral. Although the novel is told by a third-person narrator, the events are seen largely through the eyes of Estha and Rahel.

Ammu is merely tolerated at the Ayemenem house because of her shameful, unwise marriage, but the other residents also have an air of disgrace and eccentricity, as if the house were a retreat for those who could not quite make it in the larger world. Uncle Chacko, Ammu’s brother and Sophie Mol’s father, is an Oxford scholar and Marxist who returned home from his own failed marriage in England. He has taken over the Kochamma family business, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, from Mammachi, the matriarch of the family, whose skull still bears scars from the beatings that her husband gave her. Also living in the house are Baby Kochamma, a great-aunt who fell in love with a priest, converted to Catholicism, and became a nun to be near him. When this proved futile, she returned to the family home and eventually became addicted to television, which brings the greater world she had missed right to her sitting room. She is, however, a fearful person who is frightened by the Marxist-Leninist menace which she heard about on a British Broadcasting Corporation newscast. She does not even trust the twins.

Another important character in The God of Small Things is Velutha, the untouchable, who lives in a tiny hut on the other side of the river that flows through the Kochammas’ property. He lives with his father, Vellya Papan, who has a glass eye, and his paralyzed brother, whom Velutha tends when he is not repairing machinery at the pickle factory or mending appliances at the family’s home. The Kochamma family first met these untouchables when they showed up at their back door to sell coconuts, and they stayed to do odd jobs. Mammachi noticed Velutha’s extraordinary skill with his hands when he was young and sent him to a carpentry school, where his talent developed and enabled him to become a cabinetmaker, furniture designer, wood carver, and eventually a machinist. Estha and Rahel were forbidden to enter Velutha’s hut, but they did. He carved animals from bits of wood for them, made Rahel her lucky fishing rod, and taught her and Estha to fish. He and the twins grew to be fast friends. Later, when the children found an old rowboat covered with vines and rot, he helped them clean and repair the boat, and after that they visited him every day. The twins and Sophie Mol were riding in this rowboat when it capsized after heavy rains had swollen the river. The twins, used to swimming, reached shore, but Sophie Mol’s body was found in the river the next morning.

The rowboat was also used by Ammu in her nightly trysts with Velutha. The family is unaware of this until Velutha’s father, Vellya, shows up at the back door one night and is absolutely horrified because he has seen, with his one good eye, Ammu crossing the river to be with Velutha. Vellya has even seen Ammu returning at dawn. Between tears and terrified shaking, he relates the facts to Mammachi, who refuses to believe that her daughter, Ammu, and the son of an untouchable are having an affair. She kicks Vellya down the stairs. The maid, however, has overheard the conversation and relates it to Baby Kochamma.

After tricking Ammu into her room and locking her in, Baby Kochamma convinces Mammachi that Vellya’s story must be true. Baby Kochamma then goes to the police station and reports to the chief inspector that Velutha has tried to rape Ammu, changing the story to protect the family.

Events spin out of control. The police patrol finds Velutha asleep in his hut, beats him viciously, and drags his unconscious body back to the police station. The twins are summoned to the station to identify Velutha, and Rachel sees the broken, bloody body of the person she has loved, the God of Small Things. Although she identifies Velutha to the police, in an attempt to protect her twin brother she tells Estha that the man she saw at the police station was not Velutha after all.

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Roy, Arundhati