Arundhati Roy Roy, Arundhati - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things

Born in 1960, Roy is an Indian novelist.

In The God of Small Things (1997) Roy creates a microcosm that encompasses wife battering, infidelity, molestation, emotional insecurity, pride, and death within one family in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Through this microcosm, Roy explores the often chaotic social and political history of India. Written in a style verging on magical realism, the novel features nonlinear chronology and fragmented flashbacks so that the reader must unravel the story from its conclusion to its source. Roy herself grew up in Kerala, where she witnessed the disarray of Indian politics and the quiet violence of the Indian upper classes against the Untouchables—the lowest stratum in the strict Indian caste system. She studied to be an architect before writing screenplays for several successful Indian films and now resides in New Delhi. Her story of the Kochamma family addresses the sweeping problems and complexities of twentieth-century India as the country struggled for independence from British colonialism. Lingering Anglophilia among Indians and its resultant shame and self-loathing inform the better part of the novel, in which Indians are caught between upholding narrow English standards of beauty and conduct, and confronting their own history of class prejudice and misogyny. Consequently, it is the children of the story—the fraternal twins Estha and Rahel—who are left irreparably scarred by their tumultuous family and society. Critical response to The God of Small Things has been largely positive. Critics have praised Roy's lush and sensuous prose and her handling of such a wide range of personal and social issues, and have noted similarities in her writing to that of Salman Rushdie, William Faulkner, and James Joyce. Other critics have argued that such comparisons are premature and that, while the novel shows tremendous promise, it is too self-consciously literary to be considered a masterpiece. Nonetheless, Roy is lauded for undertaking to examine the turbulence of India on such a large scale. She won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for The God of Small Things in 1997.

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The God of Small Things, in Publishers Weekly, March 3, 1997, p. 62.

[In the following review, the critic praises Roy's subtle handling of complex issues and her masterful storytelling.]

With sensuous prose, a dreamlike style infused with breath-takingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, Roy's debut novel [The God of Small Things] charts fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature. Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel's protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. In a circuitous and suspenseful narrative, Roy reveals the family tensions that led to the twins' behavior on the fateful night that Sophie drowned. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history—all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered. Roy captures the children's candid observations but clouded understanding of adults' complex emotional lives. Rahel notices that "at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside." Plangent with a sad wisdom, the children's view is never oversimplified, and the adult characters reveal their frailties—and in one case, a repulsively evil power—in subtle and complex ways. While Roy's powers of description are formidable, she sometimes succumbs to overwriting, forcing every minute detail to symbolize something bigger, and the pace of the story slows. But these lapses are few, and her powers coalesce magnificently in the book's second half. Roy's clarity of vision is remarkable, her voice original, her story beautifully constructed and masterfully told.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The God of Small Things, in Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997, p. 412.

[In the following review, the critic commends Roy's "spectacular" first novel.]

A brilliantly constructed first novel that untangles an intricate web of sexual and caste conflict in a vivid style reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's early work.

The major characters are Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twin son and daughter of a wealthy family living in the province of Kerala. The family's prosperity is derived from a pickle factory and rubber estate, and their prideful Anglophilia essentially estranges them from their country's drift toward Communism and their "inferiors'" hunger for independence and equality. The events of a crucial December day in 1969—including an accidental death that may have been no accident and the violent consequences that afflict an illicit couple who have broken "the Love Law"—are the moral and narrative center around which the episodes of the novel repeatedly circle. Shifting backward and forward in time with effortless grace, Roy fashions a compelling nexus of personalities that influence the twins' "eerie stealth" and furtive interdependence. These include their beautiful and mysteriously remote mother Ammu; her battling "Mammachi" (who runs the pickle factory) and "Pappachi" (an insufficiently renowned entomologist); their Oxford-educated Marxist Uncle Chacko and their wily "grandaunt" Baby Kochamma; and the volatile laborite "Untouchable" Velutha, whose relationship with the twins' family will prove his undoing. Roy conveys their explosive commingling in a vigorous prose dominated by odd syntactical and verbal combinations and coinages (a bad dream experience during midday nap-time is an "aftermare") reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkins's "sprung rhythm," incantatory repetitions, striking metaphors (Velutha is seen "standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body") and sensuous descriptive passages ("The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud").

In part a perfectly paced mystery story, in part an Indian Wuthering Heights: a gorgeous and seductive fever dream of a novel, and a truly spectacular debut.

Alice Truax (review date 25 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Silver Thimble in Her Fist," in New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, p. 5.

[In the following review, Truax notes that The God of Small Things is at times painful and difficult to read, but maintains that the reader is richly rewarded for finishing the novel.]

There is no single tragedy at the heart of Arundhati Roy's devastating first novel. Although The God of Small Things opens with memories of a family grieving around a drowned child's coffin, there are plenty of other intimate horrors still to come, and they compete for the reader's sympathy with the furious energy of cats in a sack. Yet the quality of Ms. Roy's narration is so extraordinary—at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple—that the reader remains enthralled all the way through to its agonizing finish.

This ambitious meditation on the decline and fall of an Indian family is part political fable, part psychological drama, part fairy tale, and it begins at its chronological end, in a landscape of extravagant ruin. When 31-year-old Rahel Kochamma returns to Ayemenem House, her former home in the south Indian state of Kerala, its elegant windows are coated with filth and its brass door-knobs dulled with grease; dead insects lie in the bottom of its empty vases. The only animated presence in the house seems to be great-aunt Baby Kochamma's new television set—in front of which she and her servant sit day after day, munching peanuts.

Rahel has come back to Ayemenem not to see her great-aunt however, but because she has heard that her twin brother, Estha, has unexpectedly returned. Estha and Rahel were once inseparable, but now they have been apart for almost 25 years—ever since the winter of 1969, when their English cousin, Sophie Mol, drowned in the river with their grandmother's silver thimble in her fist.

"Perhaps it's true that things can change in a day," Ms. Roy's narrator muses. "That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for." And this is precisely Ms. Roy's undertaking as, throughout her book, she shuttles between the twins' past and present, continually angling in, crabwise, toward the night of Sophie Mol's death.

Unlike most first novels, The God of Small Things is an anti-Bildungsroman, for Estha and Rahel have never properly grown up. Whatever the nature of their crimes, it is almost immediately apparent that they have never recovered from their punishments, and present-day Ayemenem—with its toxic river fish and its breezes stinking of sewage—seems to reflect their poisoned and blighted lives. The Ayemenem of the twins' aborted childhood, however, is a rich confusion of competing influences. Bearded Syrian priests swing their censers while kathakali dancers perform at the temple nearby; the Communists are splintering, the Untouchables are becoming politicized and The Sound of Music is wildly popular. Life has an edgy, unpredictable feel.

The twins are only 7 years old in 1969; and—affectionate, contentious, indefatigable—they still live almost entirely in a world of their own making. They are...

(The entire section is 1408 words.)

Laura Shapiro (review date 26 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Disaster in a Lush Land," in Newsweek, May 26, 1997, p. 76.

[Shapiro is an American journalist. In the following review, she offers praise for The God of Small Things, in particular Roy's playful use of language and development of eccentric characters.]

After you turn the last page and start thinking back on The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's glowing first novel, you find you're still deep inside it. You can feel against your skin the lush vines and grasses, smell the pickled mangoes and sweet banana jam, hear the children singing as their uncle's car carries them home to disaster. Disaster was waiting from the start, for the novel begins...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 1 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "As the World Turns," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 1, 1997, p. 2.

[Eder is an American journalist and critic. In the following review, he commends Roy's evocative treatment of social upheaval and personal tragedy, but dislikes her narrative nonlinearity and experimentation with language.]

A decaying South Indian royalty, its wealth and hegemony in drastic decline, its princess caught in a scandalous affair with an Untouchable carpenter. Punishment, exile, death and the downfall and scattering of the regal line.

Royalty in this case consists of the proprietors of Paradise Pickles, the industrial mainstay of the small Kerala town of...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 3 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melodrama as Structure for Subtlety," in The New York Times, June 3, 1997, p. C15.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises Roy's keen observation of human nature.]

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's dazzling first novel, begins as a sort of mystery story. What caused the boy named Estha to stop talking? What sent his twin sister, Rahel, into exile in the United States? Why did their beautiful mother, Ammu, end up dying alone in a grimy hotel room? What killed their English cousin, Sophie Mol? And why has a "whiff of scandal" involving sex and death come to surround their bourgeois family?

While such questions may sound crudely...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

John Updike (review date 23 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mother Tongues," in The New Yorker, June 23 & 30, 1997, pp. 156-59.

[Updike is an American novelist, critic, essayist, and short story writer. In the following review, he lauds Roy's achievements in The God of Small Things despite what he considers her "overwrought" passages and self-conscious "artiness."]

The spread of English throughout the world, via commerce and colonialism and now popular culture, has spawned any number of fluent outriggers capable of contributing to English literature. Some, like most Australians and Americans, write English with no thought of an alternative; others, like certain inhabitants of the Caribbean, Ireland,...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Amanda Craig (review date 27 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "But What about this Year's Barbados Novel?" in New Statesman, June 27, 1997, p. 49.

[Craig is a South African-born English journalist. In the following review, she contends that, while The God of Small Things suffers from Roy's somewhat overwrought style, the book demonstrates the author's talent and promise.]

This year's India novel is … but stop. Where did that sneering phrase creep in? We do not speak of this year's Ireland novel, or Africa novel, or any other former British colony on which our culture was imposed.

The Indian novelist is confronted with a paradox. Our feelings about India are so complex that a novel is rarely...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Amitava Kumar (review date 29 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rushdie's Children," in The Nation, September 29, 1997, pp. 36-38.

[In the following review, attempts to place The God of Small Things within the tradition of modern Indian literature written in English.]

"India: The Fiction Issue" sang the cover of The New Yorker at the newsstand run by a Gujarati man inside Penn Station. On the bright cover, topped with turmeric sunset hues, sat a stone Lord Ganesha browsing through a couple of books, the task made easier because He has more than two hands. And emerging from a thicket, dressed for a safari, were a white couple, mouths agape.

This has been the season of the discovery of...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

Sarah Lyall (article date 15 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Indian's First Novel Wins Booker Prize in Britain," in The New York Times, October 15, 1997, p. A4.

[In the following article, Lyall reports on Roy's winning of the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things.]

An Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, was awarded England's prestigious Booker Prize this evening for her first novel, The God of Small Things, a soaring story about a set of twins struggling to make sense of the world, themselves and their strange and difficult family in southern India.

The international best seller, published by Random House, created a star when Ms. Roy's combined advances reportedly came to more than $1.6 million....

(The entire section is 216 words.)