Arundhati Roy

Start Free Trial

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 March 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 341 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

lauded for undertaking to examine the turbulence of India on such a large scale. She won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize forThe God of Small Things in 1997.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 at Ayemenem House because their proud and beautiful mother, Ammu, made the unforgivable mistake of marrying badly: when her husband began hitting the children as well as her she returned, unwelcome, to her parents' home.

Ammu's status within the family is tenuous because of her marital disgrace, but a certain aura of eccentricity and defeat clings like a smell to all the residents of Ayemenem House, rendering them alternately comic, sympathetic and grotesque. There is the twins' elegant grandmother, Mammachi, with her skull permanently scarred from her dead husband's beatings and her bottle of Dior perfume carefully locked up in the safe. Then there is scheming Baby Kochamma, who once tried to become a nun but—her faith inspired less by God than by a certain Father Mulligan—lasted only a year in the convent. And there is the house servant, Kochu Maris, who thinks that Rahel is ridiculing her when she announces that Neil Armstrong has walked on the moon.

Finally, there is the twins' charming uncle, Chacko, the Oxford-educated Marxist who has returned from his failed marriage in England and taken over Mammachi's chutney business—which, with cheerful ineptitude, he is running into the ground. Comrade Chacko means to organize a trade union for his workers, but he never quite gets around to it; instead he philosophizes, flirts with his female employees and assembles tiny balsa airplanes that immediately plummet to the ground. Chacko commends his ex-wife, Margaret, for leaving him, but he pines for her and their little daughter, Sophie Mol, just the same.

It gradually becomes clear to the reader that only Velutha, an Untouchable who serves as the family carpenter, is competent enough to transform life rather than simply endure it—but, of course, as he's an Untouchable, endurance is supposed to be all he's good for. Velutha fixes everything around Ayemenem House, from the factory's canning machine to the cherub fountain in Baby Kochamma's garden. He is both essential and taken for granted in the twins' existence, like breathing. He is "the God of Small Things."

Estha and Rahel are accustomed to life under the umbrella of their elders' discontent; it is only after Chacko invites Margaret and Sophie Mol to come to India for Christmas that the twins gain a fresh appreciation for their second-class status. Baby Kochamma makes Estha and Rahel memorize a hymn and fines them whenever they speak in Malayalam instead of English. Kochu Maria bakes a great cake; Mammachi plays the violin and allows Sophie Moi to make off with her thimble. When Chacko angrily refers to the children as millstones around his neck, Rahel understands that her light-skinned cousin, on the other hand, has been "loved from the beginning."

In the following weeks, the smoldering longings and resentments at Ayemenem House will be ignited by larger historical pressures—the heady promises of Communism, the pieties of Christianity, the rigidities of India's caste system—and combust with catastrophic results. And if the events surrounding the night of Sophie Mol's death form an intricate tale of crime and punishment, Ms. Roy's elaborate and circuitous reconstruction of those events is both a treasure hunt (for the story itself) and a court of appeals (perhaps all the witnesses were not heard; perhaps all the evidence was not considered).

Are the twins responsible for Sophie Mol's death? Why is Baby Kochamma so terrified of the Communists? What happened to Velutha at the police station? Why does jolly Chacko batter down the door to Ammu's room, threatening to break every bone in her body?

What sustains us through this dread-filled dance between the calamitous past and the bleak present is the exuberant, almost acrobatic nature of the writing itself. Ms. Roy refuses to allow the reader to view the proceedings from any single vantage point: time and again, she lures us toward some glib judgment only to twist away at the last minute, thereby exposing our moral laziness and shaming us with it. But Ms. Roy's shape-shifting narrative is also tremendously nourishing, crammed not only with remonstrances but also with inside jokes, metaphors, rogue capital letters, nonsense rhymes and unexpected elaborations. Even as the Kochamma family seems to be withering before our eyes, the story of the family is flourishing, becoming ever more nuanced and intricate.

Very early on in The God of Small Things, the grown-up Estha is caring for an ancient dog when he glimpses the shadow of a bird in flight moving across the dying animal's skin: "To Estha—steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man—the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle." The end of this novel also describes a brief interlude of intense happiness, and it evokes in the reader a similar feeling of gratitude and wonderment: It's as if we had suddenly stumbled upon something small and sparkling in all this wreckage. By now we know what horrors await these characters, but we have also learned, like Estha, to take what we can get. And so we hold on to this vision of happiness, this precious scrap of plunder, even as the novel's waters close over our heads.

Laura Shapiro (review date 26 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 with a little girl's funeral. Sophie Mol, almost 9, has drowned; and her twin cousins and their mother are mysteriously, horribly implicated. The details don't fall into place until the end of the book. But making our way there, we move through a landscape of sensory imagery so richly evocative that, like the 7-year-old twins, we seem to have lived the tragedy long before we can understand it.

Roy, 37, grew up in Kerala, the state in southwest India where her novel is set. She's been through architecture school and written the screenplays for two highly regarded Indian films; and now she proves herself to be an extraordinary novelist. Inevitably she will be compared with Salman Rushdie, whose novels (Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses) were the first to carve out a definitive place in English fiction for books about India by Indians. Indeed, hardly a season seems to go by now without a talented young writer emerging from the Subcontinent with a new book and a bid for Rushdie's mantle. It's true that like Rushdie, Roy plays often and delightedly with language, loves songs and jingles and doggerel, and scatters capital letters where they're bound to startle. Some of her characters, too, are very much in his vein, off-beat and emotionally gnarled. The twins, for instance: forcibly separated after the tragedy, they grow up with jagged edges that never heal. Eventually the boy, Estha, stops speaking and the girl, Rahel, stops feeling.

But Roy is no disciple of anyone: a distinctive voice and vision rule this book. Her sentences, though drenched in unforgettable metaphor, are perfectly chiseled. "Once the quietness arrived, it stayed and spread in Estha," she writes. "It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue … He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past."

Sophie Mol's death is only one of the disasters spawned by history, love and human cruelty here, yet The God of Small Things is never grim. It's way too full of life for that. Much of the narrative is filtered through Rahel's perspective, and the girl's imagination gives a wonderfully magic buoyancy to the page. At an airport where she's behaved so badly her only allies are the cement kangaroos that serve as trash receptacles, Rahel glances at them as the family leaves. "Cement kisses whirred through the air like small helicopters," writes Roy, and the pleasure she takes in such imagery is contagious. This outstanding novel is a banquet for all the senses we bring to reading.

Richard Eder (review date 1 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Ayemenem. Their tragedy, though, is played out as ornamented princely melodrama: a lush modern fictional equivalent of classical Kathakali theater.

Arundhati Roy, a young Indian writer, has devised a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep, along with some serious weaknesses. Among the appealing elements are a wit that is sardonic and whimsical by turns, a portrait of social change in rural India in mid-century and both sympathy and harsh judgment for a doomed small-town upper class. Above all, Roy evokes the premonitory pain of the two children through whose eyes the story is told—spectators of their family catastrophe and its victims.

The God of Small Things is the story of three generations of the Kochamma family. The grandfather, a distinguished entomologist—and a sadistic tyrant within his family—is eclipsed upon his retirement by the enterprise of his hitherto docile wife, Mammaji. She builds a few recipes into a thriving pickle and jam business and makes a family fortune.

Her two children, by contrast, are stumblers. The loquacious Chacko goes off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, marries an Englishwoman, has a child and promptly falls into apathy. After putting up with him for a while, his wife divorces him and marries another man. Chacko returns home and intervenes in the family business with ruinously expansive ideas. Ammu, his beautiful and rebellious sister, has also returned home from a disastrous marriage, bringing two babies, Rahel and her twin brother, Estha.

When the twins are 7, everything falls to pieces. It is the confluence of currents of personal, familial and social decay. Estha, in a scene of brilliant horror, is sexually abused by the candy vendor at a movie house. Ammu, who has lived in a kind of caged heat within the constrictions of the family, has a passionate affair with the factory carpenter, a brilliant, handsome man and a friend of her children. At the same time, Chacko's ex-wife, now a widow, arrives for a visit along with their beloved little daughter, Sophie.

In a complex, violent climax, Sophie drowns while playing with the twins. Ammu's affair is discovered. Chacko, distraught with grief and fury, orders her out of the house and separates the twins by sending Estha to live with his father in Calcutta. The carpenter dies from a brutal police beating instigated by a vicious Kochamma aunt. Ammu, living in a furnished room and struggling to make a living, sickens and dies, and the bright and imaginative Estha falls into irrecoverable silence.

The starting point for the story is Rahel's return, years later, from her own blighted life in America. The house is a ruin; the only ones left are the aunt, who spends the day watching television serials with her maid, and the silent Estha.

Much of The God of Small Things is told as the children saw, and failed to see, what went on. There are some beautifully written scenes. The family goes by car to the movies in Cochin, from where they will pick up Chacko's wife and his daughter the next day at the airport. It is a precursor moment—of Estha's sexual abuse, the beginning of Ammu's affair, Sophie's drowning two weeks later and all that follows.

The car is stopped at a railroad crossing and overtaken by a left-wing political march. With a brief rendering of that heat-stricken wait, Roy weaves together the visible and implicit strands of her story: India at that time and place and two restless children growing into life.

"With a desultory nod of his bored and sleepy head, the Level Crossing Divinity conjured beggars with bandages, men with trays selling pieces of fresh coconut, parippu vadas on banana leaves, and cold drinks. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Rosemilk." And Rahel and Estha watching, "cloudy children at car windows with yearning marshmallow noses."

There is a lively portrait of Chacko, the beloved son spoiled by his mother, Mammaji. She is disablingly jealous of Margaret, his English wife. When Margaret comes on a visit, early in the marriage, Mammaji sneaks money into the pockets of her dresses so that she can think of her as a prostitute, not as someone her son loves. Chacko is well-meaning and weak, a spinner of theories. His fearful violence with Ammu at the end comes from the manipulation of his grief by mother and aunt.

There is the heartbreaking moment when Estha is put on the train by Ammu. They hold hands through the window; as the train begins to move, Estha voices his familiar complaint when in need of his mother. "I feel vomity," he says, as the train bears him off into the night.

Unfortunately, Roy has dressed much of her book in an ambitious gorgeousness that she often lacks the dexterity to manage. She inflates story into epic, the modest magic of perception into an occasional clumsy piece of magic realism, and the erotic current between pickle princess and carpenter into an avalanche, resembling a Hollywood musical crescendo. For example, when they meet the first night at the river:

Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it. Dictated the rhythm with which their bodies answered each other…. Behind them the river pulsed through the darkness, shimmering like wild silk. Yellow bamboo wept. Night's elbows rested on the water and watched them.

Roy scrambles chronology, saws her revelations into jigsaw hints and scatters the hints throughout. What in more skillful hands may sustain tension and mystery buckles into narrative cacophony. She bends and teases language. Sometimes the result is a prism that breaks light into new colors; more often it is a self-reflecting mirror. She will fuse two words into one: "hardsounds," "wetgreen," "thunderdarkness"—sucking up the oxygen-pocket that allows an adjective to ignite a noun. Sometimes the noun is sucked up as well: "cementy."

Inventing as much as evoking her Indian-English patois, Roy invents cute and with cloyed self-indulgence. "Stoppited," Margaret tells Sophie at one point and, we read, the child "stoppited." This reader stoppited too, if only for a moment. The book has far too many such moments.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 3 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 melodramatic, they provide the narrative architecture of a novel that turns out to be as subtle as it is powerful, a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character.

A screenwriter who grew up in Kerala, India, Ms. Roy creates a richly layered story of familial betrayal and thwarted romantic passion by cutting back and forth between time present and time past. Set in southern India against a backdrop of traditional religious and caste taboos, her story depicts the tragic confluence of events—both personal and political, private and public—that bring about the murder of an innocent man and the dissolution of a family.

Although Ms. Roy's musical, densely patterned prose combines with the mythic power of her tale to create the impression of magical realism (her work has already been compared in India to that of Gabriel García Márquez), the most fantastical events in God of Small Things are not the products of a fevered imagination; they are simply the byproducts of everyday passions. As one of her characters observes: "Anything's possible in human nature. Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite joy."

Writing largely from the point of view of the twins, Estha and Rahel, Ms. Roy does a marvelous job of conjuring the anamolous world of childhood, its sense of privilege and frustration, its fragility, innocence and unsentimental wisdom. She shows us the twins' uncanny spiritual connection with each other and their longing for their mercurial mother's approval. Even at age 7, Estha is the reserved one, dignified in his Elvis pompadour and pointy beige shoes. Rahel is the curious one, wayward, ardent and solitary in her pride.

Through the twins' eyes, we are introduced to their relatives and neighbors in the small Indian community of Ayemenem. There's their mother, Ammu, a lonely, secretly rebellious woman who feels that her failed marriage to a drunkard has ruined her chances of happiness and flight. There's their uncle, Chacko, a former Rhodes scholar who has returned home from Oxford to run his mother's pickle factory. And there's their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, a mean, petty behemoth of a woman whose unrequited love for a priest has permanently warped her life. We meet Comrade Pillai, a local politician willing to sacrifice people to principles ("the old omelette-and-eggs thing"). And we meet Velutha, the handsome son of a family of untouchables, a skilled carpenter whom the twins and their mother adore.

Ms. Roy gives us a richly pictorial sense of these characters' daily routines and habits, and she delineates their emotional lives with insight and panache, revealing the fatal confluence of jealousy, cruelty and naiveté that shapes their destinies forever. Dozens of small details pin her characters to the page and insinuate them into our minds: the family matriarch, Mammachi, blind behind her rhinestone studded glasses, playing the violin: Chacko, carefully building model planes of balsa and watching them crash into the town's lush green fields of rice and Rahel, her unruly pulled back into a ponytail, making mental foes of people she loves in an effort to quiet her fears.

The world these characters inhabit is made equally palpable to the reader. On the surface, it is a modern world of populist politics and entrepreneurial zeal, a world in which American cars are status symbols and workers' rights are a fashionable cause. At the same time, it is a world in which divorced women are looked upon with scorn and romances between members of the bourgeoisie and the so-called untouchable castes are considered an unthinkable sin. In Ayemenem there are rigid, unspoken rules, and as the twins learn, history "collects its dues from those who break its laws."

If Ms. Roy is sometimes overzealous in foreshadowing her characters' fate, resorting on occasion to darkly portentous clues, she proves remarkably adept at infusing her story with the inexorable momentum of tragedy. She writes near the beginning of the novel that in India, personal despair "could never be desperate enough," that "it was never important enough" because "worse things had happened" and "kept happening." Yet as rendered in this remarkable novel, the "relative smallness" of her characters' misfortunes remains both heartbreaking and indelible.

John Updike (review date 23 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, Anglophone Africa, and India, write it against a background of native tongues or patois that are abandoned or suppressed in the creative effort—an effort that to a degree enlists them in a foreign if not enemy camp, that of the colonizer. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a work of highly conscious art, is conscious not least of its linguistic ambivalence. It takes place in India's southern state of Kerala, where the local language is Malayalam; phrases and whole sentences of Malayalam, sometimes translated and sometimes not, seep into the book's English, whose mannerisms—compound and coined words, fragmentary sentences, paragraphs a word or a phrase long, whimsical capitalization—underline the eccentricity of the language in relation to the tale's emotional center. Estha and Rahel, male and female dizygotic twins who serve as the central characters, remember how their great-aunt Navomi Ipe, incongruously called Baby Kochamma, inflicted English upon them, making them write "I will always speak in English" a hundred times and practice their pronunciation by singing, "Rej-Oice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways / And again I say rej-oice." The twins' sensibilities, uncannily conjoined, are expressed in a confidently unorthodox prose that owes something to Salman Rushdie's jazzy riffs:

Their lives have a size and a shape now. Estha has his and Rahel hers.

Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patroling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu [their mother] was when she died. Thirty-one.

Not old.

Not young.

But a viable die-able age.

The main events of the novel, to which everything harks back, occur in December of 1969, when the twins' English cousin, Sophie Mol, arrives for a two-week Christmas vacation. She is the daughter and only child of their uncle Chacko, who met his English wife at Oxford, and who, divorced, has returned to live with his mother, his aunt, and his sister, Ammu—herself divorced—in the big family house in Ayemenem. They are Syrian Christians; Baby Kochamma's father was the Reverend E. John Ipe, a priest personally blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch. His son, the twins' grandfather Pappachi, was an Imperial Entomologist under the British and after Independence assumed the title of Joint Director of Entomology. But a rare moth he discovered was not named after him, and this moth, with "its unusually dense dorsal tufts," consequently "tormented him and his children and his children's children." He beat his wife, Mammachi, with a brass flower vase every night until Chacko, burly from rowing for Oxford, put a halt to the practice; then Pappachi took his favorite mahogany rocking chair into the middle of the driveway and smashed it with a plumber's monkey wrench. His black rages were partly the fruit of spousal jealousy: Mammachi in her youth was a violinist of potential concert calibre, until he forbade further lessons; in her middle age, though virtually blind, she created from some of her recipes a successful business, named (by Chacko) Paradise Pickles and Preserves. The pickle plant with its employees, the great old house, the river beyond, a deserted house and rubber plantation on the other side of the river (once owned by the Black Sahib, a fabled Englishman who had "gone native" and committed suicide), the Ipe heritage of backward looking Anglophilia, a sky-blue Plymouth that Pappachi spitefully bought for himself after his rebuke from Chacko—these are the data that Arundhati Roy revolves before us as she spins her circuitous tale. The twins were seven when nine-year-old Sophie Mol visited; now they are thirty-one, and Rahel has returned from America upon learning that Estha has been sent back to Ayemenem by his father and stepmother, who have wearied of his withdrawn and virtually demented behavior.

Roy takes her time exploring the past by means of the present. Her novel provides one more example of William Faulkner's powerful influence upon Third World writers; his method of torturing a story—mangling it, coming at it round-about after portentous detours and delays—presumably strikes a chord in stratified, unevenly developed societies that feel a shame and defeat in their history. The narrator works as hard to avoid as to reach her destination of forbidden sex and atrocious violence. As we read The God of Small Things, we know that Sophie Mol died during her Christmas vacation in India, but we don't know why. We know that Rahel and Estha were exposed to something dreadful, but we don't know what. Roy peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzlingly adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations within the blighted House of Ipe, that to discuss the plot would violate it.

Treading Roy's maze, we learn a great deal about India—a "vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation." We learn foremost that in 1969 it was not a safe place. Though Kerala, unlike "a small country with similar landscape" to the east, is not being bombed by the forces of capitalism, it holds a large number of Communists, whose machinations threaten the solvency of Paradise Pickles and Preserves, and whose angry marches shatter the peace of an upper-class Syrian Christian family on its way, in its big blue Plymouth, to Cochin to see the movie The Sound of Music. The young nation seethes with the violence of its long history, its resentments, its prejudices, going back to a time "before Vasco da Gama arrived, before the Zamorin's conquest of Calicut." Husbands beat wives, women have no locus standi, and Ammu, divorced from her alcoholic Hindu husband, spends hours "on the riverbank with her little plastic transistor shaped like a tangerine": "A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place." The liquid ache of longing is widespread, and dangerous. The Black Sahib committed suicide because "his young lover's parents had taken the boy away from him." Chacko still loves his pale English wife; fat old Baby Kochamma was once fanatically in love with a Catholic priest; and little Estha, banished to the empty lobby of Abhilash Talkies during The Sound of Music, is coerced into masturbating the man behind the refreshment counter. This horrific scene, with its inordinately vivid molester ("He looked like an unfriendly jeweled bear…. His yellow teeth were magnets. They saw, they smiled, they sang, they smelled, they moved. They mesmerized"), is one of the novel's flashing lunges outside the suffocating circle of Anglophile Syrian Christians into the Indian masses, in their poverty and dynamic, Dickensian color.

Occidental readers who imagined that untouchability was banished by Mahatma Gandhi will find the caste onus cruelly operative in 1969, and not just in the memories of the aged:

Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan's footprint. In Mammachi's time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed.

Velutha, a clever Paravan child who lives in Ayemenem, brings to Ammu, a child three years older, little toys he has made—"tiny windmills, rattles, minute jewel boxes out of dried palm reeds"—and presents them "holding them out on his palm (as he had been taught to) so she wouldn't have to touch him to take them." This sad detail, of the child taught to give without being touched, has a comic counterpart later in the novel, when Velutha's father, the subservient Vellya Paapen, is knocked down by an angry push: "He was taken completely by surprise. Part of the taboo of being an Untouchable was expecting not to be touched." In a century scarred by racial genocides, in a country no stranger to formal and informal racial segregation, Hinduism's creation of a vast loathed underclass still has the power to shock, as if it held a magnifying glass to our own inner discriminations and dismissals.

Rahel, studying in Delhi to be an architect, meets and marries an American, who brings her to Boston. But, though adoring, he can't break through her pre-occupation with the past; after her divorce, she works for several years as the night cashier in a bulletproof booth at a gas station outside Washington, where "drunks occasionally vomited into the till, and pimps propositioned her with more lucrative job offers." One of her recurrent visitors, a "punctual drunk with sober eyes," shouts, "Hey, you! Black bitch! Suck my dick!" This is not so far from Baby Kochamma's thinking of the twins as "Half-Hindu Hybrids whom no self-respecting Syrian Christian would ever marry." Neither India nor the world is an easy melting pot.

Roy manages to catch, in the skein of the Ipes' haunted history, a sense of India's deep past, the mingling of dark inhabitants and light invaders going back to the Aryan authors of the Vedas, the roots of Hinduism. She brings us, in her ecstatically written last pages, into the heart of human love and the mythic past: Krishna, as it were, couples with Radha on the riverbank, and, when the lover makes the beloved dance, it is the dance of Kali, of death and coming destruction. There is even a magic-realist touch: he folds his fear into a rose, and she wears it in her hair. Such dark bliss is akin to that sought by a group of male kathakali dancers who, unsatisfied and humiliated by the truncated performances they put on for the guests at a tourist hotel that by 1993 has arisen on the Black Sahib's old plantation, give the full performance, in an all but empty temple, until dawn.

Since The God of Small Things delivers so much terror and beauty, and so omniscient a view of modern India, it is perhaps ungrateful to complain of the novel's artiness. But the prose, shuttling back and forth among its key images and phrases, rarely lets us forget that we are in the company of an artificer: Roy caresses her novel until it seems not merely well wrought but overwrought. Much of our mental energy is spent in recalling where insistently repeated phrases like "Locusts Stand I" and "Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon" and "Sourmetal Smells" first occurred, and what they signify. A Joycean passage like

A carbreeze blew. Greentrees and telephone poles flew past the windows. Still birds slid by on moving wires, like unclaimed baggage at the airport.

A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man

arguably transports us into the mind of a seven-year-old, but arch modifiers like "dinner-plate-eyed" and "slipperoily" and palindromic formations such as "Dark of Heartness tiptoed into the Heart of Darkness" put us squarely on a writer's desk. Well, a novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does. Arundhati Roy, the elegant dust jacket tells us, has worked as a production designer and has written two screenplays; this experience shows in the skill with which she sets and lights her scenes, as well as in such touches of special jargon as "mosaic blur," "gofers on a film set," and "a test tube of sparkling, backlit urine." Her scenes get replayed in both the reader's memory and the characters'. This is a first novel, and it's a Tiger Woodsian début—the author hits the long, socio-cosmic ball but is also exquisite in her short game. Like a devotionally built temple, The God of Small Things builds a massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details. A rosary is held up to the light: "Each greedy bead grabbed its share of sun."

Amanda Craig (review date 27 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 judged on its own merits rather than on a mixture of guilt, anger, defiance and sneaking envy. Those such as Rushdie, who stress the exotic, profit by it; Rohinton Mistry, on the other hand, is accused of writing flat prose—presumably because critics, when confronted with a thick book about poor people, simply cannot cope with too much reality.

Arundhati Roy, whose first novel (The God of Small Things) has excited much interest, is getting both ends of it, as an Indian and as a woman. With her advance of £500,000, her photogenic face and big coverage in this month's Vogue and New Yorker, the British critical response has been predictably hostile. So, is she any good?

Her novel, like most such debuts, is a mixture of outstanding promise and wonky style. Roy badly needs a good editor to sieve the gold from the chaff, because her response to her culture is both overwhelmed and overwhelming. The melding of cultures produces a periodic sub-Joycean melt-down of language; the English reader who has rejoiced in the absurdities and felicities of Indian English will find this almost as irritating as the author's fondness for capitalised clichés, such as "Things Can Change in a Day". Yet she has wit, intelligence and a sensuous love of words.

The plot, which is difficult to disentangle because the novel uses fractured time, concerns a pair of twins, Estha and Rahel, and their family. They spend their childhood in Cochin, Kerala, and live with their beautiful mother, Ammu, and their blind grandmother, Mammachi. The latter has started the Paradise Pickle Factory and, under the influence of the twins' uncle Chacko, promoted a Harijan (Untouchable) within it, much to the horror of the other workers.

At first the novel seems to be about the twins, their innocent precocity and comic delight in the English language. Yet we know that something terrible will happen. Quite soon the twins (who, we are told, share one soul) will be separated and Estha rendered mute. The adult Rahel has a husband who cannot understand the expression in her eyes: "He put it between indifference and despair. He didn't know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough."

Only the God of Small Things can help you survive, by becoming resilient and truly indifferent.

The twins' mother and their Harijan friend, Velutha, fall in love. Their first, cataclysmic love-making is not described until the end of the novel, after we have been told of the suffering it causes—how Velutha has been beaten to death and falsely accused of kidnap and murder, how the twins' cousin has drowned, how the communists of Cochin have utterly failed in their promise, and innocent lives been ruined.

Despite Roy's defects of style, this is a sumptuous portrait of a family, a community and a tragic love affair. Fractured time has been employed by writers as diverse as Pinter, Spark and Barbara Vine. When successfully handled, it is both affecting and aesthetically satisfying to a high degree. The God of Small Things is not just this year's India novel. Nor is it, as its publishers unwisely proclaim, a masterpiece. It is, however, written by someone who shows every promise of being capable of producing such a thing in the future.

Amitava Kumar (review date 29 September 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 India—presumably because it is the fiftieth-anniversary year of Indian independence and not because India, under World Bank-I.M.F. dictates, has introduced wide-scale "structural adjustments," exponentially increasing the commercial traffic between India and the United States. (Jesse Helms, whose conservatism is old enough to deserve an anniversary of its own, congratulated an Indian-American audience recently for its enthusiasm for U.S. capitalism: "Everything that you good friends who are citizens of this country of ours have worked for—opening the Indian economy and improving relations—is coming to pass.") Welcome to the literature of the New Economic Policy.

I grew up in India under the stultifying shadow of the nationalist myth that we were all the children of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, if The New Yorker is to be believed, we are all the children of Salman Rushdie. A bit extreme, perhaps, but indulge me, dear reader. For we live in an extreme world. And one of the features of this world is that publications from Western metropoles have the power to be the god of all things—especially things from the famished, resourceful regions of the Third World.

In one such powerful venue, The New York Times, the publication of Rushdie's Midnight's Children was characterized as "a Continent finding its voice." The Delhi-based critic Aijaz Ahmad remarked caustically, "As if one has no voice if one does not speak in English."

In the editorial introduction to The New Yorker, Bill Buford repeated the same fiction, talking of what he calls "Indian fiction" as the literary output in only one language, English, and that too by recent, mostly expatriate, authors. In his own survey of Indian writing in the same issue, Rushdie rather briskly and a bit disingenuously brushes away post-independence writing in other languages of India as not being as "strong" or "important" as the literary output in English during the same period. "Admittedly," he says, "I did my reading only in English, and there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India." But this confession isn't intended as a genuine qualification, it would seem, and it only inoculates his judgment against further inquiry. No mention is made of the explosion of Dalit (literally, the oppressed, referring to the untouchable castes) writing in Marathi, for example, which represents a radical rewriting not only of the canon but of the very notion of the literary.

Like the Times, Buford reduces the history of writing in India—in at least eighteen other languages but also in a variety of other contexts, not the least of which was the nationalist movement—to one single publication in the West, as cozily close to the present as the year 1981, the year "that Salman Rushdie published Midnight's Children, a book that … made everything possible."

Even if that were true, such a contention would beg the question: Why is it so? Or, what does it say about the historical invisibility of others and their languages? But Buford's statement isn't true. Even if we take novels written only in, say, Hindi or Urdu, around the singular event of the partition of India in 1947—the event that constitutes the bloody underside of what we're celebrating this year—very little that has been written in English in India approaches the eloquent expressions in those novels of the woes, the divided hopes, or the numb, demented silences of 10 million uprooted lives.

And yet there is an undeniable force to several new novels written in English by Indian novelists. How are we to read them outside the ignorant and self-congratulatory rhetoric of Western publishing? How can we frame this writing with issues that join, rather than separate, them from other milieus both in India and the world?

Arundhati Roy's moving first novel, The God of Small Things, has created a publishing sensation not only in the West but also in India—where, of course, some gods fare far better than others. But, this is not a novel about those gods that dwell in temples or mosques. The violence at the heart of the novel has nothing to do with, for instance, the demolition in 1992 of a mosque by right-wing Hindu zealots in the Indian town of Ayodhya. The communal frenzy in Hindu-Muslim riots had led the historian Gyan Pandey to comment that violence in Indian historiography is often "written up" only as "aberration" and "absence." So that an interrogation of an experience like the trauma of Ayodhya makes it essential, as the critic Rustom Bharucha has put it, to produce another kind of historiography, one that "do[es] not neutralise the necessity of writing, but acknowledge[s], nonetheless, the gaps and holes in it."

I invoke the Ayodhya violence here because Roy engages the recall of—rather, the recoil from—violence and the difficulty of ever articulating its trauma. Her novel is set in a small town in Kerala where the police inspector taps the breasts of a divorced, upper-class woman, in front of her small children, when she comes to inquire after her jailed lover, a Communist worker from an untouchable caste. The policeman uses his baton to touch Ammu's breasts: "Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered."

We are offered this in the first pages of the book. The rest of the novel is not only a keen, unremitting revelation of the jagged edges of the holes in memory, it's also a nearly visible attempt by Ammu's two little kids, a pair of dizygotic twins, to grasp the meaning of those events and the words that surround their mother. Words like "illegitimate children" and "veshya" (whore). That long journey leads to the slow madness of language and to silence, to deaths from lonely griefs, and the sweet, small, bitter consolations of incestuous caring.

Writing about the traditional Indian dance form Kathakali, Roy says "the Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again…. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't." In The God of Small Things, you know "who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again."

It is possible that the novel can't tell more because it discovers its own post-colonial heart of darkness in caste violence and the humiliation of domestic abuse. ("The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.") But, perhaps connected with that is also the possibility that Roy refuses to hope for anything beyond the horror she contemplates. Those who had fought are now dead; those who are alive only happen to be survivors. The untouchable barely speaks in the narrative, and it's likely that when the story is over, all you can remember of him is his glittering smile. The subaltern with perfect teeth.

Sarah Lyall (article date 15 October 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. Ms. Roy, who is 37, lives in New Delhi.

Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge and the chairman of the Booker judges, said the book was written with "extraordinary linguistic inventiveness."

The Booker Prize, worth more than $32,000, is awarded annually to a novel published in the past year by a writer from Britain or one of the Commonwealth countries. It is considered Britain's most distinguished literary prize. But the award is usually riven by controversy, with people criticising the judges for not naming one book or another to the six-book short list and the judges themselves, who plowed through 106 novels this year, often failing to reach a happy consensus.

Previous

Analysis