The 1997 Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s first novel, is partially autobiographical. Similar to Rahel, Roy was born in a northeastern Indian state to a Syrian Christian mother from Kerala and a Bengali Hindu father who worked at a tea plantation. Roy’s childhood, like that of Rahel, was spent in Ayemenem (the correct spelling is Aymanam, which is a corrupted form of Ayavanam, meaning “the land of five forests”), where she witnessed cultural diversity, divisions along caste and religious lines, Marxist activism, and political corruption, all of which are reflected in the novel. While all the major characters in the novel are flawed, it is Rahel, with whom the author sympathizes the most, who seems to be the only one representing any sense of hope.
The narrative focuses on the details of life, the small things. It uses shockingly new idioms, foreboding imagery, and deceptively simple sentences to express big ideas. It liberally sprinkles Malayalam words and sentences, signifying the cultural hybridity of the characters, and employs repetitious phrases and neologisms. Events unfold in unpredictable ways. Time flows forward and backward, and it does so virtually in any direction. This is accomplished through a confusing use of flashbacks and flash forwards. One could read the book beginning with any chapter at random and follow the story with equal ease, or equal difficulty.
Some have compared Roy’s style to that of William Faulkner, but Roy claims that she had never read Faulkner before writing the novel. Those familiar with Malayalam literature might notice that her style, idioms, plot, techniques, and a preference for the tragic bear more resemblance to some Malayalam novels, such as Indian novelist Thakazhi’s Chemmeen (1956), than to any particular work in English literature. However, character Sophie Mol’s visit from England and the disasters that follow are reminiscent of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924). Roy’s seeming play on the Western construction of India as a strange and mysterious place full of dangers has led some critics to believe that this device of reframing Western beliefs contributes to the novel’s enthusiastic reception by Western readers.
Some have characterized The God of Small Things as an “anti-bildungsroman” because siblings Estha and Rahel do not overcome their past to mature psychologically. In fact, they seem arrested in their development by the traumas of their childhood. The novel ends by looking back rather than forward. Past and present are often so juxtaposed that personal development and the passage of time seem almost irrelevant. The novel is as much a psychological drama as it is a social criticism, in which biography and society are intertwined.
Much has been made of the Indian caste system that forms one theme in the novel. Worthy of note is that Syrian Christians (so called because of their use of Syriac as their liturgical language) of Kerala are members of the oldest Indian Christian community that claims its pedigree from Saint Thomas the Apostle. Over the centuries, they have accepted the Indian caste system and benefited from its hierarchical structure by assuming the customs and aristocratic airs of the upper castes; this explains why the love affair between Ammu and Velutha was so shocking to the family and the townspeople. Many other social and cultural themes surface in the narrative, including police brutality and political corruption.
Another dominant theme of the novel is patriarchal culture. The male characters are symbols of an entrenched patriarchy, in which the physical suppression and abuse of women is its primary manifestation. Ammu’s life and the fate of her children are inseparable from a patriarchal family structure. Social criticism of such issues is evident in the novel, although Roy avoids open moralization.
Colonial and postcolonial issues also...
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