Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2139
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things has many excellent qualities. The setting is exotic; the voice is unique; the characters are complex; and the plot line is mysterious. Any one of these, done as well as Roy’s skills have provided, might have been enough for the author to win the Booker Prize, one of the most distinguished literary awards; but with one more distinctive characteristic added to the mix—Roy’s poetic and imaginative writing style—there is no question that this book will long remain one of the most fascinating novels of the twentieth century.
Upon the first read of The God of Small Things, one cannot help but be drawn into the story that Roy has created, wondering, with each succeeding chapter, what could possibly happen next. There are questions about who these characters are; where the plot line is going; and what the missing details are that the author has purposefully left out, taunting the reader to hurriedly move forward. Even the setting of the story is alluring with its freshly conceived scenery, unusual town names, striking tropical flora and fauna, as well as the strange social customs. The storyline twists around unsuspecting corners, as the narrator takes readers into the dark depths of the characters’ souls. And even though, after reading this book, one might sense the quality of writing of this gifted novelist, it might take a second, and maybe even a third, reading before one can actually pay attention to the underlying style that makes this novel so invigorating to read. The purpose of this essay is to do just that: to examine not the story but Roy’s unique writing technique; and to point out the poetic qualities of her writing.
One of the first elements of the author’s writing that readers confront as they begin this novel is Roy’s creative vocabulary—creative in the sense that she makes up new words. In the first pages, for example, Roy uses the words “dustgreen trees” and later portrays a smell as “sicksweet.” Two things happen when she puts two words together like this (which she consistently does throughout the novel). First, she captures the attention of the reader. There are no such words as “dustgreen” and “sicksweet,” which her audience will immediately realize, and yet readers will know exactly what the author has intended by using such new words. Secondly, the words not only make sense, they describe the objects they are referring to with much greater depth than most single adjectives and metaphors could possibly do, and the author accomplishes this with minimum verbiage. “Dustgreen,” for instance, is used to describe both a color and a condition, and with this one inventive word, Roy gives her readers a fully sensual image. Dust is gritty and dry, like the weather she is trying to depict. So in using a word such as “dustgreen,” Roy helps readers not only to visualize the setting but also to feel it. A similar double sense is created with the word “sicksweet.” Readers not only can taste and smell it, they can feel it in the pit of their stomachs, just as Rahel and Estha feel when they think about the world that Roy has created for them in her novel. The sweetness of the odor has attracted these characters to explore their world; but the consequences and the reactions of their world have made them sick. Thus, these “double words” are more than the sum of their parts. They are not just two words haphazardly added together, but rather they are almost like short poems. They offer the reader vivid images through short expressive words.
Other examples of combining words appear when the narrator pulls readers into the funeral of Sophie Mol, a flashback that occurs at the beginning of the novel. When a baby bat climbs up Baby Kochamma’s sari, making the woman scream, Roy provides her readers with a sample of the noises of confusion in the congregation, which she represents with the words: “Whatisit? Whathappened?” and “a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping.” With these new words, readers are given a complex picture of the bewilderment that is occurring inside the church. Not only do these words refer to sounds, they also provoke a sense of movement. People are turning their heads back and forth, searching for the source of the yelling and its cause as they try to figure out what is happening (“Whatisit? Whathappened?”); bats are beating their wings, trying to escape (“Furrywhirring”); and women are flapping the material of their costumes to make sure that there are no bats climbing on them (“Sariflapping”). Once again, Roy has created vibrant descriptions in using her newly conceived words. It is as if she has captured a whole movie scene, filled with motion and sound, with just a minimum use of syllables.
There is another form of creative vocabulary that Roy makes up. This one reflects children trying to make sense of the adult world through little bits of information that they receive. For instance, again at Sophie Mol’s funeral, the protagonist Rahel attempts to repeat words that she has heard during the religious ceremony. But in a child’s world, not only is it hard to grasp the full meaning of language; it is also sometimes difficult to take hold of the full word. So in repeating the Biblical quote that refers to the body decomposing and returning to the dust from whence it came, Rahel tries to mimic the priests. But instead of saying “dust to dust,” she says: “Dus to dus to dus to dus to dus.” This is what the words sound like to her. And by Roy using this phrase (as well as other similar, child interpretations throughout the novel), she places her readers inside the mind of the very young. Readers thus are provided with a different view of reality, one that is seen through the eyes of her young characters, children who must face some very tragic circumstances very early in their lives. Rahel, in this instance, cannot fully comprehend death, so she repeats the priests’ words as best she can, twisting her tongue around them, attempting to make a kind of song out of them, hoping that eventually the phrase might help her understand. “Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe,” Rahel believes. “Her funeral killed her.” And it is Roy’s creative use of language that makes readers not only mentally visualize what is happening inside Rahel’s mind but to feel the confusion, the struggle with her conflicts, and the great challenges that confront her.
In the middle of the story, the narrator shines more light on Roy’s understanding of how children perceive the world through language that they do not fully understand. While the family is awaiting the arrival of Sophie Mol and her family at the airport, Estha and Rahel are misbehaving. Their uncle suggests that their mother deal with them “later,” a word that plays with Rahel’s mind. “And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word. Lay. Ter. Like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery, and furred. Like moth’s feet.” This passage sums up the foundation upon which Roy has built her literary vocabulary, her creative construction of language for this story. It explains why she is so focused on language, especially when dealing with her youngest of characters. Roy is sensitive to the distorted world that children must plow through, hoping to find their way. She remembers how difficult language was to understand and yet at the same time how powerful words could be for children. Even when words are not fully comprehended, or at least not identified with proper dictionary meanings, they are felt. Words for children have more than sound; they have lives of their own. And the tone of them can be frightening. Roy knows that sometimes words that children hear are creepy, furry insects. Other times they are slimy wells that threaten to swallow all who hear them.
One more way that Roy adorns her story is through the use of poetic images which are as colorful as the tropical paintings of Paul Gauguin. The author obviously does not paint with oils to do so but rather with vibrant words, such as when she is describing the first raindrops of the monsoon season when she writes: “Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire.” The first component that makes this sentence so beautiful is the alliteration with the letter s, which sounds slippery just like the rain she is portraying. Then there is the overall image of hard raindrops falling on the dry earth. The rain is so hard and the earth is so dry that when the water first hits the dirt, dust flies up into the air as if the earth is being shot at. This sentence is poetically powerful on many different levels. But besides creating an image, it also provides a psychological reference. Rahel has just returned in Ayemenem as the narrator describes this scene. Change is in the air as the edge of the monsoon season pushes the dry weather away. But there is also a sense of danger presented here. The author uses the word gunfire in her metaphor, as if a warning is being given. The timeframe of this novel is contorted, moving from the present to the past and back again, over and over again. So when the above sentence appears in the story, the damage to Rahel has already happened; but the reader is still in the dark because the story has just begun. So the warning is not given for Rahel’s sake but for the reader’s. It is as if the author is alerting the reader that this is not going to be an easy, entertaining story. There are many events that will be hard to take, and Rahel’s return is but one of the markers for these difficult changes.
There is another passage that serves a dual purpose. It appears on the first page of the novel. The narrator is describing the landscape as the monsoon season begins. “Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom.” Here there is another reference to great change, as dried out branches that once looked like a fence are now blossoming and thus fading into the rest of the vegetation around it. Whereas fences normally standout as rigid boundaries, in this instance the boundary itself becomes part of the garden. Besides creating a poetic image, Roy foreshadows a theme that will prevail throughout the story, one in which boundaries between sex, race, social status, and rational and irrational reality will cease to exist. As a matter of fact, the whole first chapter provides a foreshadowing of the rest of the novel. Roy either cleverly hints at events that will come, or else she completely throws her readers into very specific events but only gives readers quick, short glimpses, teasing them forward.
Examples of how Roy gives hints and glimpses into the future of the novel include her reference to the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man” and her mentioning that he did something to Estha; but she does not say what that was. And Roy describes Rahel as being “brittle with exhaustion from her battle against Real Life,” although readers have no idea what this battle entailed. Then later in the first chapter, Inspector Thomas Mathew toys with Rahel’s mother, Ammu, when the woman goes to the police station: “He tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket.” There is a lot suggested in this phrase. First there is the superior stance of the inspector. There is also the sexual overtone. And then there is the reader’s curiosity, which is aroused by questions such as why has Ammu gone to see the policeman? And why is he intimidating her? Then shortly after this encounter, Ammu says: “He’s dead.” Readers do not know who has died nor what all these passages mean. Roy is fully aware of keeping her readers in the dark, but she does not worry about the confusion. The author does not rush to fill in all the gaps. This is because she is a profoundly confident and creative writer. Roy tells her story the way she wants to relate it. And she does it in a language that suits her characters’ minds. And it is her confidence, creativity, and poetic style that make Roy’s writing so refreshing, make her story so enticing to read over and over again.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The God of Small Things, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006. Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1685
The God of Small Things builds an incredible amount of anticipation and expectation for the definitive moment of the story. With all of its foreshadowing, its emphasis on tracing one’s steps, and its insistent suggestion that everything, from politics to erotic desire, is intimately connected, Roy’s novel places a great deal of emphasis on the central event of the twins’ childhood that caused the momentous changes in the Kochamma family. The reader comes to expect, because of the narrator’s many references to “the Loss of Sophie Mol,” that everything will boil down to one key moment, and that this moment will involve Sophie Mol’s death.
It eventually becomes clear, however, that Sophie Mol’s actual drowning is an accident, an understated tragedy in which she simply vanishes in the river. Like all of the characters’ lives and the events of the plot, Sophie Mol’s death is intimately tied to many other elements, including Estha’s sexual abuse, Sophie Mol’s relationship to the twins, and the host of factors that led to the tragedy. But the actual loss of Sophie Mol does not reveal much about the deep historical forces at work in Ayemenem, and it does not explain what truly causes or defines the Kochamma family’s experience.
Instead, Roy’s trajectory of foreshadowing and anticipation leads to the two forbidden, taboo erotic relationships of the novel—between Ammu and Velutha, and Estha and Rahel. These are the episodes at the core of the unraveling plot and the crux of the book’s meaning. All of the tension, desire, and desperation beneath the surface of the narrative converges into these expressions of love, which are examples of perhaps the greatest, most unthinkable taboos of all. This essay will discuss why the two forbidden sexual episodes in the final two chapters of The God of Small Things are so crucial to the history of the Kochamma family and the emblematic of the meaning of the novel.
Before discussing the significance of these episodes, however, it will help to establish how and why they are so closely connected. It is immediately clear that they have much in common as doomed, forbidden love trysts, and it is no coincidence that they are revealed and described next to each other, at the end of the narrative. However, there are other, less obvious connections. During Estha and Rahel’s erotic encounter, for example, there are repeated references to Ammu such as calling Rahel’s mouth “Their beautiful mother’s mouth” and there is the statement that the twins are at the “viable die-able age” of thirty, Ammu’s age between her affair with Velutha and her death. Equally important is the phrase, “They were strangers who had met in a chance encounter,” because it is more applicable to Velutha and Ammu than to the twins. Also key at this point, late in chapter 20, is the narrator’s statement about Rahel and Estha that “once again they broke the Love Laws,” which uses the term that had previously been applied to Ammu and Velutha and implies that the twins’ situation is a reoccurrence of the affair of 1969.
By closely connecting Rahel and Estha’s sexual relationship to Ammu and Velutha’s, Roy suggests that present-day events converge with the events surrounding Sophie Mol’s death, and that each strain of the plot has the same thematic resolution. The two instances of breaking of the Love Laws form a key to understanding the rest of the book; they are both the result and the cause of the novel’s action. This is why the narrator writes that the story “really began in the days when the Love Laws were made,” back through the colonial and pre-colonial history of Kerala. The Love Laws represent the strict confines on human behavior—the caste systems, social pressures, and political restrictions that horrify people beyond expression when they are broken. The central action of the novel is about breaking them, and the tragedy that results from breaking them.
For one thing, therefore, the forbidden love affairs at the end of the novel are crucial because they reveal the disgust and horror with the lovers that is at the root of the violence and tragedy directed against them. Present-day Western readers probably do not consider inter-caste romance repulsive, but they are quite likely to be shocked and offended by incest. Incest is as taboo in twenty-first-century Western society as an inter-caste sexual affair would have been in the 1960s, and probably still is, in Kerala. The reader’s reaction to such violations of the Love Laws allows him/her to understand how and why such drastic social and political consequences could have resulted from the transgressions at the end of The God of Small Things. Roy allows the reader an insight into the emotional basis behind the careful, planned brutality of those dedicated to Kerala’s social code, such as the Touchable Policemen who believe that in beating Velutha to death they are enforcing the Love Laws and “inoculating a community against an outbreak.”
However, the love affairs also allow the reader to identify with the transgressor, and they inspire a sympathetic reaction for four people who are abused, tortured, and betrayed by their society’s most fundamental rules. The reasons for Ammu’s turn to Velutha are sharply drawn and inspire a great deal of sympathy when she studies her body, the body of an “inexperienced lover,” in the mirror and peers “down the road to Age and Death through its parted strands.” Ammu’s love affair is, in a sense, the cause of the novel’s tragedy because it shatters her family, condemns Velutha to a brutal death, traumatizes Rahel and Estha for the rest of their lives, and results in her own decay and death. It is also, however, the result of an entire lifetime of abuse, confinement, and imprisonment in a stinting social code. This code not only fails to protect Ammu against her father beating her with a brass vase, her father imprisoning her in the house even when she is an adult, and her husband beating her; it actually leads to these consequences. When she recognizes that Kerala’s social code is in the process of forcing her down Baby Kochamma’s path of bitter, joyless confinement to the house until death, she acts in perfectly understandable desperation and attempts to find some brief joy with Velutha.
Similarly, Rahel’s affair with Estha can be interpreted as the result of a social code, both in Kerala and in the United States, that has traumatized her and deprived her of her childhood. The “Quietness and Emptiness” that characterize Estha and Rahel stems from Velutha’s death and their parents’ difficulties in raising them, but also stems from a society that is cruel, harassing, and violent towards a single mother and her children. From Baby Kochamma to Chacko to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, people are prejudiced towards Ammu and her children, and take advantage of them. Rahel and Estha’s incestuous contact is their attempt to find comfort in each other, although, unlike Ammu and Velutha, they are not even able to reach a joyful release from their problems, and “what they shared that night was not happiness but hideous grief.”
In addition to what they reveal about the cultural and political content of Roy’s novel, the two affairs communicate a great deal about the novel’s psychological subtext. In the course of the book, both Ammu and Rahel experience identity crises whose primary goals are, in a sense, discovering who and what they are in relation to their culture and family. Rahel travels back to Ayemenem to see her brother, but her journey is perhaps better described as a quest, through her memories, to discover herself and the roots of her history. The third-person narrator of The God of Small Things is omniscient, and not strictly confined to any particular perspective, but the narrative voice is grounded in Rahel’s memories. Events and remembrances weave into the story as they might appear in Rahel’s mind, and the novel is structured around her search to understand herself and her past.
Rahel’s incestuous contact with Estha is so crucial and definitive in this identity search because, as the narrator stresses insistently, her brother is herself. In opening passages of the novel, the narrator relates that, during their childhood, “Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.” The twins’ love-making is a metaphor for their search for this fractured and traumatized joint identity in their adulthood, and it is a real, physical and emotional expression of their grief and longing.
Ammu’s affair with Velutha is also, in a sense, a search for herself; this is clear from the lengthy passages in which the narrator describes the desperation in Ammu’s strictly confined life and her need to live and experience joy. When Ammu studies herself in the mirror and tests whether a toothbrush will stay on her breast, she reveals that she understands herself through her body and her sexual identity, and she seeks out Velutha in order to discover the beautiful part of herself.
The forbidden love affairs that come at the end of Roy’s novel, therefore, work together to provide a single metaphor for the key struggles and meanings of the novel. The twins’ incestuous contact and Ammu’s affair with Velutha are metaphors for, and physical enactments of, the psychological identity struggles of the novel’s protagonists. These struggles extend, by implication and because they are so closely connected to the political subtext of the novel, to the wider political and psychological identity struggles of all those afflicted by the oppressive social code of southern Indian culture.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on The God of Small Things, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006. Trudell is an independent scholar with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1873
Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things reveals a complex relationship between individuals and the historical and cultural forces that shape them and their society. In Roy’s novel, a so-called Big God presides over the large happenings of the world, the “vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation.” In contrast, it is a Small God that resides over the individual lives caught up in forces too powerful and large for these individuals to understand and to change. This Small God is “cozy and contained, private and limited,” residing over people for whom “worse things” are always happening. Individuals ruled by the symbolic Small God adopt resignation and “inconsequence” in the face of mass movements, while at the same time their oppression makes them “resilient and truly indifferent.”
The novel takes place in modern India in the state of Kerala, during a time of social change and upheaval and as television is just beginning to broadcast “television-enforced democracy” into an insular world. The characters in Roy’s novel exist in a culture of strict rules. There is a caste system and a class system that exert much force upon the characters. Conflict is created for the individuals who can’t adhere to these systems of social organization and control. Indeed, the greatest conflict in the story, a love affair between Ammu and Velutha, is the result of individuals rebelling against the historical and cultural structures of caste and class; this is an affair between a Touchable and an Untouchable. In the beginning of the novel, the tragedy is foreshadowed and explained when the narrative states, “They all broke the rules.… They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how.” As an entire culture strains against ancient laws and customs, Roy’s novel brings this struggle down to the level of individuals, in a “time when the unthinkable became thinkable.” That is, individuals have begun to question and act against the laws that had rigidly remained for so long.
The novel ranges in scope from the epic to the minute. The narrative gives lush detail of the everyday life in India, and contains colors, textures, and many characters. At the same time, the narrative also shifts to expose the larger forces that drive the characters. For instance, the narrative gives broad details about the trajectory of the lives of some of the characters, including Rahel, Ammu, Chacko, Margaret, and others. The novel also gives details about some of the political movements of the days, as when it describes the workings of Communism within the state of Kerala. The novel weaves several layers of perspective of the social order, including the simplicities of individuals in their everyday lives; broad views of character’s lives and how they arrived at their places in the story; and larger events that provide glimpses of the historical and cultural forces at play in the world. The relationship between these levels of existence is complex and subtle, and the narrative states that this relationship is tenuous and that “things can change in a day” for any of the characters.
The narrative shows in several instances how casual comments and decisions can have deep repercussions, showing the power of choice that individuals have within their social lives. For instance, when Ammu angrily scolds Rahel by telling her, “When you hurt people they begin to love you less,” this moment has far-reaching effects in the lives of the characters. This off-hand remark is instrumental in making Rahel run away from the family, an event that also brings about the death of Sophie Mol and then Velutha. In another example, when Margaret Kochamma decides to return to India after the death of her husband, this decision leads to the death of her daughter Sophie and will haunt her “for as long as she lived.”
The narrative utilizes shifts in time to illustrate how the world for the characters has changed. The present moment of the novel occurs as Rahel returns to Ayemenem at the age of thirty-one. The narrative uses broad flashbacks to show the world that Rahel remembers as a young child, when the tragedy occurred that changed her life forever. When Rahel meets Comrade Pillai as an adult, there is an underlying tension in the meeting, because Pillai had played a role in the death of Velutha. This history will not go away and pervades the moment. This is recognized when the narrative states, “She and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot.”
One of the historical forces that shaped modern India is its colonial past under British rule. For the characters in the novel, this past is still alive. Chacko, who received his education in England, educates the twins Estha and Rahel on the ways of the world. He tells them that their family is “all Anglophiles.… Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.” This allusion to their footprints relates to the caste system in India. The narrative mentions a time, within memory, when Untouchables, or the lowest caste of people, were required to sweep away their footprints in public for higher caste members. When the British ruled, yet another form of class structure was imposed upon the society. This structure, according to Chacko, “locked out” Indians from their world, because of a war that made them “adore [their] conquerors and despise [themselves].” From Chacko, the twins “learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws.” For Chacko, Indians in relation to the English will always be “Prisoners of War.”
Colonialism affects other characters in the novel as well. Baby Kochamma, in her youth, had defied her family’s wishes and converted to a Roman Catholic, mainly due to her infatuation with a priest named Father Mulligan. Throughout the story, Baby Kochamma’s bitterness and treachery plays a role in the tragedy, as though she is unwittingly making other people suffer for her own unrequited longings and heartache. There is also tension between Mammachi and Margaret Kochamma. Margaret is a British woman who married and then divorced Chacko. Mammachi “despised” her and refers to Margaret as the “shopkeeper’s daughter,” an insult containing the ring of class snobbery. Another telling collision of the two cultures occurs subtly during the scene in which Estha is molested, when the family had gone to see the film The Sound of Music.
The narrative states that the story being told, including the tragedy, began “thousands of years ago.… Before the British … the Dutch … [and] Christianity.” The story actually “began in the days when the Love Laws were made.” Indeed, the story, and the tragedy therein, show that it is human passion that cannot be controlled and contained by cultural rules. In their love affair, Ammu and Velutha are well aware of the dangers and taboos of their relationship, and yet they are powerless to stop their desire. Desire, or the force of life, overpowers the cultural forces that would deny it; the narrative declares that “biology designed the dance.” One day, as Ammu is watching Velutha play with Rahel, she begins to feel her desire for him. In this scene, “centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment.” Likewise, when Velutha notices that “Rahel’s mother was a woman,” in a brief moment he notices things that “had been out of bounds.” In their attraction, the “cost of living climbed to unaffordable heights,” and Velutha was about to “enter a tunnel” that would lead to his “annihilation.” In the end, cultural forces would have their say over the individual’s breaking the rules.
The relationship between Velutha and Ammu is symbolic of the conflicts in the culture. Velutha is from the Untouchable caste, but his many positive qualities cause Ammu to fall in love with him, while the twins Rahel and Estha adore him and play with him often. Velutha’s excellence as a person illuminates the unfairness of the caste laws. When Velutha is seen marching in a Communist parade, it illustrates the changing structure of political power in the culture. Velutha’s grandfather had converted to Christianity but even the new religion could not overcome the entrenched caste laws of the society, and the churches became segregated for the Untouchables.
Velutha is hardly an obsequious slave. He is described as a handsome, kind, intelligent, and clever man. He has an “unwarranted assurance” about him and he bothers people because of the “way in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel.” Velutha’s qualities, the narrative states, might be desirable in Touchables, but in an Untouchable they could be “construed as insolence.” With Velutha, the cultural laws are seen as restricting excellence. There is something about Velutha that represents escape for Ammu, who is from a higher caste. When she sees him, he represents something other that the “smug, ordered world that she so raged against.”
The individual freedom represented by the love between Velutha and Ammu is short-lived, and other characters in the story act their parts in continuing the cultural constraint of such displays of rule-breaking. Baby Kochamma lies and betrays Velutha, as does the Communist Pillai, which leads to the murder, by official forces, of Velutha. Indeed, it is betrayal by individuals that sends Velutha on his “blind date with history,” in which he is murdered unjustly for breaking the Love Laws. Estha gets caught up in the situation as well, when he is manipulated by Baby Kochamma into lying against Velutha. For Estha, this event has long-reaching effects in his life, as he loses his voice and lives numbly thereafter.
In the end, the novel shifts and the cultural forces begin to exert their power over the individuals. Baby Kochamma performs her machinations “not for Ammu,” but to “contain the scandal” that has occurred when the Love Laws were broken. When the narrative notes that the characters are living in “an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it,” it shows that the God of Big Things is again residing over the God of Small Things. When the cultural powers decide that Velutha must be held responsible for breaking the rules, the story provides a glimpse of the men in power, Comrade Pillai and Inspector Mathew. These men are “without curiosity” and are “terrifyingly adult” in the way they operate. So controlled are they by the rules of their culture, they have become “mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine.” When the police beat Velutha to death, it is an impersonal event, as the caste laws had severed “any connection between themselves and him … long ago.” Later, many years after the incident, the culture protects the men who uphold its prejudices and injustices. When Rahel meets Comrade Pillai, she notices that he “didn’t hold himself in any way personally responsible for what had happened. He dismissed the whole business as the Inevitable Consequence of Necessary Politics.”
Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on The God of Small Things, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006. Dupler is a writer and has taught college English courses.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489
The God of Small Things is a seduction from start to finish. The cover photo, a grey-green lily pool with three luminously pink waterlilies, compels you to pick up the book almost as you would pick a flower; the paper’s texture and shade evoke clotted cream; a satisfying weight and pleasing typeface make its physical crafting as elegant as its literary craft is inspired. Arundhati Roy’s loving and meticulous attention to detail is evident in both. (At the launch of the book in Delhi, Roy explained that she had insisted on complete design control over the book.)
It almost makes you wish Roy hadn’t issued so many disclaimers in the interviews she has given to the media: I don’t read, she insists, so I don’t know what my literary influences are; I don’t know the rules of writing so I can’t say I’ve broken them; I don’t ever rewrite because writing for me is like breathing how can you rebreathe a breath?
Yet, effortless as it might appear, it is clear that heart, soul and intellect have gone into the making of this book, and any writer worth her salt knows how much work, and reworking, that entails. When Roy is excavating her own past and ransacking memory, how to tell the story, more than the story itself, is the real challenge. In this she has succeeded splendidly and spectacularly.
The God of Small Things is about childhood and the loss of innocence. The fear of it, the terror and love of it, the deep scars it leaves. Estha and Rahel, seven-year-old twins in south India’s Kerala, grow up in their grandmother’s home with their divorced mother and an odd assortment of relatives. Mammachi, the grandmother, has a way with pickles; after her husband’s death, she sets up a prosperous pickle factory. With Mammachi, the twins and their mother, Ammu, live uncle Chacko, once a Rhodes scholar, and Baby Kochamma, their maiden great-aunt. Ammu is trying to manage her life and children, Baby Kochamma is trying to manage her single state (by living her life backwards, Rahel says) and Chacko manages the pickle factory. This factory is the focus of a subplot which takes in the Communist politics of Kerala, trade unionism, and the illicit relationship between Ammu and Velutha, a low-caste employee in the factory—whom Estha and Rahel love with the unconditional love that only children can have.
Into this world of slow, meandering rivers and thick foliage, heavy furniture in dark rooms decorated with stuffed animals who peer down benignly, enters Sophie Mol, the twins’ half-English cousin, Chacko’s daughter. Sophie drowns while the children are out alone on the river. This is death number one. Her dying is the unexpected trigger that turns Estha’s and Rahel’s world upside-down and insideout, and is more or less directly responsible for the deaths of Velutha and their mother. Deaths apart, there are pederasty, a hint of incest, the tempestuous and utterly transgressive affair between Ammu and Velutha, the kind of violation of Love Laws that can only bring doom. In a sense, this is a chronicle of deaths foretold; the only problem is, they’re the wrong deaths. But I’ll return to this later.
The novel itself covers one day in the life of the children, the day that opens with Sophie Mol’s funeral. The very first chapter tells the whole “story,” as it were. It is a mark of Roy’s brilliant structuring of the book that the story then unfolds, and crosses over, and flashes back, and weaves in and out of the minds and hearts of its two protagonists with breathtaking virtuosity. Roy has said in more than one interview that the architecture of the book is plain to see: she “drew” the book as a series of graphics and “saw” its pattern emerging. After that, it “revealed itself sentence by sentence.” What it revealed is what forms the “deep substance” of her story—the really real story, that is, of a fragile world under threat, of the impossibility of ever again knowing the security of absolute trust. Long before the end of the book, long before the deaths have taken place, you know that Rahel and Estha will never be the same again.
The gradual contamination of relationships by the perfidy of the adult world is exquisitely presented through a series of vignettes and revelations: the trip to meet Sophie at the airport; the drive to Abhilash Talkies to see The Sound of Music, and What Happened There to Estha; the [reason] why Baby Kochamma can only live in the past and why Estha withdraws into silence; why Pappachi’s moth hovers with such menace at the edge of Rahel’s consciousness; why Uncle Chacko and Ammu are at daggers drawn.…
Roy’s portrayal of Kerala and the Syrian Christian community she herself grew up in are evocative and telling; her ability to climb into a child’s skin is remarkable. Listen to Rahel, for example, after Ammu has told her that she “loves her a little less” for having said something she shouldn’t have.
“But what about my punishment,” Rahel said. “You haven’t given me my punishment?”
“Some things come with their own punishments,” Baby Kochamma said.…
Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards. They would all learn more about punishments soon. That they came in different sizes. That some were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving.…
“Goodnight Godbless,” Ammu said. But she said it with her back. She was already gone.…
Rahel Alone watched them walk down the hotel corridor like silent but substantial ghosts.… The red carpet took away their feet sounds.
Rahel stood in the hotel room doorway, full of sadness.
She had in her the sadness of Sophie Mol coming. The sadness of Ammu’s loving her a little less. And the sadness of whatever the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man had done to Estha.… (pp. 109–110)
But as one reads on, the deceptively simple style, the mannerisms—stand-up capital letters, words run into each other or broken apart—make one a little uneasy. A bit too self-indulgent? Perhaps. And perhaps, too, a reluctance to outgrow the child and inhabit the body of an adult.
The novel proceeds along two timetracks: the time of the child, Rahel, and of the Rahel who returns to Ayemenem 23 years later, at 31, the age at which her mother died. The deadly accuracy and unselfconsciousness of the child give way to opacity, a dissembling, almost an inability to relate to the family of her childhood. The triadic relationship between Ammu, Estha and Rahel is so full of ambiguity that it cries out for development. Yet it remains at best static, at worst silent or simply absent. The novel doesn’t end; it just peters out.
The other thing which makes me uneasy is the overlap between autobiography and fiction. Much fictional writing proceeds from autobiography, and Roy’s adoption of this tactic is not unusual. What it does to the novel, however, particularly to those bits that feature the adult Rahel, is to blur the distinction between Roy and Rahel almost completely, down to the diamond in the nose and the feathery collar-bones. In itself this can be quite disarming, making for unexpected transparency. But it does have other consequences, because gradually the reader realizes that Rahel’s real twin is not her brother Estha, but Roy herself.
This unacknowledged twinning first pushes Estha to the edge of the frame and then silences him altogether; it also, I suspect, lies behind the death of Ammu. Neither plot development seems warranted, even though Roy provides some ostensible reasons for both. Ammu’s death is quite gratuitous, and Estha’s silence a ploy to allow Rahel the sole privilege of speech. By the end of the novel, Rahel has transmuted into Roy; Velutha, Ammu and Sophie are dead; Estha is speechless. Of the five main characters only Rahel, quite literally, lives to tell the tale.
Of course, one can argue that there is nothing reasonable or orderly about dying and that any death is arbitrary. Nevertheless, in a story that has been so carefully and intelligently “constructed” in every sense of the word, it does seem as though the narcissistic impulse triumphs over what would have been a logical, brilliant and profoundly tragic conclusion—the death of Rahel herself. In the absence of that denouement, The God of Small Things remains a dazzling first novel of rare accomplishment, but it is not one of the Great Stories that Roy herself refers to in the book, even though it has been written with her life.
Source: Ritu Menon, “The Age of Innocence,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 12, September 1997, pp. 1–3.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563
Something else for Salman Rushdie to worry about: a new writer with a magical first novel about India
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.
Source: Laura Shapiro, “Disaster in a Lush Land,” in Newsweek, Vol. 129, No. 21, May 26, 1997, pp. 76–77.