The God of Small Things

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The God of Small Things
Thegodofsmallthings.jpg
First edition
Author Arundhati Roy
Cover artist Sanjeev Saith
Country India
Language English
Publisher IndiaInk, India
Publication date
1997
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
ISBN 0-06-097749-3
OCLC 37864514

The God of Small Things (1997) is the debut novel of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. It is a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the "Love Laws" that lay down "who should be loved, and how. And how much." The book is a description of how the small things in life affect people's behaviour and their lives. The book won the Booker Prize in 1997.

The God of Small Things is Roy's first book and, as of 2013, is her only novel. Completed in 1996, the book took four years to write. The potential of the story was first recognised by Pankaj Mishra, an editor with HarperCollins, who sent it to three British publishers. Roy received half-a-million pounds in advances, and rights to the book were sold in 21 countries.

While generally praised, the book received criticism for its style and themes.[1]

In 2013, Talkhiyan a Pakistani serial aired on Express Entertainment was based on this novel.

Plot[edit]

The story primarily takes place in a town named Aymanam now part of Kottayam district in Kerala, India. The temporal setting shifts back and forth from 1969, when fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are seven years old, to 1993, when the twins are reunited at age of 31. Malayalam words are liberally used in conjunction with English. Some facets of Kerala life which the novel captures are communism, the caste system, and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life.

Without sufficient dowry for a marriage proposal, Ammu Ipe becomes desperate to escape her ill-tempered father, Pappachi, and her bitter, long-suffering mother, Mammachi. She finally convinces her parents to let her spend a summer with a distant aunt in Calcutta. To avoid returning to Aymanam, she marries a man who assists managing a tea estate whom she later discovers to be a heavy alcoholic who physically abuses her and attempts to prostitute her to his boss to keep his job. She gives birth to Rahel and Estha, yet ultimately leaves her husband and returns to live with her mother and brother, Chacko, in Aymanam.

While studying at Oxford, Chacko fell in love and married an English woman named Margaret, Shortly after the birth of their daughter Sophie, Margaret reveals that she had been having an affair with another man, Joe. They divorce and Chacko, unable to find a job, returns to India. After the death of Pappachi, Chacko returns to Aymanam and takes over his mother's business, called Paradise Pickles and Preserves.

Also living at their home in Aymanam is Pappachi's sister, Baby Kochamma, whose actual name is Navomi Ipe, but is called Baby due to her young age at becoming a grand-aunt, and Kochamma being an honorific title for females. As a young girl, Baby Kochamma had fallen in love with Father Mulligan, a young Irish priest who had come to Aymanam to study Hindu scriptures. To get closer to him, Baby Kochamma had become a Roman Catholic and joined a convent, against her father's wishes. After a few lonely months in the convent, Baby Kochamma had realised that her vows brought her no closer to the man she loved, with her father eventually rescuing her from the convent, sending her to America for an education, where she obtained a diploma in ornamental gardening. Due to her unrequited love with Father Mulligan, Baby Kochamma remained unmarried for the rest of her life, gradually becoming more and more bitter over the years. Throughout the book, Baby Kochamma delights in the misfortune of others and manipulates events to bring down calamity upon Ammu and the twins.

"It didn't matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings."
- The God of Small Things[2]

When Margaret's second husband is killed in a car accident, Chacko invites her and Sophie to spend Christmas in Aymanam. The day before Margarget and Sophie arrive, the family visits a theatre to see The Sound of Music, where Estha is molested by the "Orangedrink Lemondrink Man", a vendor working the snack counter of the theatre. His fear stemming from this encounter factors into the circumstances that lead to the tragic events at the heart of the narrative.

On the way to the airport to pick them up, the family (Chacko, Ammu, Estha, Rahel, and Baby Kochamma) encounters a group of communist protesters. The protesters surround the car and force Baby Kochamma to wave a red flag and chant a communist slogan, humiliating her. Rahel thinks she sees Velutha, an Untouchable servant that works for the pickle factory, amongst the protesters. Velutha's alleged presence with the communist mob makes Baby Kochamma associate him with her humiliation at their hands, and she begins to harbour a deep hatred towards him.

Velutha is an Untouchable (the lowest caste in India), a dalit, and his family has served the Ipes for generations. Velutha is an extremely gifted carpenter and mechanic. His skills with repairing the machinery make him indispensable at the pickle factory, but result in resentment and hostility from the other, touchable factory workers.

Rahel and Estha form an unlikely bond with Velutha and come to love him, despite his status as a pariah. It is her children's love for Velutha that causes Ammu to realise her attraction to him and eventually, she comes to "love by night the man her children love by day". They begin a short-lived affair that culminates in tragedy for the family.

When her relationship with Velutha is discovered, Ammu is locked in her room and Velutha is banished. In her rage, Ammu blames the twins for her misfortune and calls them the "millstones around her neck". Distraught, Rahel and Estha decide to run away. Their cousin Sophie Mol convinces them to take her with them. During the night, while trying to reach the abandoned house across the river, their boat capsizes and Sophie drowns.

Once Margaret Kochamma and Chacko return from Cochin, where they have been picking up airline tickets, Margaret sees Sophie's body laid out on the sofa. She vomits and hysterically berates the twins, as they had survived, and hits Estha.

Baby Kochamma goes to the police and accuses Velutha of being responsible for Sophie's death. She claims that Velutha attempted to rape Ammu, threatened the family, and kidnapped the children. A group of policemen hunt Velutha down and savagely beat him for crossing caste lines, the twins witness the horrific scene and are deeply disturbed.

When the twins reveal the truth of Sophie's death to the Chief of Police, he is alarmed. He knows that Velutha is a communist, and is afraid that the wrongful arrest and beating of Velutha will cause unrest amongst the local communists. He threatens to hold Baby Kochamma responsible for falsely accusing Velutha. To save herself, Baby Kochamma tricks Rahel and Estha into accusing Velutha of Sophie's death. Velutha dies of his injuries.

Hearing of his arrest, Ammu goes to the police to tell the truth about their relationship. The police threaten her to make her leave the matter alone. Afraid of being exposed, Baby Kochamma convinces Chacko that Ammu and the twins are responsible for his daughter's death. Chacko kicks Ammu out of the house. Unable to find a job, Ammu is forced to send Estha to live with his father. Estha never sees Ammu again, and she dies alone and impoverished a few years later at the age of thirty-one.

After a turbulent childhood and adolescence in India, Rahel goes to America to study. While there, she gets married, divorced and finally returns to Aymanam after several years of working dead-end jobs. Rahel and Estha, both 31-years-old, are reunited for the first time since they were children. In the intervening years, Estha and Rahel have been haunted by their guilt and grief-ridden pasts. Estha is perpetually silent and Rahel has a haunted look in her eyes. It becomes apparent that neither twin ever found another person who understood them in the way they understand each other. The twins' renewed intimacy is consummated in them sleeping together.

Characters[edit]

Estha

Estha, which is short for Esthappen Yako, is Rahel's twin brother. He is a serious, intelligent, and somewhat nervous child who wears "beige and pointy shoes" and has an "Elvis puff." His experience of the circumstances surrounding Sophie Mol's visit is somewhat more traumatic than Rahel's, beginning when he is sexually abused by of a Man at a theatre. The narrator stresses that Estha's "Two Thoughts" in the pickle factory, which stem from this experience (that "Anything can happen to Anyone" and "It's best to be prepared") are critical in leading to his cousin's death.

Estha is the twin chosen by Baby Kochamma, because he is more "practical" and "responsible," to go into Velutha's cell and condemn him as their abductor. This trauma, in addition to being shipped (or "Returned") to Calcutta to live with his father, contributes to Estha becoming mute at some point in his childhood. Estha never went to college and acquired a number of habits, such as wandering on very long walks and obsessively cleaning his clothes. He is so close to his sister that the narrator describes them as one person, despite having been separated for most of their lives. He is repeatedly referred to as "Silent" in the book.

Rahel

Rahel is the partial narrator of the story, and is Estha's younger sister by eighteen minutes. An intelligent and honest person who has never felt socially comfortable, she is something of a drifter, and several times the narrator refers to her as the quality "Emptiness." When she is a girl, her hair sits "on top of her head like a fountain" and she always wears red-tinted plastic sunglasses with yellow rims.

Ammu

Ammu is Rahel and Estha's mother. She married their father (referred to as Baba) only to get away from her family. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him when he started to be violent towards her and her children. She went back to Aymanam, where people avoid her on the days when the radio plays "her music" and she gets a wild look in her eyes. When the twins are seven, she has an affair with Velutha, a Paravan (Untouchable). This relationship is the cataclysmic event in the novel. She is a strict mother, and her children worry about losing her love.

Velutha

Velutha is a Paravan, an Untouchable, who is exceptionally smart and who works as a carpenter for the Ipe family's pickle factory. His name means white in Malayalam, because he is so dark. He returns to Aymanam to help his father, Vellya Paapen, take care of his brother who has suffered from an accident. He is an active member of the Marxist movement. Velutha is extremely kind to the twins, and has an affair with Ammu for which he is brutally punished.

Themes[edit]

Indian history and politics[edit]

Indian history and politics shape the plot and meaning of The God of Small Things in a variety of ways. Some of Roy's commentary is on the surface, with jokes and snippets of wisdom about political realities in India. However, the novel also examines the historical roots of these realities and develops profound insights into the ways in which human desperation and desire emerge from the confines of a firmly entrenched caste society.

Class relations and cultural tensions[edit]

In addition to her commentary on Indian history and politics, Roy evaluates the Indian postcolonial complex, or the cultural attitudes of many Indians towards their former British rulers. After Ammu calls her father a "[shit]-wiper" in Hindi for his blind devotion to the British, Chacko explains to the twins that they come from a family of Anglophiles, or lovers of British culture, "trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps," and he goes on to say that they despise themselves because of this.

A related inferiority complex is evident in the interactions between Untouchables and Touchables in Aymanam. Vellya Paapen is an example of an Untouchable so grateful to the Touchable class that he is willing to kill his son when he discovers that his son has broken the most important rule of class segregation—that there be no inter-class sexual relations.In part this reflects how Untouchables have internalised class segregation. Nearly all of the relationships in the novel are somehow coloured by cultural and class tension, including the twins' relationship with Sophie Mol, Chacko's relationship with Margaret, Pappachi's relationship with his family, and Ammu's relationship with Velutha. Characters such as Baby Kochamma and Pappachi are the most rigid and vicious in their attempts to uphold that social code, while Ammu and Velutha are the most unconventional and daring in unravelling it. Roy implies that this is why they are punished so severely for their transgression.

Forbidden love[edit]

One interpretation of Roy's theme of forbidden love is that love is such a powerful and uncontrollable force that it cannot be contained by any conventional social code. Another is that conventional society somehow seeks to destroy real love, which is why love in the novel is consistently connected to loss, death, and sadness. Also, because all romantic love in the novel relates closely to politics and history, it is possible that Roy is stressing the interconnectedness of personal desire to larger themes of history and social circumstances. Love would therefore be an emotion that can be explained only in terms of two peoples' cultural backgrounds and political identities.

Social discrimination[edit]

The story is set in the caste society of India. In this time, members of the Untouchable Paravan or Paryan were not permitted to touch members of higher castes or enter their houses. The Untouchables were considered polluted beings. They had the lowliest jobs and lived in subhuman conditions. In India, the caste system was considered a way to organise society. Arundhati Roy's book shows how terribly cruel such a system can be as the oppressors were immigrants from Persia/Iraq during the rule of Venads Dravidian-Tamil king Ayyanadikal Thiruvadikal in the ninth century as mentioned in the Tharisapalli plates.

Along with the caste system, readers see an economic class struggle. The Ipes are considered upper class. They are factory owners, the dominating class. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma would not deign to mix with those of a lower class. Even Kochu Maria, who has been with them for years, will always be a servant of a lower class.

However, Roy shows other types of less evident discrimination. For example, there is religious discrimination. It is unacceptable for a Syrian Christian to marry a Hindu and vice versa, and Hindus additionally can only marry a Hindu from the same caste. In more than one passage of the book, the reader feels Rahel and Estha's discomfort at being half Hindu. Baby Kochamma constantly makes disparaging comments about the Hindus. On the other hand, there is discomfort even between the Christian religions, as is shown by Pappachi's negative reaction when Baby converts to Catholicism.

Chacko suffers more veiled racial discrimination, as it seems his daughter also did. His English wife's parents were shocked and disapproving that their daughter should marry an Indian, no matter how well educated. Sophie Mol at one point mentions to her cousins that they are all "wog," while she is "half-wog."

The Ipes are very class conscious. They have a need to maintain their status. Discrimination is a way of protecting one's privileged position in society.

Betrayal[edit]

Betrayal is a constant element in this story. Love, ideals, and confidence all are forsaken, consciously and unconsciously, innocently and maliciously, and these deceptions affect all the characters deeply.

Baby Kochamma is capable of lying and double-crossing anyone whom she sees as a threat to her social standing, as a consequence of her loss of respectability after becoming a Roman Catholic nun to be close to Father Mulligan, despite her father's disapproval. This fear is reminiscent of that of Comrade Pillai, who betrays both Velutha and Chacko to further his own interests, and that of his political party.

The true tragedy is that of Velutha, the only true incorrupt adult in the story, who becomes the repeated victim of everyone's deception, from Comrade Pillai to Baby Kochamma, to his own father, and, most heartbreakingly, Estha, who at seven-years-old, is fooled into accusing Velutha of crimes that he did not commit.

With this in mind, the novel asks the question: up until what point can we trust others, or even ourselves? How easy is it to put our own interests and convenience over loyalty?

Style[edit]

Non-sequential narrative[edit]

The God of Small Things is not written in a sequential narrative style in which events unfold chronologically. Instead, the novel is a patchwork of flashbacks and lengthy sidetracks that weave together to tell the story of the Ipe family. The main events of the novel are traced back through the complex history of their causes, and memories are revealed as they relate to each other thematically and as they might appear in Rahel's mind. Although the narrative voice is omniscient, it is loosely grounded in Rahel's perspective, and all of the episodes of the novel progress towards the key moments in Rahel's life.

This non-sequential narrative style, which determines the form of the novel, is an extremely useful authorial tool. It allows Roy a great deal of flexibility as she chooses which themes and events are most important to pursue. The author is able to structure her book so as to build up to the ideas and events at the root of the Ipe family's experience.

Point of view[edit]

The book is narrated in the third person. However, during a great part of the narrative, the reader sees everything through Rahel's eyes. This gives the reader a very special insight into the happenings and characters. There are various moments which cross each other all through the book. One moment is in 1969 when Rahel is a seven-year-old child. At these moments everything is seen through a child's eye with a child's feelings and rationale. Facts, objects and people are seen in a complete different light.

Another moment is twenty-three years later of an adult woman, searching for something she has lost in her childhood. The adult's eye is more critical.

Setting[edit]

The story is set in the village of Aymanam in the Kottayam district of Kerala, India. The main part of the plot takes place in 1969, a time of changes in ideology and influence.

India is a very complex society with various cultural and religious habits and beliefs. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims share the same space. Society is divided not only by the very strict caste system but also by class consciousness. There are a number of languages spoken in India, but the higher classes make a point of speaking English, sending their sons to study in England and adopting certain English habits. Kerala, where the story is set itself has a complex social setup with Hindus, Muslims and Christians having lifestyle and traditions different from each other. It also has the largest number of Christian population compared to other parts of India, predominantly Saint Thomas Christians or Syrian Christians. Kottayam is a district where the Christians are a majority.

Arundhati Roy describes her book as "an inextricable mix of experience and imagination."

Techniques[edit]

As this story focuses on and their impressions of the world, Roy uses various techniques to represent the children's viewpoint and their innocence. One technique that Roy employs is the capitalisation of certain words and phrases to give them certain significance. Similarly, the children will restate things that the adults say in a new phonetic way, disjoining and recombining words. This echoes the children's way of looking at the world differently from the grown-ups that surround them. They place significance on words and ideas differently from the adults, thereby creating a new way of viewing the world around them. They pick up on certain feelings and ideas that the adults around them either fail or refuse to recognise, and give new significance to things that the adults may or may not ignore for their own purposes. The children use and repeat these phrases throughout the story so that the phrases themselves gain independence and new representational meanings in subsequent uses.

Roy also employs a disjointed, non-sequential narrative that echoes the process of memory, especially the resurfacing of a previously suppressed, painful memory.

The uncovering of the story of Sophie Mol's death existing concurrently with the forward moving story of Rahel's return to Aymanam and reunion with Estha creates a complex narrative that reiterates the difficulty of the subject of the story and the complexity of the culture from which the story originates. Time is rendered somewhat static as the different parts of the one narrative line are intertwined through repetition and non-sequential discovery. This is also part of the way in which Roy uses real life places and people that she has shifted and altered for use within this story. All of the multifarious elements come together to construct a diverse look at one instance of Indian culture and the effect of the caste system on life and love during a time of postcolonialism. As the children attempt to form their own identities, naming and renaming themselves in the process, Roy places in parallel the effect of the process, by intertwining the past and the present.

Similarly, this process echoes the progression of the Indian people, like all other cultures that attempt to find ways to maintain their traditions within a time of increasing globalisation.

Adaptation[edit]

Serial[edit]

References[edit]

  • Ch'ien, Evelyn. "The Politics of Design: Arundhati Roy." In Weird English. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Awards
Preceded by
Last Orders
Booker Prize recipient
1997
Succeeded by
Amsterdam